The roll out of the Free SHS policy in September 2017 was bedeviled with a lot of challenges especially, the placement of students at various schools which they either did not select or were strictly day schools. Another challenge that have been flagged by most Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) is the cost implications of the policy as it progresses towards its second and third years. The Institute for Education Studies (IFEST) has been one of the vocal CSOs calling for a targeted approach rather than the wholesale implementation adopted by government.
It is an over-emphasized position when it comes to the role of education in our development trajectory. We are making these investments to boost the human resource of the country and as such no amount should go waste in our quest to undertake this course. However, economists are clear about the basic problem of economics which is scarcity. In an economy where wants exceed the means needed to satisfy these wants, one should not downplay the attitude of prudent allocation of the scarce resources to satisfy the entire populace. Therefore, calls for government to find ways and means to reduce the cost of implementing this policy should not be misconstrued as an anti-free SHS agenda as some might want us to believe. Two policy alternatives were proposed by IFEST in our engagement with policy makers.
- Targeted financing of education at the SHS level
- The Day School Model with Option to finance one’s own desire to be in a boarding school.
These two options are all targeted at trying to moderate the cost of implementing this policy and ensure the sustainability of the policy for a very long time. This is also informed by the fact that, over the years, there have been at least a 2% – 5% increment in the number of candidates who sit for BECE. Again, with the policy that BECE will be for placement instead of Certification and the current government’s policy to extend basic education to SHS 3, it will be correct to project that, soon, all candidates who sit for BECE will gain automatic admission to SHS and would have to enjoy the Free SHS policy.
In the advent of the policy, I made a point that, initially, the cost of accessing SHS was used to differentiate those who can enjoy boarding facilities from those who will be day students. The point of departure was the ability to pay, in other words, affordability. However, the introduction of Free SHS meant that, everybody automatically can access a boarding school or be a day student. That discretion is now in the hands of the government. According to the Ministry of Education, the cost for each boarder in 2017/18 academic year was around Ghc 1,104.27 and that of a day student, Ghc 748.47. These are for first years and this means that in the second year, the amount to be paid by each student, either a boarder or day student will reduce with the day student paying much less than the boarding student. For instance, in the 201/17 academic year, continuous day students paid Ghc 74 (GES Approved fees). In 2017/18, continuing day students paid between Ghc 110 to Ghc 200. The point is, the cost of being a day student is very low as compared to that of the boarder. The reasons are not farfetched.
According to the 2018 budget, a total of 353,053 students gained access to the various public SHSs in the country and therefore enjoyed the Free SHS policy. Out of that number, 239,431 were admitted into the boarding schools while 113,622 were admitted as day students. In the 2018 budget, an amount of Ghc 1.2 billion was allocated for the free SHS policy. An amount which is three times the initial Ghc 400 million budgeted for the policy in 2017. Recently, the Minister of Energy revealed that, it has allocated Ghc 453 million of the oil revenue to fund free SHS, an amount which is more than twice the amount used to support the policy in 2017 (Ghc 198 million). The fact is, more money will be needed as the proceed with the implementation of the policy.
A simple analysis of the number of students indicate that, the more we admit students into the boarding house, the more the cost of financing their free SHS increases. With a total of over 500,000 students sitting for BECE this year, it is imperative that the government take a second look at their model of implementing the free SHS and make the necessary adjustments to address the expected increase in the overall cost of the policy in its second year of implementation. It was therefore not surprising to me when the SHSs selection process was reviewed.
According to the Ghana Education Service, instead of the usual 4 options given to BECE candidates during the SHSs selection process, five different categories have been introduced. The categories are:
- A with 55 schools (termed as the oversubscribed schools, select only 1)
- B with 220 schools (select 2)
- C with 363 schools (select maximum 4)
- D with 580 schools (Day schools/Schools with Day option, *Compulsory select 1)
- E with 48 schools (strictly Technical/Vocational schools)
The new categories demand that, each BECE candidate should select compulsorily ONE school from category D except those who want to attend only Technical or Vocational schools. Thus, each BECE candidate is under compulsion to select a day school within his catchment area. By making this option compulsory, each BECE candidate has been given an opportunity to access a day school in his catchment area and the probability of being posted to these schools is high.
The essence of this is that, the incidence of posting students to day schools far away from their parents or guardians will be eliminated or reduced drastically. It also means that, there is a window of opportunity for government to increase the number of students to be classified as day students and reduce the number of students going to boarding schools. The cost implication of such a decision is good for the sustainability of the free SHS policy, thus as more and more students are pushed to the day stream, less amount of money will be spent on them as compared to an increase in the number of boarders.
The challenge for parents, however, will be that they might find their wards in day schools when ideally they would have wished that they were admitted to the boarding house. This will be the biggest challenge for the government when the school placement process is completed and released in August 2018. The question then is; why will government continue to determine the residential status of my ward when I can pay for the choice of residential status I desire? The government, in as much as it controls the delivery of education in Ghana should not be allowed to be a monopolist in determining the residential status of students. I will want to submit that, parents who can afford boarding school for their wards, should be allowed to finance the education of their wards in that respect. What we need to guard against is the tendency to deny our wards the kind of education we desire for them. Especially, in our system where there is a wide disparity in the delivery of education between the urban, sub-urban and rural areas.
Government may adopt option two of the policy directions given by IFEST but must be committed to implement it fully. That is, the Day School Model with Option to finance one’s own desire to be in a boarding school. The onus lies on parents who can afford to pay for their wards to push for an opportunity to do so. Wholesale implementation of the Free SHS is still not economically prudent for an economy like Ghana.
By Peter Partey Anti
The writer is an Education Economist, Researcher and Curriculum Expert. He is currently the Acting Executive Director, The Institute for Education Studies (IFEST), an educational policy think tank in Ghana.