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Opinions of Friday, 11 May 2012

Columnist: Agyemang, Katakyie Kwame Opoku

Free Secondary Education in Ghana – A Possibility?

It is not for nothing that educational matters continue to engage the attention of national governments and other stakeholders in their quest to move their nations forward. This stems from the positive impact the educated individual makes to the society. Education forms an important part of a person’s life because it enables the individual to gain the needed skills to face life situations and also meet work demands. It is against this backdrop that Ghanaians expect the government as a matter of necessity, to remove all forms of barriers to quality education in order to ensure that this fundamental human right of the Ghanaian child is fully enjoyed. One key aspect of education, especially in Ghana is the secondary level. Apart from serving as a link between what students imbibe in basic schools and tertiary institutions, secondary education no doubt holds a country’s unemployment rate in check because a sizeable number of students is always kept in the classrooms. Also, vital knowledge that helps a growing mind to think, analyze, and study the world around them is developed and enhanced at this level of the educational ladder. It is thus imperative that the government fulfils its constitutional obligation of providing free education at both the basic and secondary levels for our children. A comparative analysis between the lifestyles and contributions of the country's professionals - doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, lawyers etc and that of social deviants – armed robbers, prostitutes, drug addicts should be enough to convince our political leaders to see any proposed free secondary education policy, not only as a constitutional requirement, but also as a moral obligation.
Many a Ghanaian have expressed concerns regarding the number of junior high school graduates who fall off the academic ladder annually. For instance, it has been revealed that over 180,000 JHS graduates are unable to access secondary education on a yearly basis due specifically to poverty. This phenomenon, indeed poses a serious threat to our determination to empower our future leaders. Sensing danger and emotionally touched by the plight of these graduates, some politicians have vowed to make post-JHS education free and also make the secondary school level the first point of exit. This goes to underscore the seriousness and readiness of the nation to produce an educated workforce to move the economy around. However, the proposal has been pooh-poohed by other political opponents as well as a few civil organizations, including IMANI Ghana. Judging from their publications, arguments, and criticisms, it is apparent that the policy would be a drain on the national coffers. To them, until any politician comes out to reveal the source of funding for the educational policy, the person should let sleeping dogs lie.
In fact, if a note is taken from the plethora of broken promises of past governments, one may be right in siding with IMANI Ghana for coming out boldly to challenge our politicians on the proposed educational policy. But could the failure of one politician be better yardstick to measure another politician’s determination to provide free SHS to Ghanaians? “Mpanin se, 3sono odabo kraa, 3na 3sono obirekuo nso de3”.
In exploring the merits and the drawbacks of the free SHS policy, my personal observation is that too much emphasis has been placed on the cost aspect of the policy, and it seems to me that a proper cost-benefit analysis has not been done by the ‘doubting Thomases’. These ‘doubters’ have unfortunately underestimated the benefits of this productive educational investment. If Ghana wants to join the ranks of developed nations, then it behooves our leaders to start thinking creatively and optimistically to make education free and compulsory up to any level every Ghanaian’s ability can take him or her. This is non-negotiable. Problems are created to be solved and we can only do so as a nation if we give priority attention to specific basic needs and tackle them head-on. Do we need to pay GHC600m judgment debt, purchase presidential jets, spend millions on Ghana @ 50 celebrations, buy 5 military jets valued at $250m, and vote GHC48,000 on Nkrumah’s birthday when our children live on the streets? Could this be an ideal way of drawing our scale of preference as the economists will say? We should at all times be guided by Victor Hugo’s assertion that; “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.
Records from the Ghana Education Service (GES) put the country’s public senior high schools at 511 with a student population of 600,000. Therefore, with over 370,000 pupils graduating from the basic schools, the population of SHSs is likely to reach 1.2m if the free SHS policy comes into effect. Based on the availability of facilities, 65 out of the 511 SHSs are classified as category A, 72 as category B, 178 as category C and 196 as category D. Besides, there are 36 public Technical/Vocational institutes and 81 private senior high/tech schools bringing the total of second cycle schools to 628. The SHS fees however, are categorized into tuition fees, school fees (boarding and lodging), and Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) dues. In addition to infrastructure delivery, tuition fees are catered for by the Ghana government in the form of payment of teachers’ salaries. This leaves school/boarding/feeding fees and PTA levies, which are usually paid by parents/guardians.
