Ghana’s support for new Free Education treaty crucial

Ghana has been at the forefront of Africa in providing free education to its children.


Now, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, there is a crucial role it could play in making free education a reality for more children around the world. Members of the United Nations (UN) are being asked to support a new initiative—led by Luxembourg, the Dominican Republic and Sierra Leone—to create an international treaty that would guarantee all children an explicit right to at least one year of free pre-primary education and free secondary education.

The first step towards free education in Ghana was the introduction of tuition-free elementary education for children ages six to 12 in 1952, less than a year after Ghana achieved self-governance, and at a time when fewer than half of children of similar ages around the world were enrolled in school.

Then in 1961, shortly following independence, President Kwame Nkrumah introduced fee-free compulsory education for primary and middle school (as it was then called), although the government struggled at first to find the necessary resources to deliver on the commitment.

In 2008, Ghana became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to expand free education to the kindergarten years, guaranteeing two years of free and compulsory pre-primary education.

Then in 2017, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo started the Free Senior High School programme. At the time, President Akufo-Addo observed that the cost of providing free education would “be cheaper than the cost of the alternative of an uneducated and unskilled workforce”.


The results of this steady expansion of free education have been astounding. According to the latest statistics, Ghana now has the third-highest enrolment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa in both pre-primary and secondary school.

One study found that among the students first eligible to benefit from free senior high school, there was an almost 15 percentage point increase in completing secondary school.

The United Nations Education Organisation recently rated Ghana as one of just seven lower-middle-income countries making “fast progress” on upper secondary completion.

This progress over the years translates into millions of people’s lives improved through increased knowledge, skills and opportunities. Only a few years before the introduction of free senior high school, Human Rights Watch had interviewed children working in Ghana’s gold mines, carrying heavy loads of ore just to earn the cost of secondary school admission.


The expansion of free education in Ghana has not been easy. It has necessitated difficult decisions to allow investment to develop and upgrade infrastructure, and improve teaching quality.

Indeed, there is still work to do, and UNICEF has noted that the government’s spending on education is now below global benchmarks, and is predicted to fall in real terms in the years ahead.

But even though expanding free education is not easy to achieve, it is pursued because, as Ghana’s constitution declares, equal educational opportunities are everyone’s right. 
“Leadership is about choices,” said President Akufo-Addo, “I have chosen to invest in the future of our youth and of our country.”

International human rights law currently enshrines the right to free primary education. But as Ghana has realised, primary education alone is insufficient to prepare children to thrive, and for societies to flourish.

Updating international law to reflect today’s realities, by way of a treaty explicitly guaranteeing all children free education from pre-primary through secondary school, would accelerate global progress and focus world attention on removing what Ghana’s own experience has shown to be one of the biggest barriers to education: the cost to families.

A proposal to begin drafting the new treaty is expected to be considered by the United Nation’s premier human rights body—the Human Rights Council—in June. Ghana is one of the Council’s 47 elected members who will get a say in that decision.

When Ghana campaigned for this three-year membership, it cited the country’s track record in promoting children’s rights and the success of the Free Senior High School policy. The government vowed to use its role on the Council to contribute to global development. Supporting a new treaty enshrining free education is a perfect opportunity for Ghana to highlight its accomplishments and deliver on its pledge.

Next week, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and Malawi will gather all African countries at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss this initiative. Ghana’s vociferous support at this meeting, and at the Human Rights Council in June, would be highly influential.

These international deliberations on strengthening the right to free education present an important opportunity for Ghana to share its experiences—the challenges and its remarkable successes—as inspiration for the rest of the world. And once again, to lead.

The writer is deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. @BedeOnKidRights


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