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Opinions of Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Columnist: Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng

Are vacation classes overrated?

Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh, Education Minister Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh, Education Minister

The other day, two young men visited my office to make an enquiry.
In a conversation, they told me they believed the government should put in place publicly funded classes to occupy the Gold Track Form One senior high school (SHS) students waiting to go to school in November, and do same for the Green Track students when they come home. This, they argued, would check delinquency by occupying the students.

I was amused by their surprise when I told them flatly that I did not agree with them.

I think their surprise went a couple of notches higher when I stated for emphasis that personally I did not believe in vacation classes for students even if parents were paying for them, however attractive the arguments are in favour.

I attended vacation classes at Labone Secondary School during the 1984 long vacation, when I was getting ready to enter Form Five and write my O level examinations the following June.

It was fun, and it was a great opportunity to make new friends from other schools and simply hang out.

But we learnt little, if anything at all. And this was through no fault of the tutors.

They were serious. We were not. After the tedium and monotony of classes during term time, we were simply not prepared to visit such rigours on our heads during our vacation, especially since there were no sanctions for not being in class.

Indeed, many who left home in the morning with their books never turned up on the campus, yet returned home in the evening dutifully, complaining how hard the tutors were on us. I plead guilty to this grand deception.

My grandmother, who I lived with at the Teshie-Nungua estates, and who thought she was paying good money for a serious activity, lived in blissful ignorance of my truancy.

Of course, the fashion of vacation classes continues years down the road and they have actually intensified.

Whether today’s students are actually learning anything or larking about as we used to do three decades ago, I do not know. Only they can tell. And of course, tutors and organisers are smiling all the way to the bank.

Different tracks

Now, Gold Track classes have sprung up, and I am confident that Green Track classes will too, when the students come home in November. That is some innovative thinking.

I can understand why parents would not mind paying for their children to attend vacation classes.

The received wisdom is that the time for the syllabus is inadequate and that the children need to catch up in order to do well at the WASSCE and improve their chances of getting into tertiary education.

Of course, this view is premised on the belief that they actually learn anything during these classes to enable them to catch up.

Another factor is the belief that vacation classes keep them busy and out of trouble.

Again that is premised on the belief that they actually attend those classes after leaving home.

And of course, no parent wants a sulking teenager in the house, whining that he or she is being denied a useful opportunity their peers are enjoying.

I passionately believe that school vacations should be exactly what they are meant to be - a breakaway from academic life and an opportunity to renew the mind.

Education goes beyond sticking one’s head in books all the time, and vacation classes, even to the extent that they actually impart knowledge, actually go against that grain. And if they impart no knowledge, clearly they are a waste of time.

Life skills are important to make one a rounded person. I believe a vacation spent in non-academic pursuits is nonetheless an important piece of the education journey.

And this ranges from helping out in a relative’s shop or farm to learning a language or how to play a musical instrument or how to swim.

The options are endless, and even spending the holidays with a relative or family member in another part of the country is a beautiful opportunity to learn and appreciate this country’s diversity.

These activities need not cost a lot of money-certainly not much more than what parents already fork out for vacation classes, not forgetting the daily transport money to attend them.

In the past, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were much stronger institutions that provided young people with important social skills.

Vacation employment

Vacation employment also helped to acquire skills, as did structured voluntary work. Perhaps it is time to find ways of strengthening these to give young people important skills beyond their books.

Of course, with unemployment as high as it is, it is unrealistic to expect any serious vacation employment schemes students can rely on.

But if I were on a panel interviewing candidates for medical school, for instance, I would be keenly interested in a student who had spent at least one vacation doing voluntary work in a hospital or a health charity and had glowing references, even if he or she had not achieved straight As.

Perhaps when employer or tertiary institutions start placing some value on other skill sets students possessed beyond their academic grades, it would be helpful.

In the unlikely event that I ever became President of this beautiful republic, perhaps my first official act after my colourful inauguration at the Independence Square would be to issue an edict banning any student from opening a textbook during vacations, on pain of a very long prison sentence.

If only wishes were horses…

By Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng