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Opinions of Friday, 22 September 2017

Columnist: Sampson Osafo

Fee Free SHS education - A democratic dividend for the Ghanaian voter

Sampson Osafo is a Research student at UCL Institute of Education, London Sampson Osafo is a Research student at UCL Institute of Education, London

On Monday 11th of September 2017, school pupils in Ghana returned to school at the start of the 2017/18 school year. If there were smiles on the faces of pupils and parents alike, it was more than the pleasure of reacquainting with old friends and new, and the delights of progressing up a year on the school ladder. It was more to do with the introduction of fee free education in the country from the very basic levels to Senior High School.

The significance of this government policy to many in the country would appear to lie in the triumph of the proponents of this policy, the ruling New Patriotic Party led by President Akufo-Addo, after the protracted political debates around it in the past three elections in the country from December 2008. But it goes far beyond that in accelerating the developmental march towards the Sustainable Development Goals – Agenda 2030.

The new Ghanaian leader, Nana Akufo-Addo has been consistent in his resolve to reform, improve and invest heavily in education and the development of the Ghanaian human capital. His has been a credible political commitment which he has followed through by ensuring its implementation in the first nine months of his administration in the face of opposition from some groups in the country who questioned the sustainability of financing for the policy. His answer has been emphatic - to use the country’s newfound oil revenues to invest in its people by providing free senior high school to all eligible students. But that will only be necessary as a last resort. So far, a $100 million additional budgetary provision for the roll-out of the policy has come at little or no cost to other social services, but rather cutting out waste and corruption in the public sector.

Senior High School occupies an important rung on the educational ladder and it is by far the most important for any {developing} nation as it has the highest utility and economic returns for citizens and the state. A sound secondary educational system is necessary in transiting children into adulthood with the minimum skills necessary for the job market. The dreams of a Free Compulsory Basic Education policy (FCUBE) initiated some two decades ago appear to have been missed as it was founded on an educational reform project from 1987 that envisaged a vast number of 15 year old children ‘leaving school’ after Junior High School (JHS) supposedly with the requisite skills for the labour market. This was after a restructuring of the educational system that reduced significantly the pre-university school years, with a departure from the British GCSE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels.

It will have to be understood that the current educational system in Ghana was birthed in the economic circumstances of the 1980’s, a period of economic decline and high indebtedness (Nii Moi Thompson and Chinery-Hesse, 2008). The World Bank/IMF intervention in this specific area of the country’s education when viewed through the lens of history is one of the most self contradictory in terms of development discourse for the Bank. As far back as the 1960’s Gary Becker and particularly, Larry Summers in the succeeding decades had prevailed in influencing the thinking of the Bank on sustained educational funding by developing countries to lift the mass of their people from poverty. So however dire the situation was, a system that left tens of thousands by the wayside by way of a selection exam for Senior High School with no second chance of a re-sit was cruel indeed if a pupil happened to have been born and raised in rural Ghana with the weakest link in terms of access to good schools.

The demographic effects of bad educational policies in Ghana has been most damaging. Further evidence of the policy failure from the 1987 educational reforms in Ghana can be seen from the thousands of teenagers hawking imported goods on the streets of the capital city of Accra and other major cities in the country as well as the illegal mining of gold and other minerals in all parts of the country, with its debilitating environmental damage.

A Senior Minister in the current administration and a former Minister of Finance and also Education, Yaw Osafo-Marfo at a forum shared his experiences on these matters when he once appeared before US Congressional committees during Ghana’s engagements towards the first Millennium Compact. He recounted how much of an impression the statistics on the mass termination of schooling by 15 years old children after their Basic Education Certificate Examination, through mass failure and non progression because of low family incomes made on lawmakers on the US Capitol and their interest in getting the ‘cash’ released in aid of Ghana’s progress. The new government, having been elected with a convincing electoral victory in December 2016 has set out to implement one of its flagship policies with great expectations for human development and poverty alleviation. There is every hope that the current leadership is committed to managing public finances better in the pursuit of its social policies, especially with increased revenues from oil.

Recent figures of examination candidates on the West African Examinations Council’s (WAEC-Ghana) website shows that the number of pupils that sat the Basic Education Certificate Exam (BECE) for Junior High School nationally in 2011 was 372,826. Of this number, the majority were expected to progress to the SHS having passed with the minimum entry grades.

However, 3 years onward - given the 3 year current duration of SHS - the number that sat the Senior High School exam was 242,157, still the majority that includes candidates from the private secondary schools. This would represent a 35% drop in school numbers from JHS to SHS. In other words, a possible 130,669 pupils/teenagers did not progress to SHS through either failure to obtain the entry grades, inability to enrol at senior high school due to lack of funds or dropped out after enrolment due to many possibilities such as teenage pregnancy, overage first enrolment, or due to some other factors (Kehinde Ajayi {2013} provides a detailed academic examination of this phenomenon). The primary enrolment figures have been improving steadily up to date, but to what end will the system lead them if they are to leave school after the Basic Education Certificate at 15 years with no prospects of further education?

