Once again, the debate on the need to review free Senior High School has come to the front burner. Unfortunately, while independent minds present the case for the need to review the policy by allowing room for payments to be made by those who can afford, party fanatics continue to hold the policy as the best to have happened to this country in its current shape and form.
While it is important to recognize the value of education in the life of a nation, it is equally important to be informed greatly by the economic burden that wholesale free Senior High School place on the revenue basket of the country. While it is easy to attempt to score political points with interventions that rake in votes, we must wake up to the challenges that we may suffer as a nation to revive the same economy if we do not put prudence in the management of the public purse ahead of us.
We live in a country that has invested so much year-on-year in the production of research data by institutions such as the Statistical Service of Ghana, but we fail to utilize the results of those scientific engagements. We live in a country that continue to produce the Ghana Living Standards Survey (GLSS) which measures the annual income and expenditure of the population, and yet, we are not able to map this country properly to be able to identify those who have the ability to afford to pay school fees of their wards and those who require partial or total government support.
I should doubt if there are any people at all who are against Free Senior High School. At worst, those who criticise the policy are doing so on the form it has taken where there is no ‘discrimination’. Discrimination not in the sense of exclusion, but discrimination on the back of economic power and for that matter, that discrimination that is instituted by our social status mainly separated by income. How it makes sense for the son of a business mogul to gain admission into Legon Presbyterian Boys School and pay nothing while the son of a peasant farmer in New Edubiase equally gains admission and pays nothing, can only be a matter of concern.
We admit that the Free SHS in its form, has been able to open schools up for both the rich and the poor to have their wards in the same schools. However, that is not the work of Free SHS. At best, that is the work of the Computerized Placement System. That system was expected to place students based on their scores and or performance at the Basic level while turning a blind eye on their social status. That system is expected to provide the needed leverage for destinies to be changed for the rural destitute who has the mental capacity to go through education and possibly, change the fortunes of his or her family forever.
We must not therefore obfuscate the discussions and create the erroneous impression that by reviewing Free SHS in its current form to exclude a category of people, it means we are closing the opportunities to the poor from getting access to the best schools in the country.
Education is important, and we must also do everything possible to improve and maintain its standards. Stratification would lead to ensuring equitable distribution of the state resources to provide quality access to all, while ensuring that those in society who can afford, are not excluded from the payment list.
Today, as a consequence, we have been saddled with numerous challenges which, even if would have occurred, would not be occurring at this early stages of the policy. Today, out of the way government has handled headmasters and political actors who called for targeting of Free SHS, parents cannot be openly engaged by school authorities to support their wards at a time that government is unable to provide food for these school children.
As a nation, we must be awake to the valued importance of what the economists would point at us; scale of preference and opportunity cost. As a nation, we should be able to identify our preferences based on our national development policy. We should be able to identify our priorities and how much attention and resources needs to be allocated to those priorities. The effect of embarking on a policy which we were not able to cost, was completely unacceptable. We need also to appreciate the fact that when we make some policy choices, we come into the arena of opportunity cost which is defined as “the potential benefits that an individual, investor, or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another” (https://www.investopedia.com/terms/o/opportunitycost.asp). On the national stage, this represents the benefit a nation loses for making investments in one sector over the other.
The time has come, especially now that the nation is before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) discussing the need for a bailout, the time has come for us to engage in reasonable and nation-building discussions that would enable us salvage the country from its current economic doldrums.
A review of the free SHS in its current form means allowing access into boarding schools on two fronts: affordability, and lack of affordability. Education is paramount, we all agree. But, one does not need to be in a boarding house to be able to become effective at education. Especially, not in our current state as a nation that goes begging and borrowing even to the tune of USD12 million to attend to critical areas of our economy. We must make boarding schools a luxury and for that matter, those who choose boarding schools must be ready to pay for it. That way, government can use the school fees to support its educational activities.
In the second instance, where people who reside in areas outside communities where top class schools are located are able to gain admission into such schools, government must be able to provide scholarship to such students, and take up their cost of education to enable them have the benefit of higher education. In this case, there is targeting. This should not be difficult if we take our survey data as indicated above on the GLSS report serious. We would be able to identify households that may have produced brilliant students qualified for top senior high schools, but who may be needy and be supported by government. This is a better way of ensuring access to education for all. Here, the poor would have gotten access to a boarding school by virtue of their economic circumstances, while the rich also get access and pay by virtue also of their economic circumstances.
While at that, government can further decide to open Day Schools for free to all. Here, both the wards of the rich and the poor can have access to education at no cost. There requires nothing special in this regard. Where kids are admitted into either grades A, B, or C schools and they can afford to accommodate themselves, government should have no difficulty in making available its facilities for their education at no extra cost. These category of students do not use electricity, beds, water, and food. At worst, their use of electricity is limited to days when the weather requires them to turn on their lights in the classrooms as well as water for their washrooms. The chunk of resources are required to provide three square meals to these students, and in this case, that would have been taken care of.
Government can achieve even a higher result at a lower cost by ensuring to position community day schools near every major town to be able to lessen the burden further. Parents would naturally prefer their wards located in schools near their jurisdictions where they can visit them and engage with them. For this reason, the closer a better school is to the communities, the better. And at the Senior High School level, government schools have proven to be the best.
If these are adopted, government can channel attention and the rest of the resources into improving education at the basic schools where the private actors in the sector have proven more effective. In Ghana, private Junior High Schools have proven to have the capacity to produce better results as compared to government Junior High Schools. These privately trained students thereafter rush into the public Senior High Schools to obtain the best second cycle education. This can be reversed tremendously with the best efforts.
As we speak, caterers at the various basic schools are up in arms against government over the need to increase the daily allocation of Ghc0.96 to Ghc3 to enable them meet their cost. So far, there appears to be no end in sight in this battle. It is really challenging to imagine the worth of feeding a school child with Ghc0.96 per day in an economy like ours today. All these challenges are exacerbated by government for over-concentration at the second cycle level in the name of free SHS while the very foundation that must feed the second cycle institutions are overtaken with challenges. If we can save cost and cut down cost significantly at the Senior High level, we can redirect those investments into basic education to make the foundation stronger.
Food is one of the factors that has contributed to the refusal to attend school in rural communities. For this reason, the introduction of School Feeding was a welcome intervention. It kept many people in school and has proven to be an effective way of encouraging education at the rural areas. It is equally important to recognize that nutrition is one of the major concerns of international agencies including the United Nations, which declared a Decade of Action in 2016 (https://www.un.org/nutrition/about). This means that whatever we choose or decide to feed our children, must be that which would improve on their nutritional value. From images that we continue to see of food being fed our children at the basic schools, we can do better as a country.
What we require is to simply set our priorities right, set our budgets rights, and allocate resources to things that would build a prosperous nations beyond our quest for political benefits.