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Free SHS policy implementation; the President’s warning and the missing link

In 2003, I got the opportunity to teach in a junior high school in the central region. I was given the opportunity to represent my head teacher in most of the Ghana Education Service workshops and training programmes.

Most of these workshops gave me an understanding of how our school system is managed and run by the school administrator. One important observation I made was the fact that, most of the changes in the education system are communicated to us during some of these workshops. My understanding was that, these things are normally organized from the top to the bottom with the participating teachers tasked to share the knowledge acquired with their colleague teachers in their schools.

In many instances, we had no idea what the training was about and even though we gave the team of trainers the needed feedback, hardly did we see a change in the initial system we were introduced to. One such example is the change in the lesson notes preparation that was introduced in 2003.

Ghana practices the centralized system of curriculum development, if I am permitted to stretch this, I can say that most of our policies in the education sector also follow this trend. The strongest advantage of a centralized policy planning system is that, there is a high level of uniformity in the delivery of the set objectives which in turn makes the evaluation of the policy somehow easier as compared to a decentralized system.

The biggest problem of any policy developed using the centralized approach is the process of implementation. This is because, in the education sector, the policy maker is not the same as the implementation agency. For example, when there is a change in the curriculum, this is basically carried out by the experts at the Ministry of Education, Ghana Education Service and other stakeholders.

This is followed by a series of consultation and then a final document is produced. Then series of workshops are carried out across the length and breadth of the country for teachers. This is to get them abreast with the changes. These teachers who are the implementation agents are then supposed to go back to their various schools and implement what they have been exposed to; faithfully. This has been the practice in our educational sector over the years.

Curriculum experts are familiar with three types of implementation models: Fidelity, Mutual Adaptation and Enactment. Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, most policy makers will admonish the implementation agents to adopt the fidelity approach. This is because this approach bestows on the implementer the need to faithfully and loyally roll-out the new policy without making any serious modification to it.

When adopted, the fidelity approach enables the policy maker to evaluate the impact of the policy with ease. What the policy maker or the curriculum developer fails to understand is that, a person cannot give what he/she does not have and that the success of any policy implementation lies in the fact that the person implementing it can associate with the policy or is psychologically bonded to the policy. This forms the basis of what has come to be known as “Broad Consultation”. What “Broad Consultation” does is, it makes sure all those who matter (stakeholders) are in one way or the other given an opportunity to contribute to the development and refinement of the proposed policy.

This process now results in transforming the policy from being the idea of a government agency or a group of people to a generally accepted idea by the stakeholders especially those who are involved in the implementation process. It is therefore not surprising that, most curriculum experts and policy makers advocate for the Mutual Adaptation Model of Implementation. This is the situation where the implementer is given the flexibility to implement the policy in a way that is beneficial to all the interested parties in the process without altering the objectives of the programme.

The Free SHS policy was rolled-out in September 2017, the early period of the implementation process saw serious challenges mostly being espoused by the school managers. In fact, during that period, some head teachers who seem to have gone contrary to the directive from the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ghana Education Service (GES) were sanctioned. Allegations of extortions were leveled against nineteen (19) school heads out of which eleven (11) were slapped with sanctions by the Ghana Education Service.

Prior to the implementation of the Free SHS policy, the Minister of Education indicated that they had met the Conference of Heads of Assisted Senior High Schools (CHASS) on several occasions one of which was held in Kumasi. The essence of these meetings was to take the school managers through the Free SHS policy and have a wider consultation with the implementation agency.

However, the Minister and His Deputy have continuously cautioned heads of schools not to charge any fees under the Free SHS policy. This seem to have fallen on deaf ears. It was therefore not surprising that, on the 60th anniversary of Pope John Senior High School, the President of the Republic of Ghana had to issue the same warning to school managers who are still going contrary to the directive from the Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service.

The bone of contention is it is almost six (6) months into the implementation of the free SHS policy, the directives as to what should be done and what should not be done by school heads have been communicated to them on several platforms. In fact, those who initially went contrary to it were sanctioned. Why will other school heads continue to embark on a path that has been declared illegal by the MoE and the GES, to the point which has now necessitated the President to issue this warning all over again? My analysis of the issue points to two important elements. These are Consultation and Bureaucracy.

