Why the strong political interest in Senior High School sector? 

Kwame Asamoah KWARTENG

…A Political Economy Analysis with Policy Recommendations

The Education sector in Ghana has been a key driver for the country’s economic and social development since the 1950s. The quest for politicians to improve quality and or access to education has led to various reforms that have contributed to either increasing or decreasing the access to and or quality of education in Ghana.

The government’s dependence on taxes and international donations as its main source of funding and the lack of accountability on the part of teachers has been identified as some of the key factors that have affected the successful implementation of almost all the educational reforms in Ghana. At the same time, the increasing competitive clientelist nature of Ghana’s democracy has created incentives for the two main political parties to tinker with pro-poor educational reforms aimed at bridging the growing gap in access to equitable education between Ghana’s northern and southern regions.

This article offers a three-tier analysis of Ghana’s pre-tertiary education sector, First, The fight for Power and Influence in the sector. Secondly, The Nexus between Multi-Party Democracy and the Senior High School Sector. Lastly, the policy implications will look at the windows of opportunity and policy recommendations created by the economic and political situation in Ghana.

The fight for Power and Influence in the sector

During the 1980s, Ghana faced one of its biggest economic crises due to the global oil crisis, which affected the country’s budgetary allocation to the education sector, which led to the emigration of trained teachers to Nigeria whose economy was booming due to the Oil price hikes and employment of unqualified teachers to fill their place, further worsened the quality of education. This led to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and The World Bank becoming strong actors in the educational sector with their Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), part of which ensured that the ruling government reduced expenditure on education (in providing free tuition) to sharing the cost of education with parents.

Transitioning from military rule to constitutional rule from 1992 till date, Ghana’s politics has been dominated by the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) with power changing hands democratically through elections mostly every eight years. Due to this, the dominant political parties try to reinforce visible pro-poor programmes and policies when voted into office. This enabled ruling parties to direct incentives and resources to support such programmes either in their strongholds to strengthen their electoral base or the stronghold of the main opposition to gain legitimacy through elections.

Again, politicians have recognised the strength of teachers as one of the most sensitive groups who must be consistently satisfied not just because they participated in electoral processes at the community level but also their huge population, hence the clientelist and benefit-seeking relationship between both. Teachers in Ghana can be argued to be motivated extrinsically. These have been very evident with how teacher unions have used strike actions to negotiate for increment in salary and other monetary benefits in most year since the 2000s, above the cost-of-living index, but do not use such influence and tactics i.e., strikes, to demand initiatives that improve the quality of education.

Another political interest lies in the fact that since 1987, there has been a gradual decentralisation of the education sector, where communities have been given the power to monitor and evaluate activities at the school level through School Management Committees (SMC) appointed by the communities, and at the District level by the District Educational Oversight. In practice, it has been argued by Ampratwum, et al., 2018 that in poorer communities, decentralisation policies get affected by the politics of influence at the local level where Local elites become brokers of decision making and use this to limit spaces for representation and participation of members of the community in the schools’ affairs. Again, it’s being identified that social contracts between the school and the community also affects the extent of community engagement as teachers increasingly feel more accountable to the traditional educational structure and not the community. Another key structure is the ideological stands of the dominant parties which sometimes differ in practice. This was very evident during the 2016 elections where the NPP which is a liberal-conservative party, promoted free SHS to all whiles the NDC, a social democrat party, kicked against it and argued that policies that enhance the quality of education were more important than policies that increased access to education.

Multi-Party Democracy, Economic Policies and the Senior High School (SHS) Sector

Since Ghana’s move to multi-party democracy, one of the sectors that have given politicians the incentives to directly influence it is the education sector. Currently, Ghana is part of the top spenders in education in Africa, exceeding the global average of 5% of GDP. But the surprising thing is how the pre-tertiary section has gained the attention of politicians in driving votes since the 2000s. Using the Structure Adjustment Plan (SAP) and Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) period in the 1980s as the backdrop, The IMF and World Bank became strongly influential and forced the government to revise its tuition-free basic education and share the cost with the Ghanaian populace. The government also went ahead to reduce the duration of Senior Secondary School (SSS) from 4 years to 3 years as a money-saving measure. These reforms gained impulsive resistance from parents and students. What made it worse was the unprecedented failure rates of the first batch of the 3-year SSS reform in the West African Examination Council’s results, which subjected the government to lots of criticisms from civil society organisation, parents and opposition politicians.

The NPP whose ideology appears centre-right, quickly agreed with the public outcry of the effects of the SAP on their incomes in an economy whose inflation had increased from 18% to 60% from 1991 to 1995.

They campaigned on a more populist stand to introduce free basic education and reverse the 3-year SSS to 4 years to give teachers ample time to cover all syllabus without rushing whiles students get enough time to prepare for their final exam, hence enhancing the quality of education.

This resonated with the urban electorates, contributing to the NPP’s electoral victory in 2000. The 4-year system which was implemented in 2007 with its first and second batch graduating in 2011 and 2012, achieved unprecedented pass rates by students in all the subjects and the percentage of qualified students to enter the university grew from 14.58% in 2010 to 26% and 31.19% in 2011 and 2012 respectively, validating the essence of the reform.

The NDC whose strong support has been with the rural population due to Rawlings’ direction of most of the ERP projects to rural areas, campaigned hard on the need to revert the Senior High School (SHS) duration to 3-years as it brought economic hardship to the non-elite and argued for the need for us to focus on solving the quality problem. The NDC reversed the SHS duration as campaigned within their first year, but as to whether they evaluated the performance of the existing 4-year reform, after winning the 2008 elections, still yet to be proved. The NDC’s 2008 Electoral victory was argued not to be as a result of their willingness to reverse NPP’s educational reform but rather the internal conflicts within the NPP.

A few months to the 2016 elections, as the NPP was pressing on with their free SHS campaign, the incumbent NDC government who already was struggling with the macroeconomic performance of the economy and high corruption “perception”, again went ahead to remove the teacher training allowance, leading to one of the reasons for their electoral loss and the win by the NPP. The NPP in the 2017/2018 academic year, implemented the free SHS policy starting with just first-year students, as a pro-poor strategy of encouraging equitable access to secondary school by all. relying mostly on revenue from the oil sector to fund it. This caused an enrolment to increase by 83.9% in its first year (Reported by Ghana News Agency 2017) with a predicted increase in enrolment by 30% in the 2018/2019 academic year (Calculated by Larnyoh, 2018). The challenge of inadequate funding and existing infrastructure to handle the increased enrolment became the main challenge within its first year of implementation.

So, the ruling government introduced the double-track system, which restructured the SHS from an annual trimester period to a semester period which allows SHS to run on two shifts within a year. This was to serve as a strategy to reduce the government’s financial exposure in implementing the free-SHS programme in the current SHS structure. This temporary measure also gained resistance from NAGRAT, as they felt it was going to put pressure on teachers, hence the need for government to suspend it and do a broader consultation with stakeholders before implementation. The government led by the Education Minister who has taken a centre stage with the implementation of the double-track system, responded to the call and commenced stakeholder consultation even though they implemented the double-track reform anyway (making it very performative, which is way off our hope for governments to rather engage in formulating evidence-based policies).

Policy Implications and Recommendations

The middle-Class elite who feared the loss of power and authority in dominating access to the best Government funded higher schools resisted this change, arguing that every country needed its “Ivy League Schools” and that it was going to affect the quality of education. Other stakeholders showed concern about the sustainability of the government’s funding of the programme.  The Ghana National Association of Private School (GNAPS) claimed that the introduction of the Free SHS has already collapsed 20 private schools. Parents who embraced this policy due to its free nature started complaining about heads of schools use of informal powers to extort money from them. The government through GES ensured the sacking and interdicting of some of the heads of schools that were found culprit, to demonstrate their political will to ensure that the policy succeeds.

The rise in enrolment rate under the free SHS programme has demonstrated the public’s acceptance of the policy even though the opposition NDC has been bold to indicate that they will review the reform when they were to come to power in 2020. Sustainable funding has always been a historic challenge in reform implementation and it’s no different with the Free SHS programme. The government’s call for voluntary funding to support the Free SHS programme has yielded good responses as high ranking ruling political elites committed to donating 10% of their salaries at the early stages towards it and corporate bodies also sending in some material donations.

This opens up an opportunity for the government of Ghana to come up with programmes that can actively promote the private sector’s involvement in contributing financially or materially toward the Free-SHS programme. Secondly, as raised by ESID (2017 & 2016), the low level of education in Ghana is not just the lack of infrastructure and training of teachers but also the lack of accountability on the part of teachers. There is an opportunity for the government to embark on reforms that reintegrate and empower informal governance from horizontal bodies like the School Management Committees, Parent Teachers Associations and Faith-Based Organisations to counterbalance the vertical institutions to ensure accountability at the community and district levels (ESID, 2017; Ampratwum, et al., 2018). This will reinforce the government’s decentralisation idea more strategically to ensure that the informal governance bodies take charge in holding teachers accountable for the quality of teaching, hence insulating politicians in power from the political patronage by the teacher unions. This I believe will reduce the incentives for a politician to politique with the sector, hence allow for long-term strategic plans to be implemented in the sector smoothly. The introduction of the National Teacher Licensure Exam is one of the steps towards improving the quality of teachers we put in schools. But that isn’t enough, as quality teaching isn’t just with a teacher who passed an exam. When we have distributed some of the powers to the horizontal bodies and lifted the political Dilemma from the shoulders of Politicians, we must then empower these horizontal bodies (Faith-based, Organisations, etc.) to implement evidence-based policies that encourage and ensure that teachers continuously innovate in their teaching, make it fit for purpose in our continuously changing environment towards making Ghanaian students and our education system as a whole locally useful and globally competitive.

The writer  is an International Development & Trade Analyst with a deep research interest in issues affecting smallholder cocoa farmers in Ghana. He has over 10 years of work experience within the Global Cocoa, I.C.T and Higher education sectors. Currently, he is the General Secretary, Executive Director and Board Chair at The University of Manchester Students Union, as well as a Governor at the University of Manchester Board of Governors, United Kingdom.

Twitter: @asamoahpeters

LinkedIn: Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng

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