As Ghanaians head to the polls on 7 December, education has been the principal election issue debated on by rival politicians, but, as Ghanaian blogger Jemila Abdulai points out, a free education does not necessarily equate to a quality education. Jemila Abdulai blogs at Circumspect.
Oil – the word that caused quite a stir in the lead up to Ghana’s 2008 elections. Political parties tried to outdo one another with their grandiose promises on how they would ensure the “equitable” distribution of oil revenues, while politicians launched an entirely different contest – in how many corruption allegations they could level against opponents. But that’s old news. It is 2012 and we have a new election issue over which to crack our brains. Ladies and gentlemen, meet “free education”.
Free senior high school (SHS) education made its first appearance onto Ghana’s 2012 election landscape with the launch of the National Patriotic Party’s (NPP) manifesto. The 59-page document identifies education as a “top priority” since “it offers the best tool for social mobility and social equity”. The NPP is not the only party with its eye on education. Each of the other parties identifies education as key, and in its 76-page manifesto, the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) expresses its intention to achieve 100% access to free compulsory and universal basic education (FCUBE) as enshrined in Ghana’s constitution.
It is undeniable that education is the bedrock of development. With free SHS, poor Ghanaian parents might no longer have to choose between feeding their families and financing their wards’ higher education. Also alluring is the thought that an entire generation  – who could only dream of continuing its education – might actually find itself in a classroom again. Free education must be a good thing, right? Well, it depends. A lot of the debate on secondary education in recent years and in the lead up to the 7 December presidential election has focused on duration, cost and access. While free SHS sounds fine and dandy, I can’t help but ask this question: WHICH education?
As a product of Ghana’s basic and secondary education, I am no stranger to the gamut of challenges Ghanaian students face. While my dear parents covered the entire cost of my secondary education, there were periods of uncertainty concerning finances. There was also the stress; the pressure to complete the syllabus for all eight of my subjects, and score highly in the final exam to secure a place at a good university. Fortunately, my school had very dedicated teachers who went the extra mile to ensure all the essentials were covered. Between that and private lessons over the vacation, I was adequately prepared for the exams. The next hurdle was whether my exam results would actually count given the high incidence of exam malpractice. All this might sound terrible, but this was a best-case scenario. Many of my peers elsewhere never even saw their teachers for an entire semester, and literally had to educate themselves. To all intents and purposes, the focus of secondary education in Ghana was on completing the syllabus and passing exams, not on actually learning. Consequently, most students settled on learning by rote, otherwise known as “chew and pour”, in order to pass their exams. What is troubling is that once the exams were over, all the “knowledge” evaporated. Almost a decade later, the situation is still the same, and getting worse.
Despite the provision of free school uniforms, meals, and other “free” elements under Ghana’s FCUBE, Ghanaian children are not learning. A recent UNESCO report released in October 2012 estimates that 60% of Ghanaian women and over one-third of men between 15 to 29 years who completed six years of primary education could not read a single sentence at all in 2008. In 2011, Ghana recorded its worst basic education certificate exam (BECE) results in 13 years, with only 46% of registered candidates securing a pass for entrance into senior high schools. Research on investment gains in education show that a nation gains more from investing in basic education, than it does from secondary or tertiary education, investments which accrue primarily to the individual instead. Considering Ghana’s investment in free primary education does not seem to be paying off, we must ask what is going wrong and more importantly, how to bring learning back into Ghana’s educational landscape. All the indications point to the fact that the emphasis on high enrolment numbers (quantity) versus actual learning and performance (quality) is doing the nation a disservice, and this is without even taking actual financial costs into consideration. By not tackling root issues like content and curriculum reform, teacher training, and access to infrastructure and educational materials, the push for “free education” at either the primary or secondary levels could prove more costly than first appears, and could ultimately be Ghana’s undoing.
As Ghana heads to the ballot box on 7 December, we are yet to see which of the “free educations” its citizens will opt for, but, for what it is worth, Ghana’s 2012 elections are probably the most issue-based polls to date. If nothing else, this is an indication of the West African nation’s maturity as a young democracy. To free primary education, or to free secondary education? That is the question.