Just some few weeks ago, the Chief Justice, Her Ladyship Sophia Akuffo called for inclusive consultation to sustain Free SHS. She was speaking at the 108th Speech and Prize Giving Day of Wesley Girls’ High School in Cape Coast. She said, “it is imperative to engage with school managers in FRANK and OPEN DIALOGUE with the view to ensure the overall success of the policy” [Emphasis mine].

In my view, the first missing link to the perceived insubordination of the school heads is the lack of a frank and open dialogue between the Minister of Education, his deputy, the other government officials from the GES and the Heads of the senior high schools. A cursory monitoring of the media landscape will reveal to any objective person the combative approach which was employed by the policy makers against the heads who seem to have difficulties and therefore went contrary to the initial directives issued.

I am not a sociologist, I did sociology only at the first year in the university, but one thing which is clear to every individual is that, human beings by nature are resistant to change. Most people are by nature conservatives. Hence, any policy that seems to take the person from his/her comfort zone would face a level of resistance covertly or overtly. That is the more reason why, there should be broader consultation between the parties involved in an open and frank manner. This consultation should be devoid of vindictiveness or malice.

The Minister of Education and the deputy as well as the officials of the Ghana Education Service should embark on a regional consultative meeting with the school managers. This constant engagement will help to remind the school managers of their important role in the success of the programme and also serve as a feedback mechanism to the policy maker. The school managers should be allowed to freely express their opinions and present their challenges to the policy makers.

In doing this, the Ministry will gradually succeed in making the policy the “baby” of the various heads who holds the survival keys of the policy. The notion of “we” against “them” will be eradicated through these periodic inclusive consultations.

The second possible reason identified is the bureaucratic system that we have in this country. The school head is responsible for the day to day administration of the school. He is held accountable when anything goes wrong in the school. In advanced societies, any mishap in the school system can result in the termination of the appointment of the head and even the withdrawal of his/her teaching license.

A very responsible head teacher will not sit aloof when things are in disarray in his/her school. There is always the need for these school heads to innovate and quickly act. We are all witnesses to the numerous dilapidated school structures in the country. Most of these complaints have been channeled to the appropriate authorities but bureaucracy will not permit an urgent solution to the problem.

In most instances, it is either the media houses that bring this to the lime light for a Good Samaritan to assist or we all wait for a tragedy to happen before the authorities will act (the collapse of the classroom at Breman Jamra on my mind).

The problem is that, our Education system gives little or no discretion to the head teacher in the discharge of his duties pertaining to the collection of any fees in the advent of the Free SHS. The only leeway given him/her is through PTA, even with that, there is the need to get approval from the Ghana Education Service before any amount can be charged. This process can take months. In fact, the communication channel in the Education Service begins from the District/Municipal/Metropolitan Education Office to the Regional and then the GES headquarters.

The reply to such a letter follows the same trend. This implies that, in cases where an immediate solution to a compelling problem is needed, the school will still need to wait till approval is given before that particular problem can be solved. The best way to deal with this bureaucratic challenge is to set up a complaints unit at the Free SHS Secretariat only for school heads and provide rapid response to challenges channeled through that unit.

The success or failure of this policy even though depends largely on the political will of the government, lies with the school managers; the ultimate implementers of the policy. I sincerely think that, no school head will intentionally go out of his/her way to sabotage a policy that seeks to offer secondary education to all and sundry irrespective of your financial background. I believe the exigencies of the time makes some of them act in a way that might be misconstrued as being saboteurs. If we are able to constantly have an inclusive consultation with these school managers and eliminate the bureaucracy in the education sector, there will be a higher level of compliance from all actors in our policy implementation in the education sector.

Peter Partey Anti| The writer is an Education Economist, Researcher and Curriculum Expert and currently the Acting Executive Director, The Institute for Education Studies (IFEST), an educational policy think tank in Ghana.

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