President Mahama dropped a bombshell in his State of the Nation Address last week by promising a “progressive” introduction of free secondary education next year.
He indicated that fees for day students will be abolished at an estimated cost of GH¢71 million in the 2015/2016 academic year, and other reliefs will follow.
The academic year begins in September. Effectively that means free SHS in whatever form will begin in September 2015 with its impact felt in 2016, an election year.
In this article I will focus on the politics of free SHS. In a subsequent article, I will examine the substance of the policy.
THE NDC NEVER PROMISED FREE SHS
Since the President’s address, the debate and political football over free SHS has assumed fever pitch. This time around the argument is not about the substance of the proposal. It is rather about President Mahama and the NDC having stolen Nana Akuffo Addo and the NPP’s flagship campaign pledge.
Free SHS was discredited and described as premature by then candidate Mahama and the NDC during the 2012 election campaign. The President and the NDC is now on the defensive to justify to Ghanaians why his government wants to introduce a policy they vigorously condemned barely fifteen months ago. The President says nobody has a copyright over free SHS, and that the policy is in consonance with the constitution of Ghana.
NDC General Secretary, Asiedu Nketiah, has also organized a press conference to say that free SHS was part of the NDC 2012 manifesto. The difference, he says, is that whilst NPP proposed promised wholesale free SHS, NDC proposed “progressive” free SHS.
The NDC’s proposals on Senior High School education in its election 2012 manifesto (page 17) are summarized as follows.
Construct two hundred (200) new Community Day Senior High Schools
Provide capitation grant to all students in the new Community Day Senior High Schools
Increase the subsidies currently paid to existing secondary schools to reduce the burden on parents
Aggressively expand infrastructure including classrooms, dormitories, laboratories and teachers accommodation in existing secondary schools
Continue the rehabilitation of Science Resource Centres
Strengthen the Computer School Selection and Placement System (CSSPS)
Provide facilities for students with disability.
The closest any of the above pledges comes to free SHS is the provision of capitation grants and increase of subsidies.
After fourteen months in office, President Mahama has made very little progress towards the attainment of the above pledges. In some areas like CSSPS there appears to be a retrogression given the anomalies that have bedeviled the system, stories told by parents and allegations of corruption.
So why did the President decide to hang the albatross of the seven letter phrase “free SHS” around his and the NDC’s neck? Did the President thoroughly discuss his policy with the NDC (at least at the level of the national executive and parliamentary caucus) before his announcement? Or he developed the proposal with his close circle of advisors in Flagstaff House without any consultation with the party on whose ticket he ran for office?
If this announcement was informed by politics and propaganda, it was a wrong move. It has misfired and will haunt the President and the NDC until 2016. The few radio and social media discussions I have monitored indicates that even for very educated people who understand the meaning of the word “progressive” they do not see the difference between President Mahama and Nana Addo’s free SHS. So you can imagine what the illiterate or less educated people will make out of this.
President Mahama has handed the NPP a propaganda weapon for free. And the NPP will exploit it to the full.
THE COMMUNICATION OVER FREE SHS IS CONFUSED
To add insult to injury the communication on free SHS from the President is confusing.
Consider this story from the Ghana News Agency (GNA) on March 1, 2014 with the headline “Free SHS will cover boarders – President Mahama”.
This story was reported as part of the President’s address to students of the University of Education, Winneba during his two-day official visit to the Central Region. The opening paragraph says “President John Dramani Mahama on Friday renewed government’s commitment to abolish fees for both day and boarding students of Senior High Schools in the 2015/2016 academic year”.
I am confused here. The President in his State of the Nation speech said fees for day students will be abolished and “other reliefs in respect of boarding students would be announced when the road map is published”.
My question is: What kind of free SHS will President Mahama deliver come September 2015? Will it cover all, or some, day students and boarders? Or it will be limited to all, or some, day students?
If at the level of the President there is no clarity on what type of free SHS is intended, one can imagine the varied and confusing interpretations the numerous NDC communicators across the 275 constituencies of Ghana are giving to the policy.
If the President still wants to stick with his free SHS he must be very clear on what he intends to do in September 2015, especially when he has given us a cost estimate.
The writer is a Management Consultant and Member of the National Democratic Congress