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Touch not our Free SHS… (and do our children no harm)

BY: Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

The school which was started by the venerable Barrister Opoku Akyeampong was celebrating its 60th anniversary and Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was the Special Guest, not only as a son of the soil but as the President of the Republic. 

The President, as is his custom, went round and greeted the crowd, stopping to pay his respects to the chiefs, in their colourful kente at the opposite end from the podium. Past students from across the decades and generations were arrayed in the school’s cloth with the famous motto in evidence everywhere: semper primus – Always first. No one had suspected that this scene would be the setting for a famous first announcement.

The President himself delayed the momentous announcement for a while; paying tribute to the founder of the school and the many people who have turned it into one of the best schools in the country. (Personally, I believe it is the best but I must remain an impartial columnist!).

The President continued in an even tone dispensing with the necessary protocols of the occasion.

Then when he had settled into his famous rhythm and speech cadences, he dropped the bombshell. The free senior high school policy would start in September that year. At first there was stone silence, which lasted a few seconds; then the President repeated it, now an octave higher. Next came a gasp of disbelief around the field. Finally when the ovation came it was an uproarious applause, as they say in North Korea!

What shocked people into the initial momentary silence was the speed at which the President had moved into implementing his flagship programme. As was well known at home and abroad, Nana Akufo-Addo had been preoccupied throughout his political life, almost to the point of obsession, with the idea of providing free secondary school education to all Ghanaians who required it. It had been his major campaign theme in the 2012 election. He repeated it and won the next election in 2016.

The announcement that the policy would be implemented that year took parents, students, journalists and politicians by surprise. When they all recovered their breath, questions started flowing; the most prominent was whether the government had prepared sufficiently to implement the scheme. The opposition in Parliament asked for figures; journalists increased the rate of global warming with their questions. (Explanation: paper is made from trees and speech increases carbon dioxide!)

It appeared that most people expected the policy to come into play in the third of eve the fourth years of the government’s first term. The President had shown his resolve and commitment by bringing it forward within less than one year of taking office. It was a gamble.

Fast forward five years later. For most of my life I was unaware that cabinets (as in governments) went on retreats. Of course, one was aware that they met weekly and probably found some quiet spot for extended meetings and reflection. These would be so routine and mundane that I don’t suppose many citizens or even journalists marked it on their personal calendar.

However, this past weekend, even the proverbial man (or woman) from Mars would have known that the Cabinet of the Republic of Ghana was in Retreat. Parts of the media had built it into a do-or-die affair at which the fate of the nation would be decided. Some said the Cabinet would decide whether to abandon E-Levy or go to the IMF. The retreat gave rise to a new level of speculation beyond even our nation’s feverish imagination. Or, maybe not. As someone famously said: you and I were not there.

Shortly after the retreat ended, an official announcement, or one of several suggested that all government policies were on the table for review. This was fodder for the media and politicians, especially the opposition. None of the policies under “review” caused as much alarm or bemusement, depending on one’s persuasion, as the idea that the free SHS policy might be “reviewed”. The context of the consternation among supporters of the policy was that former President Mahama had promised to “review” the policy and this had been widely interpreted to mean abolish or modify in a major way.

Given that background, the Minister of Information, Mr Kojo Oppong Nkrumah quickly explained that the free SHS was not under review. However, by then, the idea had taken hold and given a new opportunity for the different shades of opinion on the matter to be aired.

One of the idea frequently canvassed is that while the idea is good, it should be changed to allow for those who can afford to pay fees for their children or wards to so. A more specific version is that the boarding school system must attract fees. Simply put, this idea is saying that the children of those who can afford should go to boarding schools or buy their dormitory places while those who can’t afford, known as poor people, must attend day schools.

It is a fact that in Ghana’s politics, poor people don’t have much of a voice apart from occasionally texting into a programme. As we know, even the texting has been monopolised by a phenomenon known as serial calling, which shuts the door to ordinary people’s voices being heard. So, those calling for a two-tier system are people who know they can afford the fees so keep their children in premium learning environments.

Given the structure and nature of Ghanaian society, means-testing, by which the government can determine those who can afford a service and those who can’t, will not work. Education is a right and not a privilege. It would be a suicidal mistake and an act of extreme callousness for the government to pander to the call of those who want to use the free SHS policy to build a two-tier educational system in an already stratified society.

Indeed, at a time when a number of situations has created a lot of gloom in the country (and the world), one of the few shining lights is the free SHS which has enabled hundreds of thousands of children who would otherwise not go beyond basic education, to see a brighter future.

This policy has already proved a success and that success is not abstract. It is in the changing lives of many people and their families. A few weeks ago, in this same column I told the story of a young lady who has been given a university scholarship by my friend Fred Labi and his wife. The couple met the young lady who was hawking fish with her mother and discovered that she had superb grades in her GCSE. She was the first person in her family to go beyond junior secondary school thanks to the free SHS policy.

The government ought to be proud of this achievement. To paraphrase the scripture in Chronicles 16:22, touch not our free SHS and do the children no harm!

