History oft holds society hostage to fortune. Subtly but subversive, nonetheless.  

A precedent turns into a routine, a refrain, and a refuge – at once, proximal, and convenient. It accumulates power, vested interests, expediency, and sheer lassitude to blunt the force of a reasoned argument. Or the dawn of a new order. The past conspires against the present – abetting, as it does, entrenched positions. Then inertia. Then must a change agent confront die-hard, settled preferences.

Public policy is by no means exempt from the power of the past. Sound economic analysis, or wise counsel alone may not be persuasive enough to dislodge the conventional wisdom. Or even a frothing folly. Paraphrased, an Akan proverb says that “a piece of advice rarely alters a person’s behavior for the better, but a harsh experience does.” 

Our experience, thus far, with a Free SHS (F-SHS) education, under a boarding system, attests to the power of precedence. History bequeathed to us a secondary school education that was predominantly based upon a boarding system.

Unsurprisingly, at the launch of F-SHS, we found it eminently logical to continue with the status quo. Herewith, a classic case of the intrusive power of the past upon the present. In particular, the method by which we implemented the policy was motivated by political expediency. Anciently, such has been our contrived temperament and predilection.    

A few years into implementing the F-SHS, we have learned a few important lessons – regarding logistics and sustainability. On one level, to accommodate the increased number of students, within our existing or mildly spruced-up school infrastructure, we have adopted a dual track school year. (In the 1980s, Professor O’Kwonjo, then at ISSER, recommended a similar arrangement for university education in Ghana.

He surmised that such an approach would enable us to sweat the assets of higher education. His ideas didn’t gain traction.) Under our current system, we may have achieved the desired throughput, but, perhaps, at an excruciating expense, a diminished quality of education. On another level, the huge financial burden that our national treasury must bear calls into question the long-term viability of the new policy.

It is about time we invoked the resuscitative wisdom of the Akan proverb, paraphrased above. It may yet rekindle confidence and restore hope in our seminal policy. When we commenced the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (F-CUBE) project, we didn’t require that parents and guardians enroll their wards in a boarding elementary school system. Taxpayer funded, and community centric, F-CUBE was predicated on a day school system. It has remained so ever since.

It must be noted that, until government had added immensely to classroom capacity, some pupils were used to walking ungodly distances to and from school. In the meantime, alongside the public funded F-CUBE, there have always existed a few privately-run boarding elementary schools. These schools don’t receive subvention from the state.

Our legacy boarding secondary school system takes its antecedents from our colonial period. Then a countably few children attended elementary school. Almost all other children remained unschooled in any formal way; they stayed illiterate over a lifetime. And from among the countably few students, fewer still ever proceeded to acquire a secondary school education.

Now, the European colonial power had settled along our coastal plains. From here, modern, formal education radiated inland – spreading, albeit, at a snail-pace. We had the barest of amenities in our towns, villages, cottages, and farmsteads. (The vast majority of our people were peasant farmers and fishermen, and petty traders.) Motorable roadways were patchy. Our railway infrastructure was severely limited in its range.

Also, in number and in proportion – a low national population, sparsely distributed across the country – we could make a case for a boarding secondary school system. Besides, though enrollees were a small number, secondary school education was only partially subsidized by the state. Parents and guardians made significant contributions towards the education of their wards. This evolutionary educational path was consequential. 

In the twenty-first century, however, our circumstances are substantially different from the colonial period, or the early days of our independence. Our population has increased from a mere 6 million in 1960 to over 30 million in 2020. Today, most of our children attend elementary school, junior high school, and senior high school. With the introduction of F-SHS, we have hit, unprecedentedly, the highest amplitude of second cycle education.

Meanwhile, since 1951, we have added to our capacity. We have built a secondary school infrastructure that covers the entire nation. We have trained huge numbers of educators – teachers and administrators alike. Additionally, amenities – such as potable, pipe-borne water, electricity, and telephone service have spread to nearly every corner of our country. Hitherto, these had been luxuries available to our city dwellers – inviting an accelerated rural-urban drift.  

A dense network of roadways and highways crisscross the country. (Plagued with disrepair, over several years, our railway network has played a diminished role. Even so, we are making efforts to restore and expand the range of this vital infrastructure.) Further, urbanization has been the hallmark of our post-independent nation. High population densities swarm our metropolitan areas.

But though our economy, too, has expanded manifold, there is the ever pressing need to address, expand, and improve upon our multi-pronged developmental needs. In the face of competing demands, while resources are scarce, we must evaluate the viability of an F-SHS, which we operate under a boarding system.

In the contemporary context, a day school system is a more sustainable proposition than a boarding school. It is obvious that the conditions that had, in an earlier period, justified a boarding system do not necessarily hold true in the 2020s. As an example, in the past sixty years, several clusters of densely populated metropolitan centers, as well as towns have sprung up across the nation. In such places, a day school system is a feasible proposition.

