COST VS. VALUE

Ghana 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: FREE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL

Ghana recently took steps to eliminate financial barriers to high school education, but at what cost to the value and quality of education?

In early September 2017, President Nana Akufo-Addo announced the launch of the Free Senior High School program, calling it a necessary investment in the nation's future workforce. Education at the secondary high school level is now free in Ghana, as students will have tuition, textbooks, meals, school uniforms, and other expenses fully covered. In order to do this, the country will spend an estimated GHS400 million for the new program in its first year, with the government expecting the annual cost to go down in subsequent years. With about 54% of the population being literate, the step seems a much-needed effort to increase literacy rates to at least 70%, considered by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana the standard to ensure real progress.

The policy received acclamation outside the country's border too. A day after its announcement, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission Thomas Kwesi Quartey commended the Ghanaian government for carrying out its free senior high school policy. He stated, “It was a sure way of ensuring growth of the country and Africa as a whole.” The take-off of the New Patriotic Party's (NPP) flagship education program in the Black Star indeed has the potential of pushing forward the AU's agenda of having every African child in school by 2020.
One of the main positive implications of free education is putting to an end the era where pupils dropped out from school and had their education cut short because of financial reasons. This has long been one of the major issues affecting the country. According to Ghana's Ministry of Education, led by Matthew Opoku Prempeh, as many as 100,000 students pass the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) each year, then drop out of high school because their families cannot afford it. Only 37% of students were enrolled in secondary education, with statistics further indicating that 19.5% of Ghanaians have never attended school, 44.6% did not complete Middle School Leaving Certificate (MSLC)/BECE, and only 20.9% completed MSLC/BECE.
However, freer does not necessarily mean better. The education sector in Ghana has recorded a number of strikes in recent times with various unions such as GNAT, NAGRAT, UTAG, POTAG, and TEWU taking turns to protest for better conditions.
Moreover, according to a UNESCO Institute for Statistics report, the current teacher-pupil ratio across secondary high schools is about 15:82. This current policy will most likely increase this ratio. Critics of the program argue more teaching and learning materials will be required to accompany increased enrollment and maintain education standards. To counter this unintended consequence, the government should build more and better equipped schools to match the high enrollment that this policy is likely to bring.
The future of Ghana to create jobs for the teaming youth rests squarely on technical, vocational, and agricultural education and training. Nonetheless, it is still uncertain where this training should hail from. As a matter of fact, most universities in Ghana supposed to professionally train teachers for secondary high school do not have any education-oriented programs. There are only two universities in Ghana, the University of Cape Coast and the University of Education, Winneba, which have professional programs for teachers. Other universities, both public and private, only equip future teachers with content but not the skills needed to teach. Finally, Free Senior High School has so far excluded private high schools from the picture. There is the risk of drastic reductions in private school enrollment, even though private schools augment capacity, making up for shortcomings in public supply of the education, Currently, there are 280 private second cycle institutions recognized by Ghana Education Service (GES) and West Africa Examination Council (WAEC), which collectively enroll about 50,000 students and provide employment for 10,000 teachers.
The availability and cost of education seems to be getting popular attention and improving, but knock-on effects still hold back the sector and Ghana's youth.