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Free SHS: Free Lunch?

Let me first start by telling you what I am not. I am not the naysayer, not the laggard, and definitely not the critic. All I am is a realist. The New Patriotic Party, the incumbent government, has recently launched the free SHS system to provide students who are beginning their first year in High School no cost in terms of their education, till they complete their High School education. This is an outstanding initiative and if it works out well, will mark a milestone in Ghana’s education system. Why do I still question it then?

First of all, what is the problem exactly? It may seem an easy question but really, it is not. Is it that High School is too expensive which is why many people don’t attend? Is that going to increase the 4% who manage to seep their way into colleges, only to face unemployment? Is the problem even with the number of people or the type of education they’re receiving?

One thing I believe must be made public is how much research was conducted with regards to this project or initiative and the people involved in the research. Indeed, it’s a bold step but then, knowing the kind of data that influenced the decision is much more important than fulfilling a campaign promise that may only die after a few years. What exactly are the trade-offs and how can we get excited about it without being scared?

According to data from the West African Examinations Council, 468,053 students wrote BECE this year. This number is one of the largest recorded so far and most of these students will take part in the free SHS scheme. An organization called Centre for National Affairs (CNA) estimated in 2012 that the cost of free SHS would be approximately, $250 million. We are in now in 2017 and that estimate may fall short of the expected outlay. The government has stated that it will use proceeds from natural resources to fund the initiative. Will that be enough or would taxes be increased as proposed by the Forum for Development?

How will the incumbent government make sure that even if it leaves power today, the initiative will still continue? How quickly will the schools receive the funds to ensure smooth operations? For example, funds for the feeding of students need to arrive in time, usually, before school reopens so school caterers can begin to prepare for the arrival of students. CHASS, the organization for the heads of senior high schools has complained several times about education funds not arriving on time. Is that expected to change? Did the government even use any data from the free school feeding program which started in 2005 to influence its decisions so that we do not plunge into the same dead ends as before? The availability of research information and such statistics will assure Ghanaians that this is actually safe and will even attract people to invest in it.

Now let’s talk about the tradeoffs, all these initiatives are nothing but incentives to lure more people into the classrooms because the people in government offices know the importance of education and why it is necessary for the transformation of a country. But there is the problem of students and parents seeing this as yet another free lunch. How do we intend to prevent it? They have to shift from seeing school as a place where their children are fed and taken care of to seeing it as a place which will bring a positive impact so that they can encourage their kids to study and work harder. And besides, they have to realize University education is still not free; and if they see schooling and education in this light, they can even start saving towards the college education of their children.

There are still so many unanswered questions pertaining to the Free SHS policy and the government needs to start answering some of these questions to ensure this exercise doesn’t become yet another failed opportunity.