Attacks on Free Senior High School are misguided

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Amos Safo is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.

“Such thinking makes me feel that some people see secondary education as a privilege and not a right. To such people, once they classify it as a privilege, no one can hold them responsible if children do not gain admission to secondary school. Such people prefer to see more children on the streets, so that they can manipulate them in future. Let’s all be mindful that the children we fail to help become responsible and economically-viable adults today will be the armed-robbers, prostitutes and suicide-bombers of tomorrow”  

Over the past two weeks, I have followed debates on the Free Senior Secondary School policy, its implementation and, significantly, the huge success of the first batch of Free SHS at West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in 2020. Surprisingly the commentary on the policy from prominent politicians has compelled me to write on the topic once more, with the conclusion that attacks on the policy are misguided.

Political game plan

Since the 2012 general elections when the Free SHS idea was put into the public domain, a group of people have stuck their necks out against it. The initial stance against the policy was that it wasn’t feasible and an outright scam (419). Despite this scepticism, the policy took off in September 2017 – though with teething-problems, as is usually the case with new policies. While attempts were made to resolve some of the teething-problems, the implementers were confronted with their biggest challenge yet.

This challenge was the unexpectedly huge demand for access to Free SHS. Several thousands of youth who had been marginalised and denied the right to secondary education had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enrol. In simple economic terms, the demand for secondary education suddenly became more than the supply (available vacancies). Government’s response was to introduce the double-track system. The double-track system is not new to educational management across the world. Even in the most advanced countries, double-track has been used and is still being used in response to needs of the time.

Success of double-track

In Ghana, the double-track ensured that thousands of children who would have been denied secondary education were absorbed into the ‘green’ and ‘gold’ tracks. Not only did the prudent intervention by the Ghana Education Service address the age-old discriminatory and exclusive cut-off point, it also addressed the letter and spirit of the 1992 Constitution – which enjoins the state to provide all children the necessary support to develop their full potentials.  In my opinion, the policy response was about access, over any other consideration.

Instead of simply hailing the intervention, detractors of the Free SHS – mostly of a certain political ideology – used the issue of inadequate infrastructure as a ruse to deny universal access to Free SHS. As petty as the infrastructure argument is, its proponents were/are simply refusing to accept the fact that exigencies of the time required the double-track intervention. I completely agree with the Ghana Education Service’s explanation that rather than allowing the infrastructure of all secondary schools across the country to be idle during vacations, the same infrastructure can be utilised in responding to the demand. What is wrong with this intervention? Of course, the teacher-motivation factor will never go away, since teachers are the driving force behind the success of educational policy. With the extra burden placed on their shoulders, teachers deserve better motivation to continue their great work.

Infrastructure gap

Using my case as an example, I had most my education in the north – from Buipe Primary to Tuna Primary to Damongo Middle School to Damongo Secondary School, and finally to Navrongo Secondary School for sixth form. At no point in my educational journey in the north did we have every infrastructure we needed as pupils and students. We sat on stems of trees cut to size for sitting; we shared tables most of the time, and we shared dormitories. The lack of infrastructure for schools is not the ideal state in a country full of huge potentials. All these happened when the north was supposed to be enjoying a free education policy.

Several decades down the line, schools in the north still lack basic infrastructure and teaching and learning materials. Would anyone dare suggest that due to lack of such amenities children should not go to school? The shift system in our secondary education has been in place since independence, and it is evident that since the days of Kwame Nkrumah successive governments have failed to fix the infrastructure deficit in all public Senior High Schools. Therefore, for anyone to suggest that suddenly government must address the infrastructure gap before all children can access secondary education is nothing but political sophistry.

Such thinking makes me feel that some people see secondary education as a privilege and not a right. To such people, once they classify it as a privilege, no one can hold them responsible if children do not gain admission to secondary school. Such people prefer to see more children on the streets, so that they can manipulate them in future. Let’s all be mindful that the children we fail to help become responsible and economically-viable adults today will be the armed-robbers, prostitutes and suicide-bombers of tomorrow.

As stated earlier, the Free Senior High School policy has caused a significant increase in enrolment – showing that without double-track, children from vulnerable and deprived families might not have had the opportunity of a secondary education. Even in the more advanced countries like the United Kingdom and United States, educational infrastructure is work in progress. I sojourned in the UK, Germany, Canada and the USA, to mention a few; where even as advanced as they are, educational development remains their number-one economic priority. These countries continue to invest in educational infrastructure year on year, while ensuring no child is left behind. So, as a poor and developing country, why are some of our leaders and the privileged few determined on limiting access to secondary education?  At what time can we say we now have enough infrastructure, so every child can go to school? How old will the children we have left behind be by the time we provide sufficient infrastructure for all children?

