The Free SHS: A need for a second look?

Free SHS Logo Free SHS is the flagship programme of the government of Ghana

Wed, 24 Oct 2018 Source: Henry Adobor

H. von Moltke a military strategist once wrote, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” Henry Mintzberg, a noted strategic thinker reminds us that there is a difference between what you intend, and what you realize. This is because what you realize is often a mixture of what you intend and how you adapt as circumstances change.

Most people will agree that this thinking is more reflective of reality. The gist of what both von Moltke and Mintzberg, both great strategic thinkers in their own right, are trying to say is that it is very hard to execute your plans exactly the way you intended and that strategy, in fact, may be better left as a broad vision. In fact, the best plans are those that remain flexible and change as events unfold during execution. More important, what you realize in the end is often a mix of what you intended and the changes you incorporated as your strategy execution unfolds.

Von Moltke, in fact, suggests that you can only plan the start of an operation not what happens after. This must be so because what happens in battle is often unpredictable, and all your best-laid plans may come to nothing once you encounter the enemy or the reality of the situation. The message is clear: be prepared to modify your plans as events unfold around you. Flexibility and adaptation, therefore, may be more important than a singular focus on executing your intended plans.

There is by now a trickle of voices of some concerned citizens (now in soft undertones, but these may soon reach a crescendo), calling for a review of the Free SHS policy. I am sure most of these people are not calling for a wholesale abolishing of this policy; I certainly am not for that; but simply want the government to revisit the idea, and make changes where needed.

I add my voice to those calling for a careful revisit of this policy. My message here is simple: the government should review the scope of the free SHS policy. I believe this policy was a bold initiative by the government. There is a lot that is positive about the program, but there are problem areas as well. We are going into the second year of this program and a review may now be in order so that we can make improvements where needed.

The program itself, by definition, Free SHS, is supposed to be free. I get that. At the same time, the economists among us would say nothing is free, there are always alternate costs associated even with free things and I get that too. However, my purposes presently are not to discuss the political economy of the program. I simply want to explore the fact that some parents should pay boarding fees for their children because they can afford to.

My position is that in its present form, the scope of the policy may simply be too wide, too costly and runs the risk of failing, not because the intentions behind it are not good, they are, but rather because the scope, logistics, and costs may prove to be simply too great. Among some of my key concerns are that the policy as it stands now helps both those whose can afford to help themselves and those who need help. I rather it helps those who need a hand, not everyone. It needs to help people, who without assistance cannot afford boarding school or SHS.

It should not help parents who are capable of extending a hand to their children. I think other people have made the same point. It is a great thing to want to help everyone, but some people do not need help. Let such people pay so we can focus on only those who really need help. I think those who need help are in the majority anyway and so there are still lots of people to be helped by this policy.

Reviewing your strategy is not an indication of its failure, and certainly not a sign of weakness. To the contrary, it demonstrates pragmatism, courage, and may ensure, in fact, that the outcomes you get are closer to those that were intended to start with. No one needs to fear that the policy will collapse because it is reviewed. To the contrary, a failure to review and amend parts when necessary may sow the seeds of its future failure.

Many people are by now familiar with the story of the sinking of the Titanic, a great ocean liner of its time. That tragedy is often used as an unfortunate example to illustrate the dangers of having blind faith in our plans or ideas. During its time, the Titanic was hailed as perhaps the greatest ship ever built. The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable and so when it hit an iceberg off the coast of Canada, it was reported that sister ships near the accident scene got SOS messages and ignored them because they believed it was a hoax. Remember, everyone believed the Titanic was a fortress that could not sink. Well, it sunk and thousands of souls were lost in that tragedy.

The tragic example of the Titanic has become a lesson of the dangers of having too much faith in anything. Our plans and strategies should not become like blinders on a horse. With blinders, the horse runs only in one direction. Blinders close our peripheral (side) vision from where we may get insight and knowledge to learn and change course when needed to avoid a headlong collision. The free SHS may be a great idea, put together by a team of people and needs now to be implemented by a large number of people. Therefore, any notion that it is inviolable or sacrosanct is wrong.

As it stands now, the government is paying fees for everyone, paying for food (using its own buffer stock) delivering this food (nonperishables) to schools, paying for beds and mattresses, books, and the list goes on. This is simply too much. I believe the scope of this massive undertaking is beyond the capabilities of any government, and this government is no exception. The logistics of this undertaking alone are massive and complex.

