Hastily introduced Free SHS – potentially challenges (Part1)

The Free SHS policy has formally been inaugurated and supposed to take off this month. However, there is a growing fear that the envisioned advantages may soon wane. The fear stems from many technical reasons including compromises on the quality of students. The introduction of the policy has been shrouded in debate of undermining quality education including government’s decision not to support students who repeat their class. The potential challenges the policy is likely to face are not just about the introduction and its implementation but other salient factors including funding and its sustainability should be probed. The introduction of the policy will eventually lead to increased pressure on government to expand access to SHS.

Government is going to offset the need for funds at that level. Previous experience indicates that capitation grants etc to offset these needs at the various levels of our education, for instance, were often insufficient, poorly delivered and inadequately targeted. The grants were usually lower than what was collected from parents , forcing them to more students with fewer resources. We must also consider the issue of inflation. Grants to our schools are not indexed to inflation.The grants lose significant value in real terms over time. Sierra Leone for instance, had to re-institute school fees because of grants payment delays. In Lesotho, headmasters and other stakeholders raised issues about inadequacy of per capita allocation per student. Abolishing school fees is a politically popular initiative. It is not a coincidence, therefore that the Free SHS policy was strongly trumpeted by the NPP in opposition. But the government and all stakeholders must learn lessons from what other countries are going through and about the possible pitfalls of hastily introduced free secondary education.

When launched his free secondary education in Kenya, he announced how the programme was going to be funded. He announced the release of Sh2.9 billion to get programme going out of this, he announced that each student will be allocated Sh 10,265 a year to cover for tuition and administrative costs. In 2007 when Uganda introduced it free universal education, the government announced it will provide Ushs 141,000 per student, spread over three school terms. The government also announced it will build at least one public secondary school in each sub- county this is because with the introduction of the fee free policy, the number of O-level candidates in the country rose from 172,000 in 2006 to almost 265,000 in 2010. Education at the various levels in Uganda is facing serious challenges including low standard something acknowledged in the latest Oversea’s Development institute report. Because the Uganda government hastily introduced the policy, it had to partner with about 640 private schools because of inadequate infrastructure- schools, classrooms, laboratories, libraries etc.

Apart from these challenges, the Ugandan system just like all other free other hastily introduced fee free education, is fraught with inadequate teaching space and materials, shortage of teachers, and inadequate and late disbursement of government fund. Academic performance standards are deteriorating, and education being universally free, students are just pushed through according to UNESCO’s latest report. This and other factors informed the last administration and previous administrations decision to adhere to progressively free policy as enshrined in our constitution. The free SHS was the major campaign message of the NPP in 2012. When discussing the policy, the issue about infrastructure cannot be sidelined. Between 2012 and 2016, about 70 new secondary schools were added to what the Mahama administration inherited, and facilities such as teaching materials, libraries etc were provided, the introduction of the students loan scheme increased enrollment in our training colleges. I am imagining how government would have handled the increase influx of students if the last administration had not concentrated on expanding infrastructure and other facilities in secondary schools.

UNESCO made recommendations to the Ugandan government to curb deterioration of education as a result of the hastily introduced fee free system which led to the introduction of a number of policy interventions in a bid to increase access to education. The introduction of the fee free education increased the number of school going children and students and demand for higher education. The Mahama administration envisioned this problem hence the progressively free approach. The Ugandan government’s white paper on education policy reform in 2005 – 2006, addressed enrollment imbalances etc. The Ugandan government has introduced Students’ loan scheme to increase access to higher education to ensure social equity. This was what the Mahama administration targeted with its introduction of the students’ loan scheme which was misinterpreted by his political opponents.

These envisioned problems the last administration carefully considered, should have proved excellent dress rehearsal for the introduction of the government’s free SHS. In Kenya, some 400,000 students entered secondary school in 2007 with the introduction of the its free education policy and the number rose by 200,000 the following year. Stakeholders and the Kenyan government estimated that at least 4,000 new classrooms, the equivalent of 250 schools were needed to accommodate the estimated 1.4 million pupils expected in public secondary schools during the 2008 academic year. The authorities in Kenya had to freeze recruitment of of teachers because of the extra pressure the fee free exerted on the country’s finances. Teachers complained about bad condition of service and large class enrollment which increased their workload.

It is unfortunate our educationists and other stakeholders have kept quiet over these pertinent issues. It is obvious that quality will be compromised, it is obvious the headmasters will encounter problem of inadequate and delays in funds disbursement, it is obvious condition of service of our teachers will be compromised. Between 2013-2015, the NPP partially suspended the free SHS policy campaign when stakeholders began exposing the possible challenges the problem bring. It went back to the policy when they realised their campaign messages were not receiving public support. You could see from how it rolls out the modalities that the party was not ready. In Kenya government announced it will pay about $130 per pupil annually, an amount that was to be allocated in lump sums at the start of each of the three school terms and was expected to cover tuition and administration costs, school maintenance and improvement of class activities.

Why is our government being economical with the facts? Why are we not being told how this huge policy is going to be funded and why the constant change in the modalities. What concrete measures have been put in place to check school heads who extract money from parents when government delays in disbursing grants to the schools. The former President John Mahama, looked beyond free secondary education but like many other renowned educationists, insisted on the ‘progressively free’ approach. Addressing students of the University of Cape Coast sometime ago, he assured the students that as Ghana’s GDP continues to grow and as we continue to make wealth, his government and party will make tertiary education progressively free so that they pay less fees. It was estimated that about 500,000 students were to benefit from the progressively free senior High School education and 120, 000 boarding students were earmarked for the programme. Can the new administration meet this target with the introduction of the free SHS?

The former President John Mahama raised touched on courses our schools offer vis-à-vis employment opportunities for our students which was recently corroborated by the current President Nana Akufo-Addo. I think our education must enrollment imbalance between the Science and humanities. Government must sponsor students studying subjects deemed critical to national development such as science and technology, law, performing art etc and reserve a percentage to address equity gap.

Source: Ohenenana Obonti Krow

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