Article 25 1b of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states that “Secondary education in its different forms including technical and vocational education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular, by the progressive introduction of free education. This constitutional provision has witnessed efforts by successive governments to progressively fulfil the mandate. These efforts seem to be triggered further by Goal 4, Target 1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which states that;
“by 2030, all boys and girls complete free equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes”.
Based on the above and anchored on Removal of cost barriers, Expansion of infrastructure, Improvement in Quality and Equity, and Development of Employable Skills, Ghana’s current policy of free SHS was introduced in 2017. This policy is aptly paraphrased as captured on its website;
“By free SHS we mean free tuition, admission fee, textbooks, library fees, science center fees, fees for ICT, examination fee, payment of utility fee, boarding and meals”.
True to the above, the government has since the inception of the policy tried to live by the promise made to Ghanaians. The policy has seen high enrolments at the Senior High School (SHS) levels with many parents seeing physical reduction in the burdens of funding the education of their wards. Amidst these reduced costs, the policy has been critiqued for lowering standard of education and reducing academic quality at the secondary school levels. The ensuing paragraphs will examine the factors that undermine the policy and mitigating factors to salvage Ghana’s educational system.
One key factor that has undermined the policy is inadequate classroom space to accommodate students. This has led to structures originally not suitable for classroom studies, converted for such purposes. Considering that classrooms are built for purpose (studies), other environs that are created for different purposes when used for studies may not achieve the expected objectives. This has led to students’ inability to study within the required environments that guarantee successful teaching and learning. While this glaring deficit in infrastructure abound, there are other evidences suggesting that, the previous government had built classroom blocks for the same purposes which have been left unused even in the midst of the current classroom deficits. Meanwhile the previous government is reported to have left some classroom infrastructure at almost finishing stages, with the current government abandoning their continuity whiles starting new projects from the scratch. This situation is compelling school authorities to accommodate students in structures not meant for classroom work. This position is supported by the March 11, 2019 edition of the Business and Finance Times partly captured below;
“A number of uncompleted school projects in the Sefwi Wiaswo Municipality of the Western North Region has forced school authorities to accommodate students in structures meant as classrooms, as student population grows due to the Free Senior High School (FSHS) programme”
This lack of/ inadequate classroom infrastructure negatively affects Ghana’s education, especially in the case of the free SHS.
Hitherto, feeding in the Ghanaian boarding house system was the responsibility of parents (inclusive in school fees). Within the ambits of the new policy, government has absorbed the cost element, making its educational budget more bulgy. This has witnessed some levels of struggle by government on feeding students in the boarding houses; with the pressure trickling down to management of these Senior High Schools. The case of management of Sefwi Wiawso Senior High School as reported by some members of the Public Interest and Accountability Committee (PIAC), as part of ‘2019 District Engagement and Project Inspection is worth noting – “the delay in the release of funds and untimely supply of food items forces the school to buy some food items on credit”.
Decent accommodation has also been a bane on the quality of education within the Ghanaian free SHS system in recent times. As a basic need, decent shelter is necessary for human performance in every sphere of life. However, with the increased enrolments as a result of the free SHS, many students have been compelled to share spaces that are meant for a few. This crowding of students has witnessed a number of consequences including disease and rape, affecting performance of students. The July 23, 2018 edition of the Graphic online reports this same opinion in different words.
“Dormitories and classrooms continue to be overcrowded, with some students sleeping on the floor in dormitories, while some female students, who could not find accommodation on school compounds and had to put up in rented places, got raped”.
Also, the quality of education in any environment is largely related to the caliber of Teachers within that educational system. With the enrolment of large numbers as a result of the free SHS, many schools especially in the rural areas either lack or have inadequate teachers in a number of courses leading to compromise in the quality of education. It is worth noting that, in other instances, the system compromises the standards by making use of less teachers for many students. For instance, a study conducted by the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC) in 60 schools, showed that some classrooms were packed with as many as 160 students, with inadequate teaching staff to handle the numbers.
CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM
Ample evidence exists that, these problems can be identified with politics, poverty and ignorance
Without recourse to relevant literature, it has become a norm for many African governments (Ghana inclusive) to undermine or play down the achievements of previous governments. In the instance of inadequate classroom and dormitory infrastructure, the challenge is partially as a result of political factors. It is to be noted that, while the erstwhile NDC government started and also completed a number of classroom projects, some of such projects are left unused by the current regime amidst dire need for classroom infrastructure. Obvious is the very glaring fact that, while some of the structures by the previous government were almost completed, the current regime have left them uncompleted while contracts are assigned for new classroom and dormitory projects in the face of urgent classroom deficits.
Free in most instance come with costly prices/prizes. Many are cognizant of this fact yet decided to enroll their wards in the free SHS system. Amidst the cries of lowering standards of education at the secondary level in Ghana, persons with their wards in fee paying and well organized secondary schools are reaping the rewards of their investments as a result of paying appropriate fees for appropriate training. It is therefore the opinion of this writer that, one of the key causes of the lowering standards at the secondary school levels is poverty – poor parents cannot take their wards to schools that have the necessary infrastructure to pay appropriate fees for appropriate training. This assertion is not too much a departure from the political factor; it is to be noted that, politicians here and elsewhere will use the vulnerability of its electorate to gain political mileage – in the Ghanaian instance, poverty, though with dire consequences for our educational system.
The enthusiasm with which Ghanaians accepted the free SHS at its inception seem to be dying gradually as they are beginning to feel the real implications of the policy. It is the opinion of this writer that, the expectation of Ghanaians at the announcement of the policy is far from the current reality, with many stakeholders, parents and school management openly talking down the policy (including those who supported it initially).
Implications for Ghana Higher Education
Following the pressure on the government as a result of increased enrolment, the government had to introduce the double track system to reduce the pressure on current classroom infrastructure at a time. The above has the tendency of churning out so many graduates at the secondary level per annum. This will exert corresponding pressure on Ghanaian universities in the area of admission and accommodating high numbers annually.
Also, considering that the policy seem to have affected the quality of Ghana’s SHS system with Ghana being ranked only second to Niger in the World Bank ranking this year, Ghanaian universities will be absorbing poorly trained SHS graduates into the system. This will exert pressure on classroom activities, especially learning, since lecturers will have to do more to get students understand.
Thirdly, as reported by the World Bank, Ghana’s standard of education at the secondary level is lowering. This has image issues for the country and other implications for Ghanaians in their own labour market and the labour market abroad.
Ghanaian students seeking university admissions abroad may also be short chained as a result of the lowering standards and this cannot be devoid of the implementation of the free SHS
Education is such a delicate commodity and its policies must be carefully thought through before implementation. Arguably, the policy in itself is a fine idea but the necessary resources and mode of implementation seem problematic. It is the opinion of this writer that;
Implementation in phases (district, regional etc) would have given government enough space to implement the policy in an orderly and stress free manner.
A continuation of the policy would be hinged on resource, thus the government should consider complementary funding source for the policy or revert to tasking parents to honour their fee responsibilities for Ghana to execute decent, respectable and globally accepted senior high school education for Ghanaians.
A number of Ghanaians are able and willing to pay fees for their wards to study. Government should create room for such parents to pay.