This is where the government’s free secondary schooling intervention is crucial – a huge relief for low income households and effectively the most efficient welfare cash transfer since the days of Kwame Nkrumah. In contemporary times, it can only be compared to the health insurance system that replaced the ‘old-cash-and-carry’ system that characterised Ghana’s health system pre 2001.

Ongoing research by education policy academics from Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA-Ghana) and International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3iE) provides the most current data/evidence for policy makers interested in making improvements in secondary education. Their research adopted a randomised evaluative approach where a sample was taken out of eligible students progressing from Junior High School (JHS) to Senior High School (SHS) at the start of the 2008/09 school year. Of the sample, one third of that number was randomly selected by a computerised lottery to be given scholarships for the duration of their high school. This group formed the treatment group with the remaining two thirds constituting the control group without any scholarship or external funding.

Their report notes insufficient financial resources of the families of the control group as the key factor in the delayed enrolments or non-continuation. Comparatively, 75% of the treatment group (scholarship recipients) enrolled in the 2008/09 school year.

Over the first 5 years of their study, enrolment figures for the treatment group was 78% for girls (33% above that for girls in the control group) and 92% for boys (35% above that for boys in the control group). Their pass rates were phenomenal.

Of particular interest is the impact of scholarships on girls in the treatment group - a 15% reduction in the incidence of pregnancy and unwanted pregnancies (terminations). The relationship between higher education and lower fertility or informed fertility choices of families is one that needs no further elaboration. If we are to manage population growth and reduce poverty, education holds that key.

Kwegyir Aggrey, a noted Ghanaian Scholar of the colonial era, knew what he was talking about when he surmised that if you educate a man you educate an individual, but educate a woman and you educate a nation. The health implications of education for women are phenomenal. No society, from Sweden to The United Kingdom to Singapore would have developed without the investments they made in a comprehensive and inclusive education that can be said to have emancipated women the most.

The roll-out of Ghana’s fee free secondary schooling is not a silver bullet in itself. But it shoots down one crucial problem of access for the lower income families. There are still many problems to be addressed for the vision of the new leadership to be realised. This will have to include a review of the foundations of Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) to give meaning to ‘compulsory’. This could be achieved with increased decentralisation of local government and the targeted delivery of public services.

There will have to be a reform of the teaching profession, with increased emphasis on technical-vocational-education-training (TVET) and science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM). How about starting a new cadre of teachers through the National Service Scheme? The government could recruit the brightest graduates from the universities on a special teacher programme of two years minimum to augment the secondary teacher group (both junior and senior) with the incentive of government scholarships for postgraduate studies and a further incentive package for those that make a profession of teaching.

The duration of secondary school would also require a serious rethink. There is evidence from the 4 year SHS to support its return. The higher pass rates of pupils spending an extra year in school to develop further must be enough justification for the government to make additional budgetary allocations to give each and every child a chance to succeed.

Prof Kwame Akyeampong at Sussex, in a retrospect of Ghana’s educational developments in the Golden Jubilee year notes of the 1987 reforms and the JHS experiment that the structural changes of the system (the reforms) addressed a supply side problem, with the adverse circumstances of the macro economy not being well structured to stimulate demand for the skill sets supposedly to be derived from the JSS/SSS system. Critics of development planning will always argue that the market is the best driver of development, with the trickle down effects of economic development eradicating poverty in its trails over time. But have we not been following the liberal economic model the last three/four decades? It is time for a fusion of economic ideas, home grown to suit our own aspirations as a nation, given our own history, culture, economic strengths and other regional considerations from within the West Africa sub-region.

On this note, the governments One District One Factory industrialisation programme and other economic policies such as railway development aimed at kick starting a stuttering economic engine should be used as that anchor for the educational system. It is time to take a leaf out of Nurske’s balanced growth theory and this time, Ghana must succeed and take off and fly high and far as an eagle.


Ajayi, Kehinde (2013). “School Choice and Educational Mobility: Lessons from Secondary School Applications in Ghana”. IED Discussion Paper 259

Duflo, Esther, Pascaline Dupas and Michael Kremer, (2017) "The Impact of Free Secondary Education: Experimental Evidence from Ghana". 2017. IPA Working Paper

Thompson, Nii Moi and Leslie Casely-Hayford, “The Financing and Outcomes of Education in Ghana”. 2008 RECOUP Working Paper No. 16