I am not sure I can work out which part of the Free SHS it is that seems to rile up some people quite so much. I don’t think there is any argument that we all agree that the shortest route to achieving our development goals is to get an educated workforce, an educated population.
Since independence, every government has tried to introduce measures that would bring about the realisation of this dream of an educated workforce.
We had the FCUBE, (Free, Compulsory, Universal, Basic Education) it was a good start but not what would take us to the Promised Land.
We needed to make secondary education universally available to achieve rapid development.
Unfortunately, the majority of parents couldn’t afford the cost of sending their children to secondary schools.
Let me list some of the interventions by past governments aimed at increasing equitable access and participation in secondary education:
- Free Secondary Education for students from the North
- Free Secondary Education for students of Northern extraction
- Feeding Grants
- Cocoa Board scholarships and bursaries
- Merit scholarships for secondary schools
- Hardship scholarships,
- Senior High School Subsidy,
And then, who would forget the Progressively Free Secondary Education programme?
All these interventions worked to some extent but the effect was slow and the majority of children did not gain access to secondary education.
It was obvious to anyone who cared to look that some dramatic intervention other than these programmes would do the trick.
Enter Free SHS.
We had an important thing to cook and we found an important pot in which to cook; if I might be allowed to make a literal translation of an Ewe proverb to make the point.
Free SHS at one go removed the main obstacle to the children getting secondary education and the numbers increased dramatically.
Okay, Free SHS was political, a programme that sought to do something so dramatic would necessarily be political, someone had to take a chance, someone had to put his or her neck out there and be ready to be crucified if it didn’t work.
And precisely because it was political, it meant that it was bound to attract criticism, disbelief and distrust.
If it worked, if at one go, the number of Ghanaian children with high school education was quadrupled and we could look forward to every child having a minimum qualification of a high School diploma, we could say the long-anticipated transformation of our society was finally happening.
The first reaction that greeted the policy said it was impossible, it cannot be done, it won’t happen and it was a deliberate fraudulent ploy, dreamt up by the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and its presidential candidate Akufo-Addo to deceive the Ghanaian public.
It might well be that the Free SHS, as envisaged, was too radical, too revolutionary for some to take in.
It might well be that the Free SHS posed a challenge to the comfortable existence that some had created for themselves.
It might well be that some people were frightened that a successful Free SHS would change the country as we know it and with it, a lot of unforeseen consequences.
It would not be easily admitted, but some people did not take kindly to what they saw as the posh schools they attended being “diluted and made available to everybody” (and for that, you can read the poor who went to Syto and not the fancy private primary and JHS schools they had attended).
When fees were being charged and paid in senior high schools, there was overcrowding, there was lack of critical school equipment, there were periodic demonstrations by students against the food served in the dining hall, there were dissatisfied teachers.
In other words, problems in senior high schools did not start with the introduction of the Free SHS; what is true is that never has there been so much money spent on education in Ghana.
All the interventions that had been brought throughout the years to help the poor have access to secondary education had routinely been subverted by well-connected people in society.
COCOBOD scholarships went to the children of senior civil servants and not the children of cocoa farmers.
Suddenly, every child could go to secondary school and the question of scholarships for needy students had disappeared.
So, some people were determined to oppose the Free SHS, come rain or shine.
Nobody imagined, of course, that the Free SHS would be an easy thing to pull off.
The financial implications of the scheme on the treasury were huge and the Minister of Finance always looked hauntingly anxious as more and more items were added to the list of things that would be absorbed in the Free part of the Free SHS.
What then constituted the sum of what the charges were that a child had to pay to be able to attend a secondary school?
1. General Stationery
2. Maintenance (vehicle and building)
3. First Aid
4. Sports Fees
5. Culture Fees
6. Sanitation Fees
7. Practicals Fees
9. Maintenance (machines and tools)
10. Furniture Maintenance
12. Examination Fees
13. Library Fees
14. Entertainment Fees
15. SRC Dues
16. Co-curricular Activities (clubs, cadet, etc.)
18. Development Levy
19. National Academic Completions
20. Laboratory Supply
21. Staff Motivation
22. House Dues
23. Technical training materials for TVET Students
• Feeding fee for Boarding Students
• One hot meal for Day Students
Translated into money, the SHS Boarding fees cost the taxpayer, GH¢1,088.20, SHS Day, GH¢543.10 , TVET Boarding, GH¢1,131.20, TVET Day, GH¢543.10
Just in case there are some who don’t know, I declare an interest. I was there at the making of Free SHS.
Maybe I even contributed to its evolution from an idea to the formulation of the policy, to selling it to the public and cheering on at the implementation. I am an interested party.
I have been reluctant to join in the public debate about the policy. I believe that like motherhood, Free SHS is innately a good thing, it speaks for itself and is robust enough to withstand whatever is thrown at it.
The size of the Free SHS budget is its biggest difficulty and for a country that is not awash with money, every time we are scraping around for money to do something, Free SHS comes into the frame as a monster that takes in far more money than we can afford.
The argument has been made that there are many parents who can pay for their children and such children should not be beneficiaries of Free SHS.
I am venturing into the Free SHS debate mostly because two of my favourite people have recently spoken on the subject.
The Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, and Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle have called for a review of the policy.
The Archbishop says some parents are reneging on their responsibility.
I shall be back to the subject next week, Insha Allah, as my dear friend Otanka Obetsebi Lamptey would have said.