Let’s take a second look at the free SHS programme

Tue, 5 Dec 2017 Source: K.B Oppong

The importance of the Free SHS policy for the nation is beyond any argument. It has come as a blessing to all parents with wards in SHS. To date about 90,000 more students have been admitted for the free SHS. In fact almost all students who wanted to benefit from it have been found places. The only Ghanaians who are calling for its termination are those who argue blindly basing everything that happens in this country on the politics of NPP and NDC. Nevertheless to safeguard the policy for now and for generations to come it may be necessary to go along with the suggestions of some eminent Ghanaians like Dr Atubiga that the policy to be written into the laws of the country just as the FCUBE (Free and Compulsory Universal Basic Education) is.

The challenges with our education system.

It is interesting to note that the challenges in the education system are now being highlighted in the context of the Free SHS when rather it has been there for a long, long time. A simple research on the pre-SHS schools (nursery, primary and JHS) will reveal clearly that but for the heavy investment of private businesses the whole first cycle education would have been severely suffering. Going round all the cities and towns you see private schools in every corner. All those children should have been in state funded schools but parents shun the state school because of the poor facilities. Those inadequate and in some cases physically dangerous schools are what exists in the small towns, villages and city slums. The poor head teachers have to court publicity before they get help. We know their problems – no furniture, no chalk, no books, no trees to provide shade, no teachers etc. but not much attention is paid to them after all they will not make it to SHS through the BECE exams. Who cares.

Thank God for the NPP gov’t Free SHS is here now so every child can go to SHS. Hooray!!!!!!. The BECE is no longer being strictly used to cut the poor off. They are no longer consigned to sell at the road side, sleep rough, do criminal activities to survive, get pregnant as a teen etc. After all they are also Ghanaians and no one dare stop them. The policy is here to stay and the gov’t must do everything to get it working. The problems the poor have experienced all these past decades at the first cycle schools has arrived at the SHS and is hitting the children of the urban folks too so there is fear and panic. There are very, very few private SHS schools so obviously the problems we are experiencing now were predictable. We have always under estimated the problems we have in education because much of them didn’t hurt those concerned. A few weeks ago a Nungua school was closed by court order because its toilets were not working. Big news. It was sorted quickly and the school is back on. Has anybody bothered to count the number schools outside the regional capitals where teachers and children do free range? No!! Who cares.

The country cannot continue to throw into the streets over 60,000 kids every year. We call them kids because they are 14/15 years old, can’t work, can’t vote, not responsible for criminal acts they commit etc. There is no going back. Education is the best insurance any country can give its children in the 21st century. The gov’t must do everything to solve the challenges.

The FREE SHS and its current challenges.

The gov’t will fund free boarding and lodging including three square meals a day and one meal for day schools. The gov’t has also absorbed other costs which had been paid by parents in the past. Parents were paying for all these costs some of them with difficulty but many could easily afford to.

There are however serious challenges in the implementation. Infrastructural challenges – inadequate dormitories with complimentary toilets, dining places, furniture, classrooms, teachers etc. Inadequate funding means feeding problems. The magic of providing three hot meals with GhC4.80 per day. Some of these were very predictable.

It is apparent that it is going to be extremely difficult to fund the programme this way for decades to come as a national policy. Even if the Gov’t can fund it from its current resources there is the need to consider other cheaper and more cost effective ways of implementing the policy in the long term. There is also a huge element of unfairness to the students in day schools and other inadequate schools. We all know that the well-endowed schools are all boarding therefore even if the gov’t can afford to fund it this will not guarantee equal opportunity to all as enshrined in the constitution of the republic.

In my opinion the final product of the policy that will be laying a solid ground for the future leaders of this country for decades to come must be fair, sustainable and with day to day involvement of parents. I believe the people of Ghana will certainly accept it when it is clearly fair to all by providing for ONLY FREE DAY SHS SCHOOLS. That is the trend all over the world now. Boarding schools as started by the colonial rulers were not solely to facilitate learning but also to ensure the students were British in thinking, in what they wear, eat, speak, etc. In the 21st century gov’t should not take this responsibility on itself.

Parents must be seeing their children daily and get involved in monitoring their progress in education, moulding their character linked to our culture instead of leaving it all to the teachers for most months of the year. State funding of boarding school education is not the practice in even the rich and developed countries. Our colonial masters the British themselves have long done away with it. We must be prepared to do things in a different way to find solutions to our problems as a country.

