Feature Article of Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Columnist: Sarfo, Silas

Are Free School Uniforms Really Benefiting Our Nation?

While the government of Ghana’s free school uniforms programme for deprived communities appears to be a laudable, well-intentioned, pro-poor initiative, critical questions must be asked concerning whether this initiative is really benefiting our nation.

Undoubtedly, parents will certainly welcome the handing out of free school uniforms to their children, but in the first place, has conclusive research shown that school uniforms have actually been a major factor with regard to why quite a lot of parents do not send their children to school, hence the mass provision free school uniforms is very beneficial? Could it be that the professed significance of this costly initiative is for the most part a mere supposition?

In addition, has specific research been conducted that has established the extent to which the provision of just one school uniform a year per pupil is actually contributing towards many parents sending their children to school? And if the answer is no, then has the government been prematurely blowing its own horn with regard to the merits of this costly initiative?

But aside from the matters above and perhaps more importantly, are uniforms so important for education that even though mandating the wearing of them can easily be discontinued, their provision deserves the commitment of funding by the Ghana government for a very costly, large-scale free distribution undertaking?

Again, even though necessitating the wearing of school uniforms can very easily be discontinued, is the mass provision of them worth prioritizing funding vis-à-vis increasing funding for the bare essentials of education–such as textbooks and quality teaching–that are so distressingly underprovided? Let us take a critical look.

Consider the report released by the Ghana Education Service last year that indicated that 64% of pupils across the country failed to meet minimum competency levels of reading and writing. All of them wore school uniforms.

In the case of the eighty schools in the Central Region that scored 0% in last year’s BECE, all of their pupils wore school uniforms.

What is more, all of the over 199,000 pupils who wrote the BECE last year but failed to qualify for admission to senior high schools (53% of candidates who sat for the 2011 BECE) wore school uniforms.

While school uniforms may be reasonably positive in some respects, obviously the fundamental reasons why such abysmal results come about should be of much greater concern. How beneficial have uniforms been for these students?

According to the 2012 Budget, the government has allocated GH¢28,800,000 for school uniforms. While it is encouraging that this amount of money has been added to our nation's budget allocation for education, such great amounts of money should not be spent on non-essentials.

Taking into account the staggeringly poor results our basic schools have been churning out, will not this large amount of money be better spent on providing the bare essentials of education that are desperately lacking in our basic schools?

This does not imply that the government has not made efforts to provide funding for supporting teaching and learning, but clearly there continues to be very unsatisfactory fundamental deficiencies in our nation's basic schools which require that educational objectives for which the allocation of our limited financial resources will be most useful are prioritized.

Again, with regard to the uniform-wearing pupils of the eighty schools in the Central Region that scored 0% in last year’s BECE, it cannot be the case that they all failed because they were all simply lazy. Did they have well-trained, well-motivated teachers? Did they have an adequate supply of textbooks and reading matter?

While it may seem impressive when the government hands out suitable uniforms to pupils at such schools, it is unfortunately rather apparent that the pupils of such schools are failing because they have not been provided with a suitable education.

Uniforms cannot facilitate a JHS pupil's progression to SHS, but good teachers and books can. Therefore, taking into account the persistently poor educational outcomes of numerous basic schools and the government's funding constraints, non-vital provisions such as uniforms should no longer be financed by the government.

The most cost-effective way of ensuring that the incapability of Ghanaian parents to afford to provide school uniforms is no longer an excuse for them to not send their children to school is it should no longer be mandatory for Ghanaian pupils to wear uniforms to school. This will then give way for the GH¢28,800,000 budget allocation for school uniforms to instead be used to provide crucial educational needs for better results.

Questions must also be raised about the usefulness of prioritizing funding for other ambitious educational programmes such as the Basic Schools Computerization Project and even the National School Feeding Programme.

Computers are undoubtedly essential in this modern age in which we live, but concerning basic schools, should it be an imperative to ambitiously embark on a costly computerization project when the bare essentials have not been satisfactorily catered for?

Note again that last year 64% of basic school pupils across the country failed to meet minimum competency levels of reading and writing. With such inadequate proficiencies in literacy, should it be surprising that more than half of those who sat for the BECE last year failed to qualify for admission to secondary school? Did they have well-trained, well-motivated teachers? Did they have an adequate supply of textbooks and reading matter?

Should not the provision of basic education be first and foremost about concentrating on satisfactorily providing the most basic foundations of education before anything else?

Concerning the National School Feeding Programme, while we all know about the importance of food and recognize how much more necessary it is than school uniforms and acknowledge how wonderful it would be if every pupil in the country were to be provided with free lunches everyday by the government, the reality is that the government simply lacks the funds to be able to satisfactorily provide good food for all and a good education for all at the same time.

Though several are now receiving food at school, worryingly, several continue to lack an adequate supply of books and several continue to lack well-trained teachers who can provide effective teaching and learning.

And while the excuse that is being given is the old saying “Rome was not built in a day”, our nation's basic schools have been churning out staggeringly poor results that could have been so much better if there had been a focus on improving teaching and learning rather than attempting to attain the achievement of several ambitious projects at the same time.

If even half of the amount of money that it costs to provide pupils with food every day of the week were to rather be paid as special allowances for teachers of public schools in rural areas, it would certainly serve as an incentive for well-trained teachers to accept postings to rural areas and be willing to stay put. Again, if the other half were to rather be invested in purchasing textbooks and reading matter for the pupils in rural schools, teaching and learning in rural schools would be greatly improved.

But the above proposition would of course mean that parents would henceforth have to bear the cost of feeding their children at school. It therefore would present a tough U-turn decision for a government to have to contemplate; but if, at the very least, it is able to henceforth ensure that the numerous public basic schools that parents send their children to attend are able to provide the bare essentials, such tough decisions will prove more effective than the status quo.

By Silas Sarfo