Feature Article of Monday, 2 April 2012

Columnist: Boadu, Kwabena

Free SHS – It Won’t Work Because Nana Says It Would Work!

In the late 90s, the issue of healthcare delivery had become a major problem in Ghana. Many were dying because hospitals demanded cash upfront before any form of treatment could be delivered to the suffering patient. Many who had sustained various degrees of injuries through Road accidents for example paid with their lives because they were not able to pay upfront for the medical care they so much deserved. The Cash & Carry System as the policy had become known had become an albatross around the necks of Ghanaians. Many experts and elites were convinced that it was the bitter pill we had to take if we did not want to collapse our entire healthcare system.
So health became an issue. It was election time and the New Patriotic Party notably promised to abolish the Cash and Carry Policy when elected. Many were those in the then government and in civil society who laughed off the idea. They said it was one of the lousy promises politicians made for cheap vote winning purposes. Many said it was just impossible to do and that Ghana had to live with the reality that the only solution to sustaining health delivery was through the ‘pay or die’ scheme. Ghana just didn’t have the resources looking at our meager GDP of just above 3billion dollars and the wherewithal to do such a thing, they said. These same pessimists who would be quick to bring you down from Europe and the Americas and want you to look at what they see as reality, were the first to do the exact thing and point to the USA as a great country which with all its power, brains and resources had not even attempted a National Health Insurance Scheme and wondered how a tiny country like Ghana could ever accomplish such a huge dream. The idea was ridiculed.
The people of Ghana being so good, the NPP was elected into office. After numerous consultations and studies, the National Health Insurance Scheme was instituted despite vigorous opposition from organized labor who were against the deduction of their 2.5% SSNIT contributions and massive political opposition which saw the opposition in Parliament even stage a walkout. Today, all the hurdles and the challenges which were cited have almost been forgotten.
Ironically, the NDC which kept insisting that the NHIS was impossible to implement even after the passage of the National Health Insurance Bill suddenly turned around to say that after all, they were the initiators of the scheme as they had piloted something identical while in power in the 90s.
So let’s move from the 90s in Ghana to present day Ghana. 2012 A.D, the Year of our Lord. So Ghana is at the crossroads again. A seriously weakened and incompetent ruling Party heads to the polls just like in 2000 facing the NPP which is led by a political colossus, Nana Akufo-Addo, who has been at the forefront of Ghanaian Politics for over 30 years, just like in 2000 when they faced an NPP led by John Agyekum Kufuor who had also been at the forefront of politics for just about 30 years at the time. And today too, there is a big issue.
This time, in 2012, the issue which is fast becoming key in the election is education; another vital sector. A sector which underpins almost every other activity of a society. Again, Education is also in crisis! We have not realized it because probably people don’t die when thousands fall off the educational ladder or when many students fail to continue their academic life because they were unfortunate not to have had parents who are resourced enough to support their education.
But it is!

We do know that in the past three years, students who sat for the Basic Education Certificate Examinations have had their pass rates on a constant downward decline. Indeed since 2009, out of the 1,121, 817 students who have sat the BECE, a monumental 574,688 have failed to achieve the pass mark. Let me just add, that the figure which has failed the BECE in the last three years represent 51.22% of the total who have sat the examination. Simply put a gargantuan number of 575,000 students have fallen off the educational ladder at the Basic school level in just the last three years just because they did not obtain the pass mark to proceed to higher levels. This number is minus those who never start school and those who fall off the ladder before they get to sit the BECE and those who fall off even though they attained the pass mark due to financial or other constraints.
Today, because the government failed to invest the necessary resources in Senior High Education after hastily reverting to a three year cycle despite obvious and sane counsel from an overwhelming majority of Parents, School Administrators, Experts in Education, Teachers etc., students had to sleep in dining halls, libraries, classrooms, science laboratories, assembly halls, bathrooms etc.
For the first time, newly admitted students at the Senior High School had to carry buckets of paint, bags of cement, cement blocks and Louvre blades to school as requirements of the schools since the government had failed to be responsible for the needed development in the schools.
We are at a point where there seems to be general consensus that our educational system is not producing the needed quality human resource we desire for National development. We have heard many managers at the corporate level talk of how ‘almost useless’ most of the Graduates from our educational system are when they sit before them in interview sessions and how some of them have resorted to finding employees from other countries as far as South Africa to fill certain positions.
Other statistics are very horrifying. Data from the Ghana Living Standards Survey Report of the Fifth Round (GLSS 5), September 2008, indicates that about 31 percent of adults (about 4 million people) have never been to school. A further 17%(about 2.3 million people) attended school but did not obtain MSLC/BECE certificate. About 39% of adults (5.1million people) have the MSLC/BECE certificate and only about 14% (1.8 million adults) obtained secondary or higher level qualification. Thus, about half (6.4 million) of adults in Ghana neither attended school nor completed middle school/JSS. When extended to the Secondary level, the statistics show that 9.7million adults cannot boast of having obtained a Secondary or higher level qualification.