We cannot expect progress in education in a sustainable way if we are to continue doing what has brought us here. Providing infrastructure in more dormitories, more toilets, bigger dinning places etc is like standing in ants while removing those biting you. We may be solving the problems for this year but we surely will be visited by the same problems next year. This is because the numbers entering the SHS next year will be more than those that will leave. What shall we do then? Build more of the same? Gov’t may be planning to build more Day SHS schools. Great but the numbers are going up every year and we will still face challenges.

Also gov’t must not continue to discriminate in the distribution of national resources available by providing boarding to some and Day to others. We must find a permanent solution that will be sustainable for decades.

I will suggest that gov’t commits to provide only FREE DAY SHS FOR UNDER 18 year olds.

1. To implement FREE DAY SHS FOR UNDER 18’s there must be a legislation to ensure fully equipped free SHS will be provided within defined geographical areas in each district. This will bring in catchment area. People will go to schools situated in their area. Going outside the catchment area will need application to the district assembly which will decide the distance based on SHS facilities in the district. Where necessary such students may be allowed to be boarders in their area school. In my opinion there is no convincing reason for any urban state school to be boarding.

2. Point 1 above will immediately free up accommodation facilities which can be turned into more classrooms and workshops for teaching and learning and will go a long way in solving the infrastructural problems that exist currently. Gov’t will be able to achieve the Free SHS within the shortest possible time and cheaply for all students who complete JHS.

3. Some of the well-endowed schools could be turned into private fee paying, boarding or day for those who can and want to pay. The private sector could also be encouraged to invest more in the SHS system. There are organisations such as Old Students Unions, the missions, Charities etc that may want to come in to run such schools. This will provide opportunity for the rich to help reduce the pressure on the Gov’t. This will also ensure the much talked about quality to be in the system and serve as standard for gov’t schools. The poor will not be denied the opportunity to attend such schools. Star pupils could be sponsored by their District Assembly to study in such schools. This system exists in many countries. The Gov’t will have to ensure that its own schools are eventually brought up to standard, a situation which doesn’t exist now. The fact that some districts only record 15% passes at BECE supports this fact and that Gov’t must redouble its efforts to bring parity into the resources available to all the school in the country to ensure equal opportunities to all Ghanaian children. We can then talk about establishing regulatory inspections into schools.

4. Balancing vocational/ technical/ academic

The BECE was never intended to be terminal for any child. It was to be an attainment exam to find the strengths of the children so they follow the right path of vocational/ tech/ academic. Gov’ts from PNDC till now have not provided adequate and comparable resources for vocational and technical but instead have strengthened the academic which had existed before independence. Gov’ts have always gone the cheaper way of providing for classroom and text books all for the academic side.

Many of the children who are not strong in the academic subjects were supposed to go to the voc/tech school to continue for further 3yrs to train as hairdressers, welders, dancers, carpenters etc but combined with formal education to make them competitive in the modern world.

5. BECE ends at age 14/15. According to the UN they are still kids and must be in formal schooling or training till 16+years. In UK and several developed countries this is being pushed to 18. It is obvious that many of these children were being set up to fail in life for being in poor quality schools and also due to lack of access to SHS. The policy of using BECE passes in English and Maths as cutoff point for SHS is indefensible. Not all the skills people need to survive as adults require those subjects. More so they are being punished after they have been forced to attend poor quality JHS schools. We must remember they are kids at 15 years. What are they expected to do?

5. Expanding access will immediately require more teachers. The gov’t has indicated it plans to let the thousands of unemployed graduates teach. I would like to sound a note of caution here. Teaching at SHS level must not be based on just a degree but also clear demonstration of skills for teaching. Some of the well-endowed teacher training colleges and universities could be tasked to retrain the many unemployed graduates as teachers for the SHS schools. A special one year Post Graduate Cert. for Educ. (PGCE) could be run for these graduates with classroom mentoring system.

7. Gov’t can set time line for this process to be fully running in the last year of this parliament. I suggest that this plan of phasing out state funded boarding schools could be piloted in one district in each of the 10 regions in the first 3 years and if successful it could then be rolled out across the country in the 4th year of this parliament with all students having access to SHS education. I strongly believe it is cheaper, fair to all and will save the Gov’t money to provide resources for the voc/tech facilities and ensure the involvement of parents in the education and raising of their children and also ensure that that our children are competitive in the world.

Columnist: K.B Oppong
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