SHS selection: getting it right

BY: Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng
Flashback: Some officials from the Free SHS Secretariat assisting parents with complaints during a visit to the centre in 2018. Picture: EDNA ADU-SERWAA
Flashback: Some officials from the Free SHS Secretariat assisting parents with complaints during a visit to the centre in 2018. Picture: EDNA ADU-SERWAA

Over the past three years that I have been working at the Ministry of Education (MoE), the placement in senior high schools (SHS) of junior high school (JHS) graduates has been the most trying of times each year.

Usually, the Black Star Square becomes a beehive of activity for anxious parents and guardians, seeking one relief or the other and at the ministry, it can be quite a challenge getting from the car park into one’s office, when one is besieged by people waving their children’s placement sheets in one’s face.

I have seen quite a few tears in my office shed by parents and candidates and it can be quite a distressing time for all involved.

Annual ritual

As students started selecting their SHSs (from yesterday, September 21 to October 31, 2020), I believe it is fair to ask what exactly the issue is that has turned school placement anxiety into an annual ritual for as long as one can remember.

Is the Computerised School Selection and Placement System (CSSPS) introduced 15 years ago to replace the manual method, by which some of us got into secondary school, fit for purpose? What exactly goes on in the mind of the computer that it can throw apparently unjust results by rejecting certain candidates with excellent grades while placing children with weaker grades, sometimes in the same schools?

Is there human manipulation of the system? Exactly how does the placement system work and what do parents, teachers and candidates need to know to guide the selection process?

From my experience, the principal cause of some of the issues we have had to deal with, over the past years, has been a lack of awareness of how the system works, which sometimes leads to decisions that could have been made otherwise.

How it works

The automatic placement under the CSSPS is the principal means by which placement is done and accounts for over 90 per cent of the placement process. The manual part is reserved for special schools and seminarians.

There is also a five per cent protocol slot allocated to schools for distribution among its stakeholders, such as the missions, traditional landowners, alumni, sports students and children of school staff, among others.

The automatic process is the process by which the CSSPS places students by merit into one of their chosen schools by ranking in descending order. This is run automatically without any manual intervention.

If the candidate’s aggregate falls within the merit of the programme chosen for their first choice, the CSSPS then checks the student’s preferred residential status for space and places him or her accordingly.

If the desired residential status is full, the CSSPS moves him or her to the second choice.

For instance, if a student with aggregate eight would otherwise get a place in School A, but has chosen the more competitive boarding option and space is full, because other candidates with a better aggregate have secured placement there, then the system will not place him or her on day status in that school because the day option was not the candidate’s choice.

The system will move to their second choice school to attempt to get both their programme and residential choice.

If unsuccessful, the system will proceed to their third choice and so on.

Where a school is oversubscribed for a particular programme by students with similar aggregates, a tie-breaking system is employed to determine the placement.

If 300 students with Aggregate Six are competing for Science in School A and there are only 120 science spaces available, the ranking will be done such that those with Nine Ones will gain admission, followed by those with Eight Ones and so on.

If there is still the need to break a tie, this will be done in descending order with respect to the raw scores obtained.

A further tie-breaking, where necessary, will then follow with respect to the core subjects: English, then Mathematics, then Integrated Science, then Social Studies.

Candidates who miss out on all their choices can still have the opportunity to select schools with vacancies available through the self-placement process, by following instructions on the relevant portal.

Points to note

All spaces in the schools are competitively filled, taking into consideration the available spaces in the school (ie. preferred residential status and programme of choice). Hence, qualified candidates are ranked from the highest score to the lowest and it will cut off when the spaces are exhausted. They are then moved to the next school of choice to compete for space there and the process continues further down the chain.

It is, therefore, possible for a candidate with a very good score to miss out on his or her first or even second choice, depending on the level of competition there.

Further, programmes selected and residential status may differ from one candidate to the other. Therefore, the competition for slots may differ.

For instance, in most cases, science is more competitive than other programmes and boarding is more competitive than day status.

It may sometimes be the case that a child with a weaker grade would get into a programme in a school ahead of others with stronger grades. In such instances, it is easy and understandable to cite corruption or manipulation.

But as stated earlier, there is protocol system that allocates five per cent of a school’s declared spaces to the school for its onward allocation to its stakeholders. It is therefore possible for a child to get in through protocol.

Also 30 per cent of spaces in the country’s 73 Category A schools have been reserved for candidates from public JHS (who are usually children from deprived backgrounds) to promote equity. As such, candidates from public basic schools across the country compete for the 30 per cent space. Hence, the competition for the 60 per cent is different from the competition for the 30 per cent.

Common assumptions/errors

One of the most common errors parents and guardians make is a failure to be actively involved in the school selection process of their children and wards and to literally outsource the process to teachers.

Parents are then left to carry the can when a child is placed in a school that is on the list of his or her choices, but which the parent disapproves of for whatever reason.

It is also common for candidates to assume they can choose a less competitive programme to get into a school they dearly want to go to and, then, when they secure placement, switch to the programme they really want.

A student may also deliberately choose the less competitive day option as their residential preference and then on admission, seek to change to boarding, claiming one reason or the other.

In both cases, the switch is impossible because the other programme or boarding facility would have been full in any case, having already ranked those who chose those programmes or the boarding option.

It is also wrong to assume the child will get his or her first choice school or at least second choice, and, therefore, not to pay much attention to the selection of the other choices, or to take them for granted.

Last year alone, a whopping 35,604 candidates applied for the 998 places at Ghana National College, Cape Coast (a Category B school), while Achimota School (a Category A school), saw 18,918 candidates applying for its 1,314 places.

The competition is fierce in the popular schools.

Sensitisation drive

In all of this, it is important to pay attention to the selection process, understand how placement works, ask questions, manage expectations and above all, think carefully through each choice of school, programme or residential status.

This week, the Ministry, Ghana Education Service (GES), the CSSPS Secretariat and the Free SHS Secretariat will be embarking on a public sensitisation drive through the media, having already sensitised school heads and other stakeholders in each region.

Hopefully, during placement this year, I can breeze from the car park to my office without having to confront and deal with parental distress. Parents, students and officials do not need all of that.

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