The school which was started by the venerable Barrister Opoku Akyeampong was celebrating its 60th anniversary and Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was the Special Guest, not only as a son of the soil but as the President of the Republic.

The President, as is his custom, went round and greeted the crowd, stopping to pay his respects to the chiefs, in their colourful kente at the opposite end from the podium. Past students from across the decades and generations were arrayed in the school’s cloth with the famous motto in evidence everywhere: semper primus – Always first. No one had suspected that this scene would be the setting for a famous first announcement.

The President himself delayed the momentous announcement for a while; paying tribute to the founder of the school and the many people who have turned it into one of the best schools in the country. (Personally, I believe it is the best but I must remain an impartial columnist!). The President continued in an even tone dispensing with the necessary protocols of the occasion.

Then when he had settled into his famous rhythm and speech cadences, he dropped the bombshell. The free senior high school policy would start in September that year. At first there was stone silence, which lasted a few seconds; then the President repeated it, now an octave higher. Next came a gasp of disbelief around the field. Finally when the ovation came it was an uproarious applause, as they say in North Korea!
What shocked people into the initial momentary silence was the speed at which the President had moved into implementing his flagship programme. As was well known at home and abroad, Nana Akufo-Addo had been preoccupied throughout his political life, almost to the point of obsession, with the idea of providing free secondary school education to all Ghanaians who required it. It had been his major campaign theme in the 2012 election. He repeated it and won the next election in 2016.

The announcement that the policy would be implemented that year took parents, students, journalists and politicians by surprise. When they all recovered their breath, questions started flowing; the most prominent was whether the government had prepared sufficiently to implement the scheme. The opposition in Parliament asked for figures; journalists increased the rate of global warming with their questions. (Explanation: paper is made from trees and speech increases carbon dioxide!)

 

 

It appeared that most people expected the policy to come into play in the third of eve the fourth years of the government’s first term. The President had shown his resolve and commitment by bringing it forward within less than one year of taking office. It was a gamble.

Fast forward five years later. For most of my life I was unaware that cabinets (as in governments) went on retreats. Of course, one was aware that they met weekly and probably found some quiet spot for extended meetings and reflection. These would be so routine and mundane that

I don’t suppose many citizens or even journalists marked it on their personal calendar.

However, this past weekend, even the proverbial man (or woman) from Mars would have known that the Cabinet of the Republic of Ghana was in Retreat. Parts of the media had built it into a do-or-die affair at which the fate of the nation would be decided. Some said the Cabinet would decide whether to abandon E-Levy or go to the IMF. The retreat gave rise to a new level of speculation beyond even our nation’s feverish imagination. Or, maybe not. As someone famously said: you and I were not there.

Shortly after the retreat ended, an official announcement, or one of several suggested that all government policies were on the table for review. This was fodder for the media and politicians, especially the opposition. None of the policies under “review” caused as much alarm or bemusement, depending on one’s persuasion, as the idea that the free SHS policy might be “reviewed”. The context of the consternation among supporters of the policy was that former President Mahama had promised to “review” the policy and this had been widely interpreted to mean abolish or modify in a major way.

Given that background, the Minister of Information, Mr Kojo Oppong Nkrumah quickly explained that the free SHS was not under review. However, by then, the idea had taken hold and given a new opportunity for the different shades of opinion on the matter to be aired.

One of the idea frequently canvassed is that while the idea is good, it should be changed to allow for those who can afford to pay fees for their children or wards to so. A more specific version is that the boarding school system must attract fees. Simply put, this idea is saying that the children of those who can afford should go to boarding schools or buy their dormitory places while those who can’t afford, known as poor people, must attend day schools.

It is a fact that in Ghana’s politics, poor people don’t have much of a voice apart from occasionally texting into a programme. As we know, even the texting has been monopolised by a phenomenon known as serial calling, which shuts the door to ordinary people’s voices being heard. So, those calling for a two-tier system are people who know they can afford the fees so keep their children in premium learning environments.

Given the structure and nature of Ghanaian society, means-testing, by which the government can determine those who can afford a service and those who can’t, will not work. Education is a right and not a privilege. It would be a suicidal mistake and an act of extreme callousness for the government to pander to the call of those who want to use the free SHS policy to build a two-tier educational system in an already stratified society.

Indeed, at a time when a number of situations has created a lot of gloom in the country (and the world), one of the few shining lights is the free SHS which has enabled hundreds of thousands of children who would otherwise not go beyond basic education, to see a brighter future.

This policy has already proved a success and that success is not abstract. It is in the changing lives of many people and their families. A few weeks ago, in this same column I told the story of a young lady who has been given a university scholarship by my friend Fred Labi and his wife. The couple met the young lady who was hawking fish with her mother and discovered that she had superb grades in her GCSE. She was the first person in her family to go beyond junior secondary school thanks to the free SHS policy.

The government ought to be proud of this achievement. To paraphrase the scripture in Chronicles 16:22, touch not our free SHS and do the children no harm!