So the situation is quite dire.
Then comes the NPP which again brings in a monumental promise, a promise they actually started making in 2008. The promise to make Secondary education free! And history repeats itself perfectly. Tongues have wagged and wagged. It is not possible, they have said! He can’t find the money to do it! They have claimed! How is he going to do it? They have asked!! It is an empty promise! They have declared!! Where is he going to find the money? They have quizzed!
But the NDC is a very interesting Party. Ghana’s life expectancy is averagely estimated to be 63.4 years. The age at which individuals start paying National Health Insurance premium is 18. Even assuming each individual would live for 60 years, it means someone would have to depend on his premiums to the NHIS for health care for at least 42 years. Interestingly, the NDC believed (or do they still believe?) that it is possible for a Ghanaian to pay a premium once and not pay again and receive free health care for all his remaining years. And this would go for all the 24million and more Ghanaians. However, the same NDC does not believe that it is possible for the Government to cater for the schooling costs of ‘just’ about 900,000 students who at any time would be going through Secondary Education with each batch of ‘just’ about 300,000 taking three (3) years to complete.
Now in the past few weeks, as Education has steadily become a major discussion point basically based on the pledge of the NPP, the NDC seems to have adopted a new tactic. They have realized that they would lose hugely if they don’t start taking Education serious and if they don’t pretend to be offering some solutions to the dire issues confronting the sector. So what they have done is to try to also put up what they claim are alternatives and solutions to the issues, especially regarding Senior High schooling. But it is quite interesting. One would think that it is the reserve of the opposition to proffer alternatives!! What the hell would a ruling government which has the power to act be doing battling the opposition in a contest of alternatives? If you think something would work, as a government, you implement it and make it work and leave the opposition to keep talking about what they think would work! But hey, under John Mills and John Mahama, a lot of unprecedented things like 3 nationwide power outages in three months and the cedi falling to its lowest since 1994 does happen, so it shouldn’t be surprising.
But the alternative put out by the government is also hugely problematic. First of all, the idea of making Senior High education community based as is being trumpeted all over by John Mahama was first proposed by Nana Akufo-Addo at the Liberty Lectures in August 2011 when he indicated that his Free Secondary Education policy would have to go with a remodeling of the current SHS system into one which was community based so as to cut down on costs such as boarding facilities and fees which constitute a bulk part of expenditure. Somehow, the NDC has pilfered (to be mild) this idea and claims this is its solution.
But even assuming this idea coming from the NDC is original; how sustainable can the argument supporting it be? The argument the NDC is seeking to do basically is that the issues confronting the SHS level is one of accessibility and not affordability. So the NDC claims it stands for accessibility while the NPP has been made to stand for affordability.
For me, only a stranger of Ghana’s education system would even dream of claiming that affordability is not a great issue. In Ghana, we all know that students at the basic level generally pay less than students at the Senior High Level. We also know that basic schools/institutions are much much more than Senior High level; we know that majority of communities in our country either have one or more basic school or at worst inhabitants in such communities have to journey a kilometer or a little more to reach the nearest basic school while for the overwhelming majority of communities in Ghana, they have to journey many miles and kilometers before they can reach the nearest Senior High School. Indeed, it is estimated that there are only 520 SHS government or government assisted Senior High Schools in Ghana while there are over 15,000 government/ local assembly and missionary owned basic schools in Ghana. So obviously, we don’t even have to think to realize that the basic school is far more accessible than Senior High Schools.
Yet we all know that when the capitation grant was introduced, enrollment at the basic level skyrocketed. In some communities the enrolment doubled overnight thanks to the fact that Parents were no longer obliged to pay for their wards. So if enrolment skyrocketed at the basic level which has more institutions and is more accessible because fees were scrapped, then how can anyone say that affordability is not an issue in Ghana’s education when as stated above, the average cost on a student at the SHS level is more than at the basic level? How can anyone say so when it is proven empirically that even at levels which are more accessible, the main problem to enrollment was affordability? The schools were there but children were not filling it because their parents could not afford to pay. So where from this accessibility argument even assuming that Nana Akufo-Addo does not stand for increasing accessibility, which in fact we know is not the case, as he was indeed the first person to advocate for remodeling the SHS system into a community based one; stating very clearly in August 2011 that “As a veteran of the education sector put it, a SHS (like a primary school and a JHS), should be like a post office or police station, a development that every community deserves to have in adequate measure i.e. for all SHS-age children in that community who seek such an education. In such a community setting, the state’s obligation will be to provide a class-room block, trained teachers, a library, a suitable laboratory/IT Centre, workshops, perhaps even a cafeteria in conjunction with a private food services provider. There will be no need for boarding facilities for most students.”
The other issue which prevents most Ghanaian children from going to the Senior High Level is their grades. And the grades would not be solved by increasing the number of schools. If you increase the number of schools and the students still record a 51% FAILURE MARK at the BECE then no one would sit in those classrooms. And this is exactly why Nana Akufo-Addo is not just claiming he is going to make SHS free but saying that he is going to make secondary school level, the first point of exit in our educational cycle. With such a policy, the high failure rates which prevent more than half of BECE sitters from continuing their education as we have it now would be totally eliminated.
And they say where is he going to find the money? The money would be found in Ghana; it would and can be found from the expansion in the economy and prudent generation of internal resources just like Dr. Bawumia stated during the 2008 Running Mate Debate and by eliminating the huge wastes like criminally orchestrated judgment debt payments from the system. One President’s top priority is the payment of judgment debts to the tune of all our oil receipts so far ($420million); even though it sounds quite unintelligent, money was found to do it! Another man says his priority would be Education and the same people who found Gargantuan monies to pay judgment debts are challenging him!! What a World?
This is not rocket science!! And ironically, for the NDC too it is not that complicated. It is that simple! And would continue to be very simple!! This free SHS or whatever the NPP is talking about cannot be done because it is Nana Akufo-Addo saying it; not because Nana Akufo-Addo has a poor Public Service record or because anything empirical has been found to oppose the promise. No, nothing like that! It just can’t be done because Nana Akufo-Addo is saying it can be done!!

Boadu Kwabena