The framers of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana knew that access to education was critical for achieving the aspirations of the nation. They also understood that the financial standing of many parents and guardians could exclude them from providing education for their wards. Article 25 clause 1 A and B clearly state that (i) basic education shall be free, compulsory and available to all; (ii) secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational education, shall be made generally available and assessable to all, by every appropriate means, and in particular, by the progressive introduction of free education
Against this background, the Government of Ghana (GOG) in 1995 introduced the Free Compulsory Basic Education Programme (FCUBE). After the implementation of this policy, successive governments went on to provide some cushion to Senior High School (SHS) students in the three Northern Regions of Ghana in the form of scholarships and feeding grants. However, wholesale free SHS remained elusive for 24 years since the 1992 constitution came into effect.
Making SHS education free in Ghana was never going to be a simple task partly because there were considerable resource limitations. Arguments about the propriety as well as the readiness of the nation for such a policy were also rife. For this reason, implementing a policy for free SHS required political will, commitment and dynamism to deal with all fallouts because an ideal time for such a policy would be hard to come by.
The Free Senior High School Policy was launched in August, 2017. By free SHS, Government of Ghana absorbs tuition, admission, library, science centre, ICT, examination and utility fees, boarding and meals cost and provide core textbooks. The broad objectives of the policy are to remove cost barriers through the absorption of fees approved by the Ghana Education Service Council, expand physical school infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the expected increases in enrolment, improve quality through the provision of core textbooks and supplementary readers, teachers rationalization and deployment; improve equity through implementation of 30% of places in elite schools for students from public junior secondary schools, and prioritise and programme support and reform of Technical , Vocational, Educational Training (TVET) institutions at the senior high school level and facilitate skills acquisition.
Undoubtedly, there have been considerable challenges that have emerged since the implementation of the policy. The government of Ghana had to introduce double track system to accommodate the increase in enrolment in the short term. There have also been well documented challenges with logistics and timeliness in releasing funds to schools. Notwithstanding, the government of Ghana continues to show commitment to this policy by committing resources to address teething challenges. For example the government in the 2020 budget committed to the construction of 962 classroom blocks, dormitories and toilet facilities in senior high schools across the country.
At the beginning of 2020, a total of 1.2 million students had been enrolled under the Free SHS. It is without question that it will take a while before many benefits of this policy are felt. For example with more girls continuing in school there would be increased chances for desirable social outcomes such as reducing teenage pregnancy and its associated implications. The nation as a whole would benefit from having a critical number of people obtaining secondary school education in the long run as well. Moreover, there are several short term benefits of the Free SHS policy. For boarding school students who enrolled in the 2017/2018 academic year, their guardians will save a minimum of GH¢5,400.00 by the time they complete SHS. For day students, their guardians will save a minimum of GH¢1,200.00 by the time they complete SHS. These monies could be invested in various ways to make a lot of difference in the lives of many families in the country. Other people who hitherto had to support many people through SHS would be free to put their resources to other uses.
Of the 1.2 million students who are benefiting from Free SHS, there is bound to be a significant number who would not have had any opportunity to continue their education. Now they have a real chance to break the cycle of poverty because when they do well at the SHS level, they can enrol as nursing or teacher trainees and enjoy allowances which can help them obtain employable skills.
The Free SHS policy has had and continues to face some challenges. But there is no question that this a very important social intervention for which the benefits could be enjoyed by the nation, families and individuals for generations to come.