A look at the items on a student’s bill goes to confirm that parents/guardians are seriously being exploited by school administrators. Whilst the feeding/boarding fee currently stands at GHC168 (1.68m old cedis), items such as science development = 50Gp, postage = GHC 1, library = GHC1, entertainment = 50Gp, SRC dues = GHC3, bed user fee = 50Gp, stationery & exams = GHC4, books (burning desire) = GHC6, English textbooks = GHC26, science resource centre = 40Gp, cumulative records = GHC3.20, computer maintenance = GHC3, and co-curricular = GHC2 are charged by the school authorities. In addition, students are required to pay between GHC60 and GHC90 as Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) dues. Details of PTA dues for instance shows PTA levy of GHC2, staff motivation = GHC10, development levy = GHC10, classroom project levy = GHC10, house dues = GHC10, electronic communication = GHC2.50, cadet dues = GHC2, calculator = GHC3, and hepatitis B vaccine = GHC10. Flowing from the above, one could see that on the average an SHS student pays GHC300 (3m old cedis) per term and this amount excludes other items which do not appear on the student bill. Why should this be so?
When I chanced upon a supplementary bill (excluding the main bill of GHC311) of a first year student from Osei Tutu SHS in Kumasi during my recent visit to Ghana, items such as track suit = GHC35, black trouser = GHC20, white trouser = GHC20, white shirt (short sleeves) = GHC15, outing dress = GHC12, school vest = GHC25, calculator = GHC17, supplementary books - classic stories = GHC20, grief child = GHC7.50, notes on grief child = GHC5, notes on chest of a woman = GHC5, integrated science textbook = GHC17, integrated science practical = GHC13, core maths workbook 1 = GHC14, core maths textbook (Action Series) = GHC12, Golden Nugget 1 = GHC12, Golden Nugget 2 = GHC12, and graph book = GHC1.20 were found on the bill. This supplementary bill alone totalled GHC280.70 (2.8m cedis), excluding the provision – tin of milo, soap etc to be paid by the parent. With the current economic hardship, how do our heads of educational institutions expect the poor to patronize secondary education with such ridiculous items on the student bill? And why can’t the GES and the Ministry of Education check this gargantuan corruption in our secondary schools?
For me, fee-free secondary education could be possible if the government freezes all fees charged in our secondary schools. This is because some of the fees have no direct bearing on the student’s academic work. I also believe that the current boarding fee of GHC168.50 which comprises 50Gp bed user fee and GHC168 feeding fee per term could be phased out. All that needs to done is to provide financial assistance to specialized farmers to produce the needed food crops and vegetables that are used by our educational institutions – maize, okro, pepper, onion, rice etc. The government could then buy the produce at guaranteed prices like what is currently being done for cocoa farmers. With a proper data on boarding schools, the government through the GES could supply the food items to our educational institutions and keep the surplus in the buffer stock. Remember, it takes only three months to produce maize. Again with our timber resources, the government could task the country’s carpenters to make students’ beds for our secondary schools. This will avoid a situation where students are charged GHC1.50 every year as bed user fees, only to leave the beds in school upon completion of their course. Also, items which have no positive impact on students’ academic work such as bangles, ties, vests, pullovers, t-shirts etc but are forced down the throats of parents should be taken off the student’s bill. Why should students be billed for anniversary cloths, textbooks, and school uniforms when parents could be asked to buy them at the open market as happened a few years ago? Can’t we abolish these to enable every child access secondary education?
Finally, the government should scrap all PTA dues. The PTA should be confined to its core duty of ensuring cordial relationship between teachers and parents, and also maintaining discipline in our schools. Under no circumstance should this noble association be turned into taxing devices and siphon every pesewa from parents under the auspices of complementing government’s efforts in infrastructural delivery. The provision of infrastructure should be left in the hands of government through the Ghana Trust Fund (GETFund) and budgetary allocation. Regardless of the good intentions of PTAs with regard to the bridging of infrastructural gap in our schools, they must be made to understand that parents cannot pay over GHC60 per student every school term. It is totally unacceptable.
In conclusion, I would appeal to Ghanaians to accept the free SHS policy wholeheartedly and support any politician who intends to implement it. The analogy that “the government cannot afford it” should not be entertained, for when there is a will, there is always a way. It is a matter of maximizing our academic knowledge and natural wisdom to prioritize our needs. If our past leaders found money to embark on development projects and programmes such as the Akosombo Dam, Bui Dam, sports stadia, trunk roads, schools, free maternal care, and national health insurance scheme, then the future is bright for us. If the current administration found it wise to pay GHC51m to Woyome, spend GHC90m on presidential campaign, vote $20m into construction of party headquarters, and give $50,000 to each MP as car loans, what prevents the country from implementing free SHS without compromising quality? Can’t we as nation minimize waste in government machinery by scrapping the numerous special aides, assistants, deputy ministerial appointments, and end-of-service benefits? Can’t we expand the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by removing the bottlenecks in production, and commit a greater percentage to the Education Sector? And can’t we maximize our oil revenue that gives us $2bn per year, our export revenue, loans, grants, and tax revenue running into millions of Ghana cedis? I strongly believe we can; therefore, I urge every Ghanaian to put pressure on our politicians to work towards the full implementation of free SHS since it is the only panacea to social vices among the youth. Politicians have taken the electorate for granted for a long time and it is only befitting to leave such a educational legacy for the Ghanaian youth.

God bless our motherland! God bless Kufuor!!

Katakyie Kwame Opoku Agyemang, Hull. UK. (MEd in Education)
A native of Asante Bekwai-Asakyiri
Official blog ( 07944309859
“Vision, coupled with persistency, results in true success”