The existing boarding schools therein could be turned into day schools. A transition would require judicious logistical planning and management. Local authorities, say, would need to improve upon mass transit systems that would ferry students and educators to and from school during the school term. Students could spend after-school hours to do their homework at community libraries or at sports centers for intra-mural games before they return home.

A first order approach, though, maybe as follows: Based on the national census, we should implement a program where students attend high schools within the communities in which they reside. Current boarding schools within urban centers could be converted to day schools. Where the demographics dictate additional day school infrastructure, the state should add to it. Common resource centers – libraries and laboratories, computing, and media and sports facilities – could be built for a cluster of schools within defined radii.

Herewith a caveat that arises from an institutional legacy. History has endowed us with prestigious senior high schools, which are disproportionately located in a few coastal towns. (There is also a smattering of such schools in other parts of the country.) Cape Coast township, as an example, contains some of the most prestigious boarding secondary schools in Ghana. Further, the city has more senior high schools per capita than any other city of comparable size in Ghana. On this score, to advocate for students to attend schools within the communities they reside is to run into a palpable bottleneck.

In this regard, a couple of suggestions may be worth evaluating. On the one hand, we may designate several of the prestigious, legacy schools as STEM-centric educational institutions. (Those not so designated should be day schools.) The pedagogic approach to STEM-driven education revolves around experiential learning. This, in turn, requires a complex array of science laboratories, advanced computing resources, and media centers. On the other hand, we could turn a couple of these schools into conservatories. Here, too, experiential learning drives the need.  In both instances, the large investments required to operate the environment would call for accommodating students during the school term.

Furthermore, we could designate, at least, one senior high school as a STEM school or conservatory in each region. In this fashion, STEM schools would be spread from the coast to the northern regions of the nation, as well as east-west.

Guided by the national census data, a STEM school may have, say, no more than 300 students. Students should be selected from across the nation, on a meritocratic basis – through an annual, competitive national examination.

Admittedly, there may be justifiable exceptions to the day school system. There are large swarths of the country where our population is still thinly distributed. Economic upliftment in these communities has been sluggish. In the northern and upper regions, parts of the Accra Plains and Afram Plains extreme poverty lies in juxtaposition to low population density. In such locales, a boarding school arrangement would be in order. Based on census data, we could locate magnet boarding schools – comprising select, existing schools and ones yet to be constructed – to accommodate students living in sparsely populated places.

As part of the exercise, we should place a premium on the quality of educational outcomes. We should aim at deriving optimal economic and social benefit from our investment.

First, we should implement a project of this magnitude in a deliberate manner. We should execute the project, in phases, perhaps, over several years – due to its complexity, involving, among others, human, material, logistical and financial processes and management.  

Based on census data, we should define criteria for implementation and stick to the plan. The President, with Parliamentary approval, should earmark a portion of the GETFund proceeds to this project. Technically, Ghana Education Service (GES) could be the implementer. GES should be shielded from political interference of any kind.  

Second, the potential savings that might derive from implementing a hybrid (day and boarding) system, should be deployed purposefully. Among others, the following suggestions may be worth reviewing:

Improving the teacher’s remuneration: Cash and in-kind perquisites must engage the attention of policymakers. As a matter of national priority, we should focus on attracting the best and brightest graduates to teaching profession. Aptly motivated educators would be our bridge to a productive society of the future.

New pedagogic methods are constantly evolving. We should, therefore, invest in instructional and tutorial programs that lay emphasis on critical thinking, as opposed to rote, and regurgitative learning. This might be predicated on a smaller class size that fostered participatory and collaborative learning.

Equipping our schools with appropriate teaching and learning aids would enhance the educational outcomes. Advances in technology should assist instructors and their students to devise bespoke teaching arrangements to accommodate the unique needs of each student.

We should also leverage technology such that the internet, through a national broadband service and other such technologies, would be accessible to all educational institutions. This would present an equal opportunity learning experience for every child, irrespective of where they lived in the country.  Just as pupils used to be supplied with a black slate and white chalk, it is about time we delivered personal digital assistants (PDAs) – such as iPads – to our students. In a stroke, our students would have access to the vast range and depth of human knowledge that resides online. Equally importantly, PDAs, in a networked environment, might yet herald the era of a paperless school environment – an environmentally beneficial proposition.

In conclusion, the adoption of F-SHS is a bold and laudable public policy. But it would be worthwhile to liberate ourselves from tempting precedence, and tyranny of political expediency.

A day school system, with a few exceptions, should be our default preference. The scope and scale of transitioning from the present system call for a deliberate, de-politicized programme of implementation.

Savings that we would garner should be applied in a manner that enriches the quality of our second cycle education. We would yet have begun a virtuous cycle while fulfilling a putative national purpose.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.