I think under the circumstances, the government has done a pretty good job so far. However, the headwinds may be gathering. Beyond the financial commitment, the program raises logistical and organizational issues as its exponential effects come due. In the following years, one can anticipate the number of students would increase. I suspect that at some level, the program has substituted a centralized, bureaucratic system for the autonomy and independence of schools across the country. That cannot be efficient. Take two key aspects of the program (double track and food purchasing and distribution) as an example.

I do not know if the double track system was rushed or whether it was always part of the plan. Be as it may, I think it was a good way to address the immediate problems of the huge number of students and so I admit that it is one example of altering an implementation plan, a good example of my overall message of changing course when need be. Dual track systems have both advantages and disadvantages. I think the obvious advantage is it will allow the system to accommodate a large number of students. That aside, there are some serious issues that need to be considered. First, the dual system will put a lot of pressure on school facilities. The dorms, cafeteria, and classrooms will be used almost all year round. There will be very little downtime to repair the facilities. The wear and tear will be high and we need to think about replacement costs and depreciation.

Second, I wonder how WAEC will schedule or reschedule exams for these tracks since not all students are ending at the same time. Third, what is the effect of this dual system on personnel? Either you hire additional teachers or you simply have to overwork teachers. If a dual stream of teachers are hired, will they be paid during the breaks? I suspect they would be, and that will only go to increase the cost of the program.

Finally, I am not sure if the system helps the student that may be struggling academically and cannot keep up with intense studies in a short burst. A much longer year affords such students an opportunity to catch up. There is clearly the need to design safety nets for the weaker students. For parents who cannot afford supplemental classes during the long breaks, we need to think of alternative activities for them to ensure that these young people are occupied with productive, not destructive things.

According to Alhaji Abdul-Wahab (reported on Ghanaweb 4/10/2018), The National Food Buffer Stock through the NAFCO has the mandate to supply food items to the schools. It is reported that there are currently 562 suppliers, with the Ashanti Region topping with 95, while the Eastern, Northern, Central and Brong Ahafo regions follow with 92, 70, 53 and 52, respectively. The Volta, Upper East, and Upper West regions have 49, 47 and 43, respectively, with the Western and Greater Accra regions concluding the list with 34 and 27 suppliers, respectively. These suppliers supply perishables foods so the NAFCO is supplying unperishable items.

There is something to be said for centralizing food purchases. Buying in large quantities often means you can ask for discounts and reduce cost. However, Bursars and Headmasters have always managed to source food locally since I was in secondary school. For example, all students in my school those days knew the woman who supplied the school with fish. Her own son was a student. Imagine her commitment to our welfare and safety when she made purchasing decisions.

Alhaji Abdul-Wahab was quoted as saying that officials of National Security had been deployed all over the country, along with its intelligence unit, to monitor and observe the implementation of purchasing arrangements. Imagine having the National Security checking on food purchasing. What a waste of executive time and the taxpayer’s money! The National Security would be put to better use dealing with corruption and cyber fraud.

Consider how food from a central depot is distributed. Is this done through contractors? How much does it cost to store the food in warehouses? What is the cost of spoilage? We just saw expired foods were donated by mistake. How do you monitor the logistics? Who does? I believe all these are simply too much for the government to take on.

Maybe we should simply go back to the highly decentralized system where Bursars and Matrons coordinated the buying and cooking. It is far better to let headmasters, bursars with the assistance of the matrons who know local conditions to select their vendors. Despite some problems, that system had worked pretty well in the past. Imagine the logistics of delivering food from the central buffers to schools in a 92,000 square mile country with some of the worst roads. I believe this sort of centralization simply breeds political patronage and bureaucracy, neither of which helps efficiency nor gives the government real value for its money. This certainly requires a second look.

In the past, there were several tiers of financial assistance to secondary school students: those who, based on academic performance, got scholarships, those who got bursaries, and some on CMB scholarships (children of cocoa farmers). My understanding is that a category of students got hardship awards in more recent times. I believe it is this last group of students who should be the primary beneficiaries of this free SHS. Mind you, if it is free for 55% of the students it is still a “free” program. The same criteria used to identify students classified as hardship ones can be used to identify students who should enjoy the largesse of this program. We must be careful not to create an impression that the government can be a perpetual benefactor to everyone. That sort of generosity is no longer possible even in some of the world’s richest countries.

