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‘Festina Lente’ on Free SHS!

BY: Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng
Logo for free SHS
Logo for free SHS

The Free Senior High School (SHS) policy has found its way back into the national conversation as public discussions have gone on over where to make some cuts in the wake of the economic challenges the nation is going through.

Of course, it is perfectly reasonable, in the wake of economic difficulties, to look for ways in which one can make savings. Individuals do it, and so do families and institutions, so it is only fair that calls are made for certain aspects of public spending to be looked at in the current circumstances.

While some calls have been made out of genuine concern, others have been steeped in partisan politicking, seeing an opportunity to berate a flagship programme of the government.

I must state that I find it quite amusing and rather ironic that in attempting to cushion citizens from the fallout of economic turbulence arising from rising prices, some believe that the cushion that the Free SHS provides in secondary education should be removed and parents made to bear the brunt.

Abolish boarding system?

Some have called for the abolition of the boarding house concept in our SHS, as a way of saving the taxpayer a lot of money, citing other countries’ systems.

But in a country where most of our good schools are sited in the big cities and towns, what this means, invariably, is that a bright child growing up in a remote area has to abandon any thoughts of accessing these schools.

Unless we are able to guarantee an Achimota or Opoku Ware or Welsey Girls in a fair spread across the country, I believe these calls are premature.

The accident of place of birth is no basis on which to formulate education policy. It is unconscionable that a child growing up in Cape Coast should be spoilt for choice over which school to attend as a day student when a child in Sefwi Bekwai has no such luxury.

In any event, it is important to note that under this government, it is now compulsory (under Category D on the selection forms) for each student to choose at least one school within 16 kilometres or 10 miles of his or her Junior High School (JHS) that he or she would be able to attend as a day student should he or she fail to get boarding space in the other school choices.

Not every child is being crammed into every boarding space imaginable.

The day-to-boarding ratio of admissions has over the years shifted considerably with the day component increasing yearly, and schools that had a full boarding policy now have to admit some of their students on day basis. Interestingly, many parents whose children are admitted as day students clamour for them to be admitted to the boarding house, claiming commuting costs and the difficulty of commuting time from home to school, in some cases with kids having to wake up at 4am just to get to school at 7am.

This is particularly the case for places such as Accra and Kumasi, with their maddening traffic situations.

A sudden uproot of the boarding system in its entirety without looking at the ecosystem, including a public affection for, or attachment to, the boarding system is a recipe for social discontent.

‘Rich should pay’

An interesting argument is that children from poorer families should be the ones enjoying Free SHS, while the rich pay.

I chuckle at this suggestion with the history of Cocoa Marketing Board (CMB) scholarships in mind.

A scholarship programme meant for the children of cocoa farmers, who were invariably based in the rural areas and were from disadvantaged backgrounds, was hijacked by the city-dwelling middle classes in the cities for their children through their network of influence, with the result that children who had never seen a cocoa pod in their lives benefitted from the scheme and those who were to benefit ended up on the sidelines.

Further, back in 2018, this government introduced an equity policy which guaranteed 30 per cent of spaces in Category A schools to children from public schools (who were invariably from disadvantaged backgrounds) to compete in.

It provided an affirmative action platform for such children to enable them to leapfrog into our top schools that invariably prepare the candidates for prestigious university programmes.

However, the evidence suggests that some parents have found a way to muscle into this space by taking their children out of their private schools and registering them in the public schools in Form One.

I am willing to bet that any policy that says only kids from low-income homes (to the extent that we have a robust means-testing system) can enjoy Free SHS will see near-universal enjoyment (and therefore back to ‘square one’) as many parents find clever, ingenious ways to muscle into the ‘no fees’ space.

Danger of ‘cut-off’ point

As for the argument that there should be an aggregate cut-off point to benefit from Free SHS, I shudder to think of the obvious consequences.

Simply put, it means Free SHS will only benefit kids who come from families that are able to send them to top private schools and arrange home tuition.

The kids whose families are too poor to offer them such luxuries and therefore may not get sterling grades will then be ‘punished’ further by denying them senior high school education that they cannot pay for in the first place. That is not an equitable society.

There is no denying that Free SHS is expensive. Of course it is. Equally, there is no denying that it has provided huge relief for many families across the country.

Ghana goes beyond Accra and other big cities. I believe, ardently, that the returns, in the long term, for this country’s investment in providing universal free secondary education for its young citizens will be borne out in the fullness of time.

There are several low-hanging fruits in this country’s public space that can be easily plucked in these economically difficult times.

There is no denying the fact that Free SHS is not a perfect system. But as my Latin tutor, the late Mr Acheampong, taught me four decades ago in Opoku Ware School, ‘festina lente’, which means ‘hasten slowly’.

Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng, E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.