Elizabeth Ohene writes: Anything for a choice school
I have, like so many other people, been listening to and have now watched the Fourth Estate documentary titled School Placement for Sale. It has taken my mind back to how it all started.
I do so clearly remember the day we decided that something had to be done about the secondary school admission system.
It wasn’t the day a colonel of the Ghana Armed Forces broke down in tears in my office because after three days of trying everything he could, he was going home to face his daughter and his wife with the news that his daughter could not get a place at Wesley Girls High School. She had aggregate seven.
It wasn’t the day a taxi driver came to my office to tell me about his dream of getting his daughter into Achimota School. He was convinced that to be able to make a headway in any sphere of life in Ghana, you must be an old student of Achimota School.
He said: “As soon as my daughter was born, I made up my mind that when, one day, she walks into a room to be interviewed for a job, she will have a head start, because she would be an old Achimotan and as we all know, on every interviewing panel in this country, there is always an old Achimotan and my daughter, as someone who would have been to Achimota School, will get the job”.
He said he had saved money and he would “borrow more to pay all of you” and told me if he needed to commit murder to get his daughter into Achimota, he would.
These stories and many more were some of the harrowing experiences that the late Kwadwo Baah Wiredu as Minister and I as Minister of State walked into when President J.A. Kufuor sent us to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in early 2003.
They were not new stories but things were obviously getting out of hand when some survey, I don’t remember if it was an Afrobarometer survey, put the Ghana Education Service, GES, as the second most corrupt entity in the public perception, coming after the police.
We decided it was intolerable that the people who were in charge of running the country’s schools should have such a reputation.
Once we started looking, it did not take much to work out the source of the problem as the process of admission to secondary schools. One headmistress, we were told, specialised in VCRs, video cassette recorders, because that was what people gave her to get their children admitted into her school.
There was the famous school whose old students routinely bought an airline ticket for their headmistress, so she would travel out of the country during the admission session and avoid the stress of dealing with the public.
The situation was intolerable and something had to be done. Meetings and consultations started about how to find equitable mode of admissions.
There were many interested parties, the old students and traditional leaders being the most vociferous and most demanding. Hearing some of them, it appeared the entry into the circle of old students would end with them and unless a child could claim a great grand parent as an old student, he could not hope to enter any of the famous schools.
While the meetings were going on, the computer selection system was being developed and we were all agreed the best chance of success was to remove as much of the human interface as possible. I know, it sounds like Dr Bawumia explaining how to make ports and customs work and eliminate the corruption.
We were very much aware that introducing a computer placement system for school admissions would be dramatic and a shock to the system and never forgot that we were dealing with human beings, but we were convinced that the new system would deal fairly with the majority of people.
I remember the meeting in M Plaza hotel in Accra at which it was finally decided to take the plunge. The Prempeh College headmaster spoke and we decided if he, who was one of those at the cutting edge of the admission pressures was ready to accept the new system, there was no reason to keep hesitating.
It had taken almost three years of planning and consulting. J. A. Kufuor was now in his second term, Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu had changed places with Yaw Osafo-Maafo and was now at Finance and Yaw Osafo-Maafo was at Education.
We were lucky in the man we got as the Coordinator of the CSSPS (Computerised School Selection and Placement System), Mr A. A. Akuoku, I think he was a former headmaster of PRESEC. He knew his stuff.
Apart from knowing his stuff, Mr Akuoku exuded integrity and you just knew you could go to bed and feel safe with things under his control.
When the system came into operation in 2005, you could say we had a case of true transformation.
Drivers (my driver among them), cleaners, watchmen rushed to the ministry to find out if indeed their children had been placed in Mfantsipim or St Peter’s or Holy Child. Surely only children of big people went to such schools.
Not everyone was happy or pleased with the CSSPS, some people found it offensive that a computer would make placements without any consideration to personalities. Big chiefs and political office holders saw a hitherto source of power disappear overnight.
But the more protests we got from the big people, the more satisfaction we got from the unbounded joy of people like the woman who sold, and I think, lived in a kiosk in the Ministries area whose daughter was placed in Aburi. I will never forget the hug she gave us in the office.
Within two years, GES had disappeared from the list of corrupt institutions in surveys. Therefore, one could say the reason for starting the computer school placement system had been achieved.
Dare I say that the most persistent people who have tried to bastardise the computer placement system have been members of the top echelons of our society, big people, professors, the type of people who complain about corruption and things not working in the country.
They seem to think their children MUST attend these so-called grade A schools. They are not interested in the upgrading of more schools to expand the pool of Grade A schools. And yet, that is the only way. We can gradually create more grade A schools. Mamfe Wesley Girls is today a leading school especially for Science. Back in 2005, it wasn’t a sought-after school, today it is.
Who knows, in a few years’ time, the addition of a science lab, a few teachers bungalows will transform Abutia SecTech into a grade A school.
But please don’t let us push GES back onto the corruption league. Some things must be sacred.