By Nii Moi Thompson
In July 2008, the CPP declared the following on p.12 of its manifesto: “To improve access and quality at all levels throughout the country, secondary schools will become part of basic education and will be made free...” No other party made such a bold and visionary claim.
The idea of course was not new. In 1963, in its seminal 7-Year Development Plan, the CPP government had made the original proposal, building on its highly successful Accelerated Education Development Plan (1952), which made basic education free, and the Education Act of 1961, which made it compulsory.
But then the CPP government was overthrown in 1966. The self-styled “National Liberation Council” (NLC) that staged the coup proceeded to dismantle what it viewed as the CPP’s “destructive socialist policies”, which, in their view, included the proposal to make secondary education free. A progressive policy that would have eventually freed Ghana from the scourge of poverty (as it did for all of today’s rich countries) was thus abruptly, violently, terminated.
As part of its strategy to rationalize the entire education sector, the CPP had also proposed to reduce elementary school duration from 10 to 8 years and apply part of the money saved to its secondary education expansion agenda. Even without the policy, secondary and technical school enrolment had grown by an eye-popping 437.9% between 1951 and 1961. The imperative for a rapid and carefully planned expansion, therefore, was more than self-evident.
The Kwapong Committee set up by the NLC to “reform” the CPP’s education policies thought otherwise and recommended that “elementary education should have a duration of ten years as at present”. It was a matter of time before Ghana faced a crisis in secondary education.
> That moment of truth came in 1969, when the Daily Graphic reported in its September 8 issue that “only 10,000 out of 50,000 who passed this year’s common entrance examination...will be admitted to various secondary schools this academic year.” In other words, 80% of students who qualified to go to secondary education could not do so because of lack of space!
> It was a problem that would dog the country for decades to come, with successive governments doing little or nothing to address it. Over the period, the quality of the country's labor force, once hailed as well-class, steadily deteriorated. About 40% of the labor force had no education and another 50.0% or so had less than secondary school education – a complete reversal of the CPP’s policies since the 1950s. Not surprisingly, Ghana also declined from a middle-income country at the time of the coup to an impoverished low-income country by the end of the century.
> In 1991, as part of the education reforms that began in 1987, the government started the Community Secondary School (CSSs) Construction Programme ostensibly to increase both access and participation. But lacking facilities comparable to those of their elite counterparts, the CSSs, which were located in rural areas and officially designated “deprived districts,” proved inadequate and unattractive to students and teachers alike. Many of them had fewer than 100 students even as the better-endowed secondary schools complained of over-enrolment and lack of space.
> Rather than enhance and expand facilities, the managers of the nation’s education system resorted to subterfuge. The 2004 education sector report, for example, made the following revelation with shocking frankness and impunity:
> “In 2003, 61.6% of entrants nationally, attained an aggregate grade between 6 and 30, the level required to enable them to enter second cycle education; in 2004 this figure was 61.3%. The BECE examination is structured so as to ensure that approximately 60% each year gain this aggregate grade, and so little variation is to be expected.”
> Evidently, GES had drawn its inspiration from a 2002 report by a team of educationists. Fretting over what they called the “huge gap” between “better endowed schools" and “new and less well known schools,” the team speculated over the need to extend SSS in “rural deprived areas” to 4 years (a misguided speculation which five years later was heedlessly imposed on the entire country without regard for relevance or added value).
> They then dropped the following bombshell: “Another option is to raise the entry BECE from aggregates 6-30 to 6-20.” This, they conceded, “would reduce participation in the SSS to unacceptable levels.” > > It’s a technique that seems to have worked very well, for BECE pass rates always clustered around 60.0%, until recently when they dipped precipitously to 50.0% and below. Only 40.0% of those who passed (constituting 24.0% of all JHS graduates) gained admission into secondary schools. Under this scheme, education in Ghana became – and remains – a tool for social stratification rather than a path to upward socio-economic mobility.
> A belated effort to undo decades of harm through the construction of "model secondary schools" around the country in the mid-2000s proved ineffective due to weak planning and the simultaneous deterioration in the facilities of existing secondary schools.
> In 2008, the CPP drew attention to this problem and incorporated it into its “unfinished business” agenda. It remains so. Free secondary education (and second-cycle education, broadly) is 46 years past due, thanks to the 1966 coup. Something must be done and now.
> The debate over money and affordability ignores the facts of history and makes cowards rather than visionaries of us. No nation waited to become rich before providing free education for its citizens. If anything, free education preceded wealth: An increase in knowledge and skills led to increased productivity, which led to higher household incomes, which meant a bigger national income. That's how they became rich.
> Money should never be an obstacle to great ambitions. If others have put men on the moon, the least we can do is put every Ghanaian child in a classroom. The 2008 education sector report, for instance, noted that “increased efficiency in the use of teachers” would save the government “about US$400 million.” An earlier study of the sector had found that “only 75 percent of salary expenditure and less than 50 percent of non-salary recurrent expenditure allocated to Junior Secondary Schools reached them.”
> There is money in the system. A successful agenda for free secondary/second cycle education, however, must be situated within a broader strategy of educational and public sector reforms with a clear ideological and political commitment to that agenda.
> It cannot be a political gimmick or done in isolation, despite what the latter-day advocates of free education are promising.
> The author was head of Research and the Manifesto Committee of the CPP during the 2008 elections.
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