Undoubtedly, it’s such a relief to have your ward enroll in school without paying fees.

The Free SHS programme made this possible and for this reason, it has been described as a game-changer. It has afforded thousands of Ghanaian youth, who under normal circumstances would not have had the opportunity to enroll in Senior High School, the chance to receive secondary education.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education website, in September 2017, the Ministry achieved a major milestone with the implementation of the Free Senior High School programme with 11% increase in enrolment, breaking records from previous years.

In addition, a new record was set in the 2017/2018 academic year with the highest enrolment ever seen in the country: over 470,000 students enrolled in senior high schools.

Personally, I know of persons who have benefitted from the policy including, Jeanette, my younger sister. That’s to say, the policy needs to be lauded. 

I remember Nana Adwoa, a neighbor recounting how her dream of enrolling in a tertiary institution will finally be realised because her family has been able to save money that would have been used to pay her SHS fees. Thanks to the free SHS policy.

Apart from that, when she gained admission into one of the leading tertiary institutions in the country, she feared she could not make it since two of her siblings had also completed Junior High School and were supposed to continue to Senior High School.

Thus, funds that were intended to support her tertiary education, were definitely going to be used to fund her younger siblings’ education. Then, free SHS saved the situation once again.

Clearly, there are many testimonies that can be attributed to the programme. Unfortunately, there are equally pertinent concerns that need to be addressed with regards to the policy to make it work even better.

The programme was rolled out with the aim of; removing cost barriers through the absorption of fees approved by the Ghana Education Service (GES) Council, expand physical school infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the expected increase in enrollment, improve quality through provision of core textbooks and supplementary readers, teacher rationalisation and deployment, improve equity through the implementation of 30% of places in elite schools for students from public JHS and finally, prioritise support and reform of TVET institutions at the SHS level to facilitate skills acquisition.

But four years after its implementation, the programme is bedeviled with various challenges.

Recent conversations about the programme sent chills down my spine. I’ve listened to parents, teachers, and students speak on Joy FM’s Super Morning Show, and I couldn’t help but sympathise with them.

During the Tuesday, May 25, 2021 edition of the programme, concerned parents, teachers, and even students made some damning revelations that were in stark contrast with the aforementioned objectives of the programme. For instance, students revealing that they have to sleep on the floors due to lack of bunk beds and others having to sit on broken furniture during classes. Another raised concern over congestion in dormitories due to the large numbers that have been enrolled despite the double-track system.

Parents shared the view that they preferred to pay fees for their wards for quality education, rather than have them continue under the free SHS in its current state.

But the Deputy Director-General for Quality and Access at the Ghana Education Service (GES), who also appeared on the Show admitted the challenges and gave the assurance that government is in the process of fixing them.

Despite the condemnation of the double track system by most of the callers, he stated that the arrangement saved 181, 993 children from not enrolling in SHS.

Nevertheless, Some parents contend that the double track system is financially draining. The explanation is that they are compelled to spend thousands of Ghana cedis on the services of private teachers for their wards during the long vacation periods associated with this system.

The quantity and quality of food was another challenge mentioned. According to students, the nature of food served to them is very appalling.

I was particularly saddened by a comment by one head teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity. He disclosed that 12 students share two tins of sardine during lunch. I was wondering how they are able to share the sardines among themselves.

I’m not here to bastardise the policy, neither am I here to dispute the fact that the free SHS policy is laudable. Far from that. But these concerns must be addressed if we indeed want to create a robust educational system for the country.

First off, there is a need to explore another source of funding apart government revenue and if allowing parents to pay the fees of their wards will undermine the policy, then, the government should consider setting up a fund to support the programme. It can be called the “free SHS trust fund” or something to that effect and parents who wish to support can channel resources through that fund. This will reduce the burden on head teachers who are contemplating closing down schools over unavailability of funds to run them due to delays in the release of funds from government.  

In addressing the food challenge, schools with urgent needs can beseech philanthropists for support. Donations of food items can be made by these philanthropists to schools. Furniture can also be donated to schools to complement government efforts.       

 Also, students can support by engaging in backyard farming. They can grow food crops to support whatever is available from the buffer stock company. This would prevent food shortage as well as starvation which can lead to lack of concentration in the classroom on the part of students.

Also, government must as quickly as possible abolish the double-track system. Ending the double-track system will eventually address uncertainties with reopening and closing dates. Although there have been assurances by the Education Minister (at a press brief on Sunday, June 6, 2021) that the system will be abolished in the next three to four years, there is a need to address the infrastructure challenges by building more schools to accommodate more students.

Government must also consider completing infrastructural projects started by previous governments. The current government must consider completing and using the E-blocks started under the erstwhile Mahama administration. This, in the long term, will address the issue of congestion in various Senior High Schools as well as create the needed space for more students to be enrolled.

I believe addressing these challenges will go a long way in creating a robust educational system as well as making the policy better.  Free SHS, is definitely too good to fail. Let’s make it work.

May God bless Ghana and make our nation great and strong.