Planning Averse, Politics Friendly!

Esther A. Armah

Free SHS. Focus of intense debate. Headline hitting news. Single track. Double track. Multi-track. The tracks are many. The truth is harder to elucidate. From former President John Dramani Mahama’s clarion call for wide-spread consultation to the ongoing just-hit-the-headlines-again concerns regarding tracking, to questions about infrastructure and finance, Free SHS, is under fire.

Everyone agrees a better educated nation is a healthier, more progressive, economically powerful and effective one. Senior High School, free and available to millions of Ghanaians who otherwise would have ended their education at JHS (Junior High School) serves nation building.

The issue is not the what, it is the how.

The focus of the ire is lack of planning and failure to implement effectively by fully comprehending the breadth of the issues and the depth of the challenges.

That seems fair.

The focus is the failure to more broadly consult with opposition political parties as well as the wider sectors of education specialists, academics, teachers’ unions, financial experts et al.

The list is long. It merits further scrutiny.

It is unlikely, given the wholly uncooperative nature and deep partisanship of our politics, that a winning political party would consult with its defeated opposition on a policy that is likely to be wildly popular with millions of Ghanaians – and may, in no small part, contribute to a potential second term. Post the bitter sting of defeat from the 2016 presidential election, it is reasonable that a suggestion for consultation with an opposition political party is unlikely. So, while Former President John Dramani Mahama’s call for consultation makes perfect organizational sense, it is a political lose-lose for the winning party.

That is one of the saddest elements of our highly party politicized policy engagement. It drowns genuine expertise under the back and forth of politicized perspective. The necessary vision required to most effectively implement a policy as wide-ranging and challenging as it is visionary and powerful, is lost in the swirling waters of party politics.

With Free SHS, the challenges were always going to be myriad. Free Senior High School Education means a changed world.

And changing worlds means changing minds which also means changing ways. That threesome holds particular challenges in our keep-it-as-it-is-even-though-it-is-broken way of thinking, doing and being here in Ghana.

There are important thoughtful critiques here.

However, as with all things government, we must combine contribution with criticism in order to be impactful citizens irrespective of our fields.

Our politics of engagement means holding implementation of policies fiercely close to party political chests. That passionate defense is understandable; however, it will never serve the best implementation, planning and execution of any policy. It simply cannot.

The necessity of stepping beyond partisanship for effective consultation leading to more thorough, solution-focused implementation is imperative.

Planning for Free SHS appears to have been minimal. Implementation has been varying degrees of mess, misunderstanding and misinformation.

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The calls and concerns have been many.

Some are understandably disregarded; but some require engagement, discussion and further exploration.

In February, this year when Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo spoke at the 108th Speech and Prize Giving Day of Wesley Girls High School in Cape Coast, she noted that parents and the state have dual crucial roles in ensuring the sustenance of the Free SHS programme.

True; and powerful.

Orientation for parents is a major part of this policy implementing role. Huge change requires a shifted mind-set. We are a nation that has a government-fixes-everything approach to every area of our lives, no matter how big or small. Our governance style is about patronage and servitude. That relationship must shift for an effective SHS policy to take flight.

Mindset is always the hardest to shift – but without it – education cannot flourish. Indeed, a fundamental element of education is to literally expand our minds, move our thinking and expand our vision of possibility for our worlds.

What role should parents have in this Free SHS implementation process? It is here where party politics must be abandoned for civic education and citizen engagement. Irrespective of whom the parents voted for, their children will be the beneficiaries of this policy. Orientation regarding this role is crucial. Did it happen? No. Can it still happen? It can. It should. It must.

Financially, free SHS would, of course, become a huge and expanding, moving infrastructure issue.

In September 2017, when the 55th Annual Conference of the Conference of Heads of Assisted Secondary Schools (CHASS), took place, their concern was the failure of funds to reach their accounts early enough to allow for crucial planning. Clearly, free SHS would expand the numbers of students at unforeseen – and, without early enough received funding, unprepared for rates – and the government’s failure to get funding to the schools earlier impacted their ability to plan. How is this being dealt with now?

When the government received $40m from the World Bank to support Free SHS, the Minister of Education announced it would be used to upgrade facilities in 75 senior high schools around the country. At the time, the specific focus was Community Day Schools. Fantastic!  But, important questions needed answers. What was the plan? Which schools were targeted? How is this upgrade progressing?  Where is this project now? What work has been done?

The Media has a role to play here too; as both watchdog and information portal for citizens. It is here where the Africanization or the Ghanafication of our media, matters. Implementing such a huge policy with so many varying elements requires an all-hands-and-skills-on-deck approach.

A call to action by the Media would serve implementation of this policy. These are the moments when the notion of the 4th Estate may need to bow to the needs of a developing nation.

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Regular press briefings with the Minister of Education and Ghana Education Service offering specifics on the plan and implementation of this policy would be fruitful. Of course, the fact that media houses are also owned by different party politicians means agendas flourish even when it would serve a nation building exercise if we were project focused and not party politics focused.

However, even that challenge should not prevent such regular briefings. It should not be left to the six monthly presidential media encounter check in, or the State of the Nation address where we get updates on such issues.

We need much, much more.

The mistrust and suspicion that surrounds party politics approach to genuine nation building policy must go. With it, we are doomed to pick up the pieces of failed policy when implementation becomes impossible and instead of expanded education, the result can end up a failed experiment or crumbling policy. Without it, the real possibility of engaging the myriad expertise from this soil can be transformative.

Which are we willing to choose?

How much does education mean to us? Does it mean more than our party politics? Does it mean more than our personal political gripes and issues? Does it mean more than the need to prove a president wrong and an opposition party right?

Are we willing to link arms and aims? Can we declare the need for a better educated populace by more effectively engaging the expertise to implement this Free SHS policy? Can we re-examine implementation right here and right now? Can we dispense with unhelpful party political bickering in favour of recognizing that education serves everyone? Can we create a working plan that recognizes that numbers matter, quality matters, change is crucial and challenge is inevitable?

Critique without contribution serves no-one. Quality education is created, built, sustained, developed and expanded. It is not magical. We must fight for it.

This Free SHS policy is part of a much bigger project of education for a nation.

Beyond the policy, lies the people. Policy can crumble; if the storms are not weathered and we fail to get equipped to face such storms. There are man-made storms that we could weather with a changed approach. That is what leadership is; a willingness to change direction when the path you have charted is not working.

Are we willing to change the direction if more effective implementation of Free SHS requires that?

Nothing broken cannot be fixed. Nothing worth saving cannot be saved.

We are our own saviours, we are our own fixers and we always have been.

We are the solution. We are also too often the problem. We get in our own way.

When it comes to Free SHS, which do we choose?

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