There is a small, rising middle class in Ghana. I suspect one of the few growth sectors in the economy is education. From private daycares, kindergartens to universities. Some parents are paying an arm and leg for kids in daycare. I am sure some of these parents can easily afford to pay the boarding fees for their children when they get to SHS. The government must carefully think of a needs-based formula that can be used to identify the vulnerable amongst us, so we can help them. In my personal life, I apply a simple rule if someone asks me for help. I am not rich, far from it, but the little I can give, I make sure goes to only people I genuinely believe need help, even if it is one cedi. That is a simple, but a morally efficient rule for me.

Determining need, based on the income of parents, I admit, is harder in Ghana because there is no easy way to keep track of parental earnings. However, that has not prevented the schools from determining those in hardship. Those same yardsticks should be applied to the present situation. In a few cases, it would be very easy. For example, this program should not cover the parliamentarian or a Minister’s child. Perhaps we can graduate payment from low to high; some students pay half, others full boarding fees and the money can at least be used to maintain facilities at the schools.

Clearly, there is a lot of political capital riding on this. If I were the government, that will not be a consideration at all. After all, other governments had the opportunity to introduce such a policy if they wanted to and did not. Therefore, if the government is able to articulate why there is a need to revise the program there should be a loss of very little political capital. Any complaint that a revision is a sign of failure would be nothing more than the political noise that should be ignored. I think the good people of Ghana are more sophisticated than politicians give them credit for. Otherwise, we would not have had the changes of governments we witnessed in the last decade or so. The people would be able to see through any criticism that is based purely on settling partisan scores.

I suggest that the government set up a committee to look at the scope of the program as it stands now. This committee should sit for no more than 90 days and its mandate should be clear and explicit: examine the scope of this program and make recommendations for some changes. Justify each change and come up with some specifics. Someone from the Ministry of Education, not the government, should head this committee. The primary mandate of the committee should be to get input and make recommendations on the free SHS program.

Once recommendations are made, the government must clearly explain why there is a need to modify some aspects and how the modification would be rolled out. Am often amazed at the lack of ability to explain government positions. Take the rising fuel prices as an example. No one has been able to explain to people, in very simple language, how the price of a gallon of petrol is determined and why the prices go up now and then, or how much higher or lower the prices still are, compared to fuel prices in our neighboring countries. Government communicators must be able to speak the language of the ordinary person. Use a chart or black/whiteboard if you have to. Explain clearly what the costs of the Free SHS have been, what it would be 10 years from now, how many people you would still help even with changes and people will be fine with it.

The country needs proper basic healthcare; most roads are death traps, the quality of most of our public schools generally poor. In addition, we are faced with massive unemployment, low productivity, corruption to name but a few. This means the government has a lot on its plate in the face of very limited resources. Why should we saddle ourselves with this albatross? It simply does not make economic, social or moral sense. I am sure we all want to help the government to succeed and that includes the readiness of those who can afford it to pay something towards their kids’ education. Let the well-off pay so we can take care of the truly needy.

I consider myself a patriotic citizen, but a pragmatist. I believe deeply in the power of government to do good even if I have my doubts about the capabilities of governments to deliver on that promise. The President, I am sure, has good intentions and is committed to helping the country. There may be reasons to hesitate to change course for fear of losing political capital. However, this is where leadership becomes paramount. The greatest leaders are those who do the right things not because they are easy, or just to please their followers, but because they truly believe in the imperatives of doing what is right, always.

It took the President moral courage to introduce this policy at this time. I applaud him for that and history will certainly judge him kindly if this program succeeds. However, my hope is that the President and government would now muster an even greater courage to take a second look at the policy, particularly its scope, including its beneficiaries. I believe that history would be kinder to the President if he were to muster the courage to revisit the scope of the free SHS policy.

I remember the blacksmith at work in my village growing up. As young boys, we delighted in stoking (blowing) his fire for him. He often labored slowly, and painfully to hammer a piece of rough metal into shape, repeatedly, until he got a fine hoe. The lesson I learned, and one that should resonate with us here is that it takes effort, and retooling to forge steel.

Columnist: Henry Adobor