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We are afraid of Free SHS

I have unfinished business on the subject of Free SHS and I apologise for the no-show last week. We were on the subject of whether in the light of economic difficulties, parents shouldn’t be made to carry some of the burden of the Free SHS/TVET.

Here are the questions we face. Are parents who can afford to pay for their children to attend secondary school reneging on their responsibilities when such children benefit from the Free SHS?

Should it be left to parents to determine if they can afford or not to pay? Should there be a means test to be applied to parents to determine those who can from those who cannot?

Right from the beginning, the Ministry of Education said very loudly that if parents wanted to pay, they should feel free to pay to the schools.

For reasons which I have not been able to fathom, no parent has taken this up. Not even the ones who have been loud in stating that they are capable of paying for their children and do not want the government to pay.

I get the feeling this is money people don’t want to pay on the quiet. They don’t want to pay money to the school bursar and their child would be just one of the kids in the school and might be counted among Free SHS/TVET beneficiaries.

I suspect they want it known that they have paid and when their child is walking by, there would be something to denote that this child is not part of the Akufo-Addo Free SHS/TVET group.

Maybe we would have two different set of uniforms, one for the fee-paying group and another for those benefitting from the Free SHS/TVET.

Benefits?