In 2017, precisely at the beginning of the 2017/18 academic year, the New Patriotic Party in a rush to fulfill one of the promises in their manifesto introduced the mass Free Senior High School (SHS) with an intake of 353,053 as reported in paragraph 621 of the 2018 Budget Statement and Economic Policy delivered in Parliament by the Minister of Finance on 15th November, 2017. At the end of the 2018/19 academic year and according to the former Minister of Education, when he appeared before the Select Committee on Education, the number of students had risen to 794,899 students for the two cohorts.
At the end of the 2019/20 academic year, and according to the 2021 Budget Statement and Economic Policy in paragraph 929, the total number of students for the three years stood at 1,200,580.
The above figures indicate that the numbers have increased over the years and this is in fulfilment of the provisions of Article 25(1)(b) of the 1992 constitution which states that, “Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means and in particular, by the progressive introduction of free education.”
It was in this direction that the NDC government under His Excellency John Dramani Mahama in 2015/16 introduced the Progressively Free Secondary Education programme with the admission of 320,488. This approach was to ensure that government takes steps to expand infrastructure and provide the necessary amenities with time, in order to forestall the challenges the implementation of the programme would have brought.
The mass introduction in the 2017/18 academic year therefore, in itself, is not a bad idea but its implementation was not well thought through and fell short of achieving the desired goals. Thus, the programme since its introduction has been plunged into chaos and glaring challenges that were foreseen by many other stakeholders. These challenges have largely hindered the provision of quality education as required by the Constitution and Sustainable Development Goal four.
These challenges include inadequate infrastructure among others. It remains the greatest challenge that the Free SHS policy has faced since its introduction. This was foreseen by the NDC government led by President John Dramani Mahama that the higher intakes would demand more infrastructure to meet the demands of classroom and dormitory space. It is in view of this that we began the building of 200 E-Block facilities as Community Senior High schools to ensure that access to secondary education is brought more closer to the people as the country.
By December, 2016 a number of school projects were on ongoing in over 400 senior high schools across the country. These projects had to stall due to the failure of the Nana Addo led NPP government to pay the contractors to complete work. Till date, many of these projects are at a standstill. It is also instructive to note that, the delayed payments have also eroded the gains of the contractors as some have become indebted to financial institutions.
It must also be noted that it is due to the infrastructure deficit in the educational sector, that led to the introduction of the obnoxious ”DOUBLE TRACK” system, for the first time in the history of secondary education in this country. The situation meant that schools had to run a shift system in order to deal with the infrastructure challenges.
The attendant challenges of the Double Track system are well known to us, which includes lesser commulative contact hours and moral issues. Currently, dormitory space is not enough as bunker-beds are made so close to each other making movement in the dormitories very difficult for students. In many schools, the bunker-beds are unavailable and forcing students in the boarding house to spread their mattresses on the floor. As for the status of the available beds in our schools, only Ghananian students can best describe it.
The classroom situation is not any better. Although, government in the 2021 Budget Statement and Economic Policy (paragraph 929) said a total of 1,119 infrastructure projects were initiated in Senior high schools since 2017, only about half (539) of these projects have been completed as well as 28 E-Block projects initiated by the John Mahama government under the Secondary Education Improvement Programme (SEIP). These 28 E-Block facilities were only completed because they had a Wold Bank financing agreement.
In 2018, Parliament approved a loan facility of 1.5 billion dollars for the payment of contractors owed by GETFUND towards the provision of new facilities for Senior High schools in the country. One would have asked why this money was not disbursed to pay contractors owed from years before the 2017 era as well as the contractors on the 1,119 projects in 2017.
The truth is that, the Minister of Finance has put a number of impediments in the way of GETFUND such that access to the facility has become very difficult. The Minister of Finance also appointed a Special Purpose Vehicle such that, all certificates due for payment and were duly vetted by the Technical and Accounts Units of GETFUND have to be vetted again by an audit firm solely appointed by the Minister, causing so much delay in the payment of over 800 million Ghana Cedis to contractors with the money being locked up with the Bank of Ghana. It is worrying to say that if nothing urgent is done regarding infrastructure challenges in our schools, we would be confronted with a bigger catastrophe in this era of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Every student who is a boarder is expected to be given three square meals daily, while day students are expected to receive an afternoon meal. Nonetheless, and sadly so, our investigations and observations have revealed that the food served our wards in the schools does not really meet the nutritional standards.
Years before the introduction of Free SHS, parents had to pay for the feeding of their wards and so, they had the opportunity through the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to demand that the right food was served in the schools especially, anytime there was an agitation from the students. Currently, both students and parents have been barred from questioning what type of food is served in our schools.
Further investigations also revealed that near-expired food items are dumped on the school authorities to be cooked and served to students in our schools. What is more troubling is that we are now under a certain jurisdiction where head of schools cannot complain for fear of intimidation.
A recent investigation also revealed how a supplier re-labelled imported tin fish and proceeded to supply it to the schools. While the inner cover showed that the tin fish was made in Indonesia, the outer label showed otherwise. The language on the inner was also not in English contrary to the regulations of the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA).
These happenings have forced parents to provide their wards with extra food items when they leave home for school to avoid the issue of malnutrition which in itself can affect the academic progression of these school children.
The release of funds to finance the implementation of the Free SHS policy has become a hurdle. The release of funds, though very meager, is unduly delayed by managers of the policy, such that purchase of perishables has become difficult for school authorities. The situation is making life and activities in our schools more troubling as school heads are unable to meet the huge demands that confront them.
What is more intriguing this year, is the reduction in funding for the Free SHS programme from about 2.4 billion Ghana Cedis to 1.9 billion Ghana Cedis in the preceding years and this is captured in the 2021 Budget Statement and Economic Policy. What is more interesting is that management of the programme has been transferred from the Jubilee House to the Ministry of Education; a situation very difficult to comprehend. As the number of students increases, funding must also rise and this can only be explained by the Jubilee House as to what accounted for the reduction. Unfortunately, officials of the Ministry of Education were unable to explain this when the appeared before the Select Committee on Education.
THE WAY FORWARD
The over centralization of the Free SHS programme at the centre has accounted for the persistent challenges in the running of Senior High Schools in the country. Before the introduction of the programme in 2017, school authorities were given free hands in the management of funds in their schools. Unfortunately, the centralization of the disbursement of funds and procurement have also led to a large scale of corruption that continues to compromise the quality and quantity of items supplied. In view of this, we believe that management of the Free SHS policy, disbursement and procurement must be decentralized with stringent monitoring mechanism to reduce the high rate of corruption in the system.
The Parent Teacher Association must be revamped and given the powers that used to be to enable them make positive inputs into the running of our schools. PTAs used to play very supportive roles in the development of Senior High Schools until the introduction of the Free SHS policy.
The infrastructure needs of the schools must be addressed as a matter of urgency so that the looming crisis can be averted. The crowded dormitories and classrooms have to be decongested to avoid the spread of infectious diseases in our schools and this must involve a committed effort on the part of government to address the infrastructure challenges.
GETFUND must also have access to the loan approved by parliament to enable them make payments to contractors toward the completion of stalled projects in our schools within the shortest possible time.
In conclusion, its our responsibility as a people that we demand from government that the necessary steps are taken not only to improve the living conditions of our children in schools across the country but also to ensure that our children gain access to quality education in the face of this good but poorly implemented policy of the Nana Addo led government.
MP, Akatsi North
Ranking Member on Education Committee of Parliament
Dr Clement Apaak,
Deputy Ranking Member