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Opinions of Saturday, 16 September 2017

Columnist: Alexander Gyesi-Appiah

Free SHS: A bold initiative from a visionary leader but...

I live in the UK. Every child is entitled to free Day Secondary education except when the parents choose to take them to Independent Schools, where they would not only pay, but also have the option of boarding facilities for the kids.

We chose to pay for my kid’s education because I felt, that even though we are only a middle income family, our kids deserved to go to the same schools all the rich farmers and business men were taking theirs.

The joke was that whatever the secret they were keeping from us in those schools, my children would go there and benefit too. Seriously though, the benefits of such schools are a subject we can address another day.

It has not been easy. It has been a choice between completely free education and gut-wrenching school fees. Family holidays have often been cancelled. I have not driven a new car for a long time.

But it’s a choice we made for the future of the children. Not everyone agrees with the likes of me.

Others have felt one could make use of the rather good standards in the free schools and motivate the kids to do well and even get them extra tuition at home if need be. There is no right or wrong answer.

It’s a question of personal preference and choice. And it’s this personal preference and choice that we seem to have abolished almost completely in Ghana with the introduction of the free SHS. Because, at the moment, there are not nearly enough good quality private schools to compete with the free schools.

And yet, one cannot help but look on with admiration as President Akuffo Addo roles out one bold initiative after another while an opposition who specialised in creating loot and sharing while in power, hold whimpering inconsequential press conferences with their tails between their legs.

They look a pitiful sight. In twenty years’ time, the benefits of the free education programme will manifest in every facet of Ghanaian life. Maternal and neonatal mortality will drastically decrease, accidents on our roads will decrease, agriculture will boom, the economy will flourish to mention but a few.

But there are even more far-reaching immediate consequences. Believe it or not, the introduction of this free SHS will be one of the biggest “tools” in the fight against corruption. President Nana Akuffo Addo has to find billions of cedis each term to pay for his free education and I can promise you one thing.

He will not supervise the purchase of SSNIT software for 72 million dollars, or bus branding for 3.5 million, nor the payment of millions to doubtful characters, nor the acceptance of Ford cars from controversial contractors seeking contracts in Ghana.

There will be no more guinea fowls flying to Burkina Faso and airport runways costing the same as full international airports. This is a new Ghana.

As much as I admire the sheer bravado do I also dare to suggest, that measures are taken to drastically cut the cost involved in the programme, so other equally important areas like Health and Infrastructure do not suffer.

That is why I strongly believe that free SHS should only apply to Day Secondary Schools just as is the case in the UK. This would only be possible if there was a Day Secondary School in each community. I believe therefore that the NPP should try to complete the 200 schools commenced by President Mahama and build more if possible.

The next step would be to close down all boarding facilities in our existing secondary schools progressively and make them Day Schools. The government can then set up strict guidelines for schools which qualify, to apply each year to become “Foundation Schools” with modern top class boarding facilities.

These schools would manage their finances independently. They will charge not only boarding fees but also tuition fees.

This means that, any parent who decides to take their kid to the boarding school when a free well-resourced Day Secondary is in their community would have to pay through the nose for the privilege.

If properly managed, these schools would attract students from our neighbouring countries and even children of Ghanaians abroad who want their kids to be educated in Ghana.

These schools can make profit, part of which would be paid as bonuses to teachers, part to be kept in a special account to offset possible future losses and also to offer scholarships to students with special cases and the rest paid into government chest to help fund the free Day schools.

Education would still be free for every child except those whose parents choose to pay and the cost to government would be much less.

Still, I salute President Akuffo Addo and his team of ministers. There is nothing more touching than when a president gives a job to a minister and he comes back to salute and say “Sir, the job is done.” No story… as our Nigerian brothers would say.