 The Prof. Naana Opoku-Agyeman conundrum

I had thought that after stepping into an uncharted political career, Prof. Naana Opoku-Agyeman would quietly return to academia and mind her business there. Unfortunately, two weeks ago she was repackaged to stage a comeback…albeit disastrously.  The 2020 vice presidential candidate of the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), in a media interview, condemned what she described as government’s defensive attitude toward implementation of the Free SHS policy. She claimed that government’s indifference toward the issues emerging from the educational sector will be detrimental for future generations and Ghana in general.

Prof. Opoku-Agyeman based her tirade on what she claimed to have heard from people. In fact, hearsay, rumour or speculation is not founded on any research; therefore, categorical statements made on the basis of hearsay are mostly unfounded. In my opinion, the most shocking comment of the learned professor was on results of the 2020 West Africa Secondary School Certificate examination.  Prof Opoku-Agyeman was widely quoted in the media as discrediting the excellent 2020 WASSCE results, thanks to the Free SHS policy. Prof Opoku-Agyeman cast doubt on how the students were able to pass the exams amid ineffective teaching and learning, and widespread leakage of exam papers.

“We heard of the leakage of the exams, we heard of invigilators being compromised, we heard many things, and we also saw the students come out and speak about ‘this is not what we were told would happen’; now these students have ‘A’s, and we are happy? It is up to us,” she lamented. Ordinarily, I would have expected the Prof to indicate how many parents or children she spoke to and what questions she asked them. The Prof. knows more than I that credibility mostly emanates from the methodology of data or information gathering. Sadly, the Prof. made these accusations without substantiating any.

What exactly does Prof. Naana Opoku-Agyeman stand for in life? That she expected our children to have failed the examination?  For these unguarded statements to have come from a former Minister of Education and former vice-presidential hopeful is unfortunate. If Ghanaians had decided otherwise in the 2020 elections, Prof. Opoku Agyeman would have been Ghana’s Vice-President.

Minister of Education responds

Quite expectedly, the current Minister of Education, Dr. Yaw Osei Adutwum, has responded maturely to Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang. Dr. Adutwum described Prof. Opoku-Agyemang’s comments as “unfortunate”. According to him, Prof. Opoku-Agyeman’s comments were calculated to demoralise the students and denigrate the West African Examination Council (WAEC), which conducted the exams across the sub-region. “The students did so well, and instead of commending them, you look at these young men and women and tell them that they cheated,” says Dr. Adutwum. In fact, the view of this writer is that by suggesting the WAEC tampered with the 2020 results, the learned professor tarnished Ghana’s image locally and internationally.

As a matter of fact, education suffered the worst reversals during the tenure of Prof. Opoku-Agyeman as minister – ranging from refusal to pay teachers their three-years accumulated salaries, the withdrawal of teacher-trainee allowance, to failing to provide common chalk and furniture for basic schools – including special schools. Besides the failure to provide inclusive education to children who qualified, using cut-off as an excuse is something that will continue to haunt her. The posture of Prof. Opoku-Agyeman and those who hold the same political orientation confirms the fear of many parents and caregivers: that a future government in which she plays a key role will abolish Free SHS.

As Dr. Adutwum pointed out: “Under her watch as Minister of Education in 2015, 23.9% of the students obtained ‘A’ to C6 in Maths. Amid COVID-19, under Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, these students courageously sat for the exam and obtained a score of 66.05%.  The least she can do is commend the hard-working teachers and heads of this nation who supported these students through thick or thin, because they did the impossible”.

Teachers deserve commendation

In fact, the over 92,000 teachers across the country who worked beyond the call of duty to prepare students to attain their excellent results deserve commendation not condemnation. Equally deserving of commendation are the students who stayed home for three months prior to returning to school during the height of COVID-19 fears to write the exams. Why is Prof. Opoku-Agyeman so incensed against such a great achievement in the secondary education sphere, despite obvious challenges? Perhaps if Prof. Opoku-Agyeman had a son or daughter as a candidate she would have appreciated the joy of many parents. She is simply not speaking for ordinary Ghanaian parents and their children.

As for the so-called vox populi by Joy FM, the least said about it the better. When people call into radio programmes and fail to properly identify themselves, it raises credibility and ethics issues. One issue that makes me question credibility of the alleged vox populi was the unsubstantiated comments made by a caller simply identified as Nana.

Nana claims she is a mother of two, who spends GH¢8,000 each term in providing extra classes for her son and daughter during the gold and green breaks. Indeed, if she can spend this amount on extra classes, she has no business sending her children to public schools. She should have sent her children to Achimota International School or Ghana International, or at best outside the country. Nana and others who hold such elitist views think their children have the right to better education, while other children should grow up on the streets. As we seek to build an inclusive Ghana, there is no room for such self-centred and retrogressive ideas.

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