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Opinions of Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is President Nana Akufo-Ado’s Free SHS a 2020 Winner?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK February 13, 2017

Less than two months into his four-year term presidency, president Nana Akufo-Addo confirmed on Saturday that his 2012 and 2016 campaign promise of free Senior High School (SHS) education for every Ghanaian child will be implemented from September 2017 (see, “President Akufo-Addo abolishes admission, exams fees in Free SHS rollout”, Ghanweb, February 11, 2017). This article is a discussion on the merits or otherwise of the policy implementation as announced by the president.

Speaking as Special Guest of Honour at the 60th anniversary celebration of Okuapeman School, the president was reported to have said, “so that no one in Ghana is left in any doubts by free SHS, we mean that, in addition to tuition which is already free, there will be no admission fees, no library fees, no science centre fees, no computer lab fees, no examination fees, no utility fees; there will be free textbooks, free boarding and free meals, and day students will get a meal at school for free.”

The policy details as spelt out by president Nana Akufo-Addo, if implemented effectively, properly budgeted for and paid on time through judicious use of the country’s resources, would be a monumental change in secondary education finance in Ghana. Indeed, it would be secondary education finance tsunami, if the implementation is successfully delivered.

Until the advent of private universities and other tertiary institutions in Ghana, it would not be wrong to say that secondary education was the most expensive for Ghanaian parents, guardians and families because there were no loans for it as in the case of university and other higher education such as training and nursing colleges. This was made worst because most of the secondary schools now Senior High Schools (SHSs) are boarding institutions. When we were in secondary school, there were very few day students and they were compelled to be day students for financial reasons, with the exception of some children of expatriates.

Though there were Cocoa Marketing Board Scholarships for children of cocoa farmers, in reality, the scholarships went to the children of rich and well educated public servants in big towns and cities. The financial burden of secondary education on most Ghanaian families resulted in majority of children not having the opportunity to attend secondary education as places were very limited relative to the number of children who could have entered secondary education.

The president’s announcement would have warmed many hearts and put smiles on the faces of parents, guardians, families and children who are in SHS and are struggling financially to pay the various fees as well as those yet to enter from September 2017. In fact, even those of us in the Diaspora will benefit directly from this policy as many of us regularly remit family members back in Ghana for the payment of SHS fees. For this reason and others, it is my belief that, the policy, if well budgeted for and as president Nana Akufo-Addo announced it on Saturday, his finance minister is aware of the implementation date and has fully costed and budgeted for it in his first budget to be presented next month, then, it is a welcome relief for millions across Ghana and abroad.

On the flip side, the question is, should the state pay for the boarding and lodging of the few since there are not enough boarding places in SHSs to take care of most of the students? Why can’t parents be responsible for paying for the cost of boarding and lodging and the money raised invested in expanding SHSs in Ghana? In fact, in 2012 when then candidate Nana Akufo-Addo announced the free SHS policy, I was one of those who were of the view that improving quality and increasing SHS accessibility (number of places) were more important than affordability and I am still of the same view. However, this does not necessarily mean that free SHS is bad. The problem is the blanket free policy when access is very limited because of the predominantly boarding system in the state system. For example, if the boarding facilities were turned into more class rooms and teaching aid facilities such as laboratories, libraries, IT suites, etc. then, more students could be admitted as day students. That will also ensure fairness and equity than the current system where those in boarding will eat and enjoy facilities on campus free at the disadvantage of day students, all totally at the expense of the tax payer.

The new free SHS policy as announced by president Nana Akufo-Addo is discriminatory against day students who will only have one free meal a day, whilst those in boarding will have three square meals a day at the expense of the state. This is contrary to Article 17(2) of the 1992 Constitution. Article 17(2) states, “a person shall not be discriminated against on grounds of gender, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status.

Article 17(3) defines what is discrimination as follows: “for the purposes of this article, ‘discriminate’ means to give different treatment to different persons attributable only or mainly to their respective descriptions by race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, gender, occupation, religion or creed, whereby persons of one description are subjected to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of another description are not made subject or are granted privileges or advantages which are not granted to persons of another description”. In my view, day SHS students are day because most come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and therefore it is my conclusion that the free SHS is discriminating against them on that basis and not in compliance with Article 17(2) of the Constitution.

It is also an unfair tax on the poor because it is the rich and the elite who benefit most since they are able to manipulate the system to get their children into top secondary schools with boarding facilities. Even with the new computerised admission system, the well connected, educated and the elite are still able to get their children into the best boarding schools, whilst the children of the rural and urban poor, on average are most likely to attend day schools. It is unfair on the poor because the cost of boarding and lodging is now to be paid by the state from common taxes paid by all, whilst only the children of the minority socio-economically well off will enjoy more (three free square meals a day).

Irrespective of the discriminatory and unfair impact of the policy, I would not recommend a means tested system where children become eligible for free or discounted boarding and lodging base on the total family income or the ability to pay. My objection to means testing is for good reasons. First, records on levels of income in Ghana is almost none existence, particularly for farmers, traders, artisans and other professionals. Moreover, such a system will be opened to abuse by becoming another avenue for some public servants to enrich themselves (taking bribes from the poor to provide documents as evidence of a family’s low income to qualify for free boarding and lodging). It will also be an expensive bureaucratic exercise that would not add value to the policy or its implementation but at best, self-defeatist.

The solution lies in the government of president Nana Akufo-Addo improving the quality of SHSs across Ghana so that a child in rural Ghana or the deprived urban ghetto will have access to good SHS as those in well off Accra, Cape Coast, Kumasi, Tamale, etc. The second, is continuous expansion of SHSs, especially the day community SHSs ex-president Mahama started. The two policies should go hand in hand. As more quality SHSs become available locally and throughout Ghana, the incentive to travel from the north to attend a top SHS in the south and vice versa will reduce. However, for certain unavoidable reasons such as religion some will always travel far to attend SHS and also be in boarding schools. When there is sufficient quality day SHSs throughout Ghana, then boarding schools would be no longer attractive and for that reason those who choose to be in boarding may be required to pay something towards the cost of boarding and lodging.

I am also reluctant to suggest doing away with boarding schools in Ghana because of the significant role the system plays in unifying Ghanaians from different ethnic, socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds. I enjoyed studying and living with students from across Ghana in boarding schools and would not want to deny younger generations this unifying tool, especially, at this time when politics has become so divisive in the country.

In conclusion, the implementation of the free SHS policy as announced by president Nana Akufo-Addo on Saturday, if well executed, would be a vote winner in 2020. In fact, if the implementation is successful, should the president fail to deliver his campaign promise of one village, one dam, he will still win the 2020 presidential election hands down, with all things being equal. That is, if there are no corruption scandals, the economy improves, jobs are created, etc. This is a paradigm shift in secondary education funding in Ghana and the benefit would be enjoyed by generations yet unborn. A good legacy and an excellent beginning for president Nana Akufo-Addo.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK