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Opinions of Sunday, 22 October 2017

Columnist: Phyllis Kyei Mensah

Post-frenzy thoughts on Free SHS

The Free SHS was officially launched on September 12 by President Nana Akufo-Addo The Free SHS was officially launched on September 12 by President Nana Akufo-Addo

Education should be accessed by all regardless of their economic, social and political background. However, several challenges have prevented the achievement of universal access to education in various parts of the world, with our country being no exception. It is, therefore, not surprising that the “Free SHS” policy has received both national and international commendation.

Many of the proponents of this policy have outlined several reasons why they presume free education to be the answer to Ghana’s problems - prominent among which is the idea that it is the ultimate means to achieve economic growth and that the policy is what the country needs for the next stage of its development.

I agree that education should be available and accessible to everyone who wills it and I applaud the government for this initiative. However, I also think that the discourse on free education should be taken a step further from the theme of its feasibility and sustainability to a long-term discussion of its end goals.

We indeed need a vibrant human capital to foster the kind of development that we need as a country. However, as a country, we also need to sit down and reassess the end goal of this important opportunity we are giving to millions of young people.

If the end goal of this policy is to fulfil targets of universal education that UNESCO and other international bodies have set for us to achieve, then I guess we surely have over-achieved. If it is to fulfill campaign promises and to preemptively consolidate votes for the next general election, then we sure have done a great job and at an unprecedented pace too (it’s been barely seven months). However, if the purpose behind this policy is a genuine mission to transform the quality of the Ghanaian workforce to achieve the rapid development that we seek, then only making it free will only fetch us accolades and nothing else.

Besides the reduction in the cost of secondary education that this policy will ensure, there has not yet been any progressive change to the educational system and curriculum. The 1987 and 1995 educational reforms have not seen any major updates or improvement in terms of content and structure. The curriculum and pedagogy largely remain the same – theoretical, highly impractical and mostly irrelevant to the demands of the job market. Teachers’ conditions of service are anything but impressive and the least said about educational infrastructure, the better. Our superficial appreciation of formal education is so entrenched that we still view vocational and technical education as the less attractive alternative reserved for the ‘unintelligent’.

Amidst the showers of praise, have we ever broached the fate of the students we are pushing into our secondary schools? Do we even know the current demands of the job market? Will “Free SHS” address the problem of unmatched graduate skills to job market demands even though it is obvious that the current secondary school curriculum is highly inadequate at preparing leavers for the job market? To be specific, what is the long-term plan for beneficiaries of Free SHS?

If the government is subsidizing high school because many students are unable to afford it, then is there a similar plan for tertiary education - since that has always been the privilege of the very few (in fact, fewer than for SHS)?

Holding all these factors constant and with these systemic questions yet unanswered, the “Free SHS” policy will only churn out millions of semi-educated youth who - although savvy enough to know all about their rights - will have little to no opportunities to utilize their skills. We do know that it would be a sumptuous recipe for national disaster.

Thus, if this policy is indeed intended to propel the new development vision of the leaders of this country, then it is not just access that is important. Equally important is making sure that the current educational system sees the needed reforms and structures to match the existing developmental and workforce needs. Although I believe that everyone should be given a chance to access both secondary and tertiary education (and the government should consider the feasibility of this option), I equally recommend that secondary education be reformed to give students marketable skills for the job market. More employment opportunities should be also created to meet the supply of this labour. Thus, even those unable to afford a tertiary education will have the opportunity to be gainfully employed after secondary school.

Now that the dust has settled on Free SHS, we should not go back to our daily routines but continue to ask some of these pertinent questions. This is the only means to make the system sustainable and beneficial to the country and all of us.