Feature Article of Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Columnist: Paul Achonga Kwode

Can NPP fulfill its free SHS education policy in 2013 when voted to power?

Education remains one of the major themes dominating the campaigns of the major political parties in the run up to the December 7 polls in Ghana. The contending parties hope to win the hearts and minds of the electorate with all kinds of promises. While some political parties are promising to transform and make basic education free and compulsory, others have gone beyond that to include the Senior High Schools (SHS), promising to make SHS education free for every Ghanaian child. As has been observed by some critics, talk is cheap but the real test lies in the implementation. So can we take the opposition New Patriotic Party's (NPP) promise of making SHS free for all as serious talk, especially considering that the NPP intends fulfilling it in 2013, or should it be regarded as one of the many easy talks of politicians.

The NPP's manifesto promise of free SHS in particular has kept tongues wagging. The party states: “We are fully committed to making secondary education free for every Ghanaian child. By free SHS we mean free tuition, admission, textbook, library, science centre, computer, examination, utilities, boarding and meals. Although the cost of free secondary school education is high, the alternative of a largely uneducated and unskilled workforce is a situation Ghana cannot afford. So NPP will prioritize and fund this expenditure using budgetary resources (including resources from oil exports) in the interest of the long-term growth of Ghana’s economy. In partnership with the private sector, we will facilitate and support rapid development of skills, including apprenticeships training for graduates from vocational and technical schools”.

This seems too loaded a piece to be fulfilled in contemporary Ghana, considering the government’s wage bill, the constraints on the national budget and an oil income that is already heavily committed. In the first place, there are over 100,000 students currently in about 555 SHSs across the country.

Already, the government is having difficulties in meeting the demands of these existing students while school infrastructure in most of these schools are an eye sore, and compelling school authorities in some areas to convert dining halls and science laboratories into classrooms and dormitories.

Some analysts have argued that the economy is too small to implement the free SHS policy but in the opinion of this writer, it has rather been poorly managed due to corruption and the "winner takes all" ineptitude that is so characteristic of the nation's politics. It is realistic for a country with a GDP of 39.2 billion dollars to implement free compulsory universal basic education and free SHS at the same time, the resultant pressure could impact negatively on other sectors of national endeavour.

Currently students are paying school fees of not less than GHc500 across the country per annum. These fees complement government in providing infrastructure and the payment of Ghana Education Service (GES) staff. In spite of those fees, schools continue to have ill-equipped libraries, inadequate textbooks and still have difficulties in meeting the feeding needs of students whiles in most instances academic activities get truncated in the Northern parts of the country because feeding grants have been delayed due to the absence of funds.

So if feeding grants which are quite minimal compared to the cost of free SHS has funding problems, one can anticipate the cacophony of problems the free SHS is likely to encounter.

The NPP manifesto admits that: “We have serious capacity issues nationwide, especially in the rural areas; many schools still exist with inadequate basic facilities." It continues, "We will undertake a major expansion and overhaul of educational facilities and support provision of innovative forms of education delivery and teaching aids, including modern laboratories and libraries. This will make it possible for the non-traditional student to acquire skills”.

The deficit in classroom infrastructure is not only in the rural areas but in the urban centres as well, and has created situations where more than 100 pupils congest in a single classroom being taught by a single teacher. Only God knows the quality of tuition and assessment that goes on in such an atmosphere.

These gargantuan problems cannot just be solved overnight, it will take any political administration interested in solving such problems a considerable length of time - at least five years - to do so. Simply put, therefore, Ghanaians cannot just be cowed into believing that a free SHS education policy can be implemented as early as 2013. It must also be in the minds of Ghanaians that public policy like the free SHS is expected to follow some bureaucratic processes which the NPP may not be able to conclude by 2013 to enable it to commence with the implementation of the free SHS policy. So NPP needs to come again.

We live in a country where political parties in the past have made vein promises without fulfilling them. They make promises just to come to power only to turn around and give excuses. The NPP has its share of this history. Some of its promises in the past included the promise of extending railway lines from the Southern part of the country to the Northern sector but this was not accomplished till it left office in 2008. The NPP promised zero tolerance for corruption but Ghanaians began to hear later that corruption started from Adam. The party equally promised more jobs only to turn round to tell Ghanaians that it was only those who were lazy who could not find jobs. How then can the electorate trust this time around that the free SHS will not turn out to be in vein when the party is voted to power?

Alhassan Rahinatu, a teacher based in Tamale underscored the need for more concentration at the basic level ensuring that there is quality and free access before extending the policy to the SHS level, else the policy is bound to fail.

She indicated that at the school where she teaches, many of the classrooms are crowded because of the repetition of some students whose academic performance was considered poor. In her view, ‘if the free SHS is introduced in a rush, many teachers will sit in their houses and collect salaries without teaching’.

She noted that although the policy would relieve many parents of financial burden, its introduction is premature because of the existing bottlenecks. Samuel Atinga, a cleaner also thinks that the free SHS system is a brilliant idea and good for a developing country like Ghana to gain adequate human resource for development but expresses worry that the promise might not come to pass.

In sum, the free education policy at the Senior High School level is a beautiful novelty by all standards but the numerous challenges currently facing the educational system in the country such as inadequate classrooms, student congestion, teacher deficit and other infrastructural challenges must be addressed first before the introduction of the policy. There must be enough funding to improve the quality of education from the kindergarten level to the universities. Supervision as has been observed, is a great challenge to the Ghana Education Service (GES) and something must be done about solving that problem, else much money would be spent on the education sector without really getting the benefits expected. Corruption, nepotism and other bureaucratic practices inimical to the development of educational must all be addressed before consideration can be given to the introduction of the free SHS policy, else the policy is likely to die at birth just like many others before it.