Another round of SHS placement heartaches
Two years after leaving the Ministry of Education, I would have preferred, as I have stated on this page a few times, to focus primarily on the energy sector in my writings.
But sometimes, certain things are hard to ignore because they are right in your face. So on yet another rare occasion, I am refusing to enjoy my ‘grave’, and I am resurrecting, much against the advice of our forebears and ancestors, before scuttling back.
Literally, as soon as the Senior High School (SHS) placement outcomes were released the other day, my mobile phone went into hyper mode, with calls from friends and acquaintances, including those I had not heard from in ages.
With such calls, as soon as the initial salutations were over, I would simply announce matter-of-factly, ‘this is about school placement’.
Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I would be right, and a chuckle on both sides would ease us into conversation.
Primarily, the complaints have been two-fold.
Either the child was placed in a school other then his or her first choice, which invariably was one of the top Category A schools, or the child was not placed at all because he or she could not be placed in any of the school selected earlier.
The desperate calls have been unceasing, and so has my helplessness.
The fact that I left the Ministry of Education a while ago is not lost on many and they do so admit readily but the belief is that I am still in the system and therefore can get a few things done here and there.
Social media rant
Many would probably be familiar with a lady whose annoyance that her child could not be placed in any of her schools of choice (which included Aburi Girls and Mfantseman Senior High Schools, according to her) despite her score of aggregate 35 at the BECE went viral on social media platforms.
She added, for extra measure, that her daughter wrote the examination ‘paaa…’ to the annoyance and irritation of many.
However, her irritation seemed to be the fact that someone else who had performed worse than her daughter got a school while her daughter did not.
That, in turn, is rooted in her failure to appreciate the likelihood that the other student chose far less endowed schools for her first to last choice as he or she was entitled to do, and hence was able to land a place in one of the schools.
She simply took two sets of facts and ran away with them without juxtaposing them in context.
There is no way the other person would have ended up in Wesley Girls as her first choice.
School choice is a complex business that must not be engaged in lightly.
The child’s strength and the competition in subscription to particular programmes in particular schools must always be the guiding factors in school selection, with the involvement of the child’s teachers.
Several parents I spoke to, whose children failed to get any of their choices, could not understand why this was so, especially if the child scored say, aggregate 16 or 18, which is not a catastrophic score in itself even though it is hardly a stellar achievement.
Could they not at least have had their third choice?
If one’s grades are not particularly strong and yet one has chosen schools and programmes that are particularly competitive in their respective categories, one is likely to be bounced down along the line from first choice school and end up being thrown completely out of the range of selection.
What this means is that a child with 18 who chooses science, the most competitive programme, in competitive schools, could end up not being placed in any of his of her schools of choice, whereas another with say, 25, who chooses say Visual Art, which is less competitive, in Category C schools throughout.
When one is thus unsuccessful, the system will not attempt to place a candidate arbitrarily, but rather would direct them to a self-placement portal, which acts as a sort of clearing house where available schools and programmes with spaces available are displayed for the student to select from.
Understandably, these would not be the top schools as they would have already been full.
When I get asked when the authorities would ever get school placement right without parents going through what appears to be an annual ritual of disappointments and frustration, I point to some unique facts about our educational landscape especially in the SHS system, along with parental expectations and sometimes poor selection strategies.
If one is asked to name the top 20 or so SHSs in the country, certain schools, including my beloved Opoku Ware School, will definitely make the cut.
Understandably, there is a high demand for spaces in these schools for three primary reasons – academic record, discipline and the prospects of future networking opportunities through the ‘old boy’ and ‘old girl’ system.
These schools have built their brands over several decades and many reasonable parents fight tooth and nail to get their wards into them.
Many of those who miss out on their Category A first choice schools and get placed in very good Category B schools, such as, Ghana National College, which they selected as second choice, still see to move to their first choice school.
Add to this mix, the bragging rights that success in competitions such as National Science and Maths Quiz (NSMQ) or regional sporting tournaments bring as well as our particular obsession with and passion for the SHSs we attended, and you would understand why many children dream of certain schools and their parents invest heavily in preparing them for the BECE with the expectation that they would make it into those schools.
With space being limited, inevitably it is impossible for these sought-after schools to be able to accept every student.
For instance, a few years ago, while Achimota School had spaces for 1,250 Form One students, a total of over 19,000 BECE candidates applied to the school, Ghana National College had over 22,000 subscriptions for a similar number of spaces.
Even with these spaces, many parents and alumni complain that our top schools are overcrowded and that this impacts academic work and discipline.
The Double Track system, introduced in 2018 under Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh as Education Minister, enabled schools to enrol extra numbers to the top schools with the same facilities.
At Opoku Ware School, for instance, our normal intake pre-Double Track 1,100 per year.
This jumped to about 2000 per year in 2018, meaning 800 more students were able to access an Opoku Ware education which they otherwise would not have attained. Of course, the system was not meant to be permanent, and in any case suffered a lot of negative press.
I do not know, nor do I pretend do know, how we can manage admissions particularly into our top schools to avoid the annual heartaches. Interestingly, there are enough spaces in schools to absorb every BECE candidate.
The challenge is the gravitation towards particular schools, underscored by candidates’ right of choice.
Improving less endowed schools is a worthy idea but building a brand to match these schools takes years.
In the circumstances I can only wish parents and guardians well this year and beyond.
Head, Communications & Public Affairs Unit,
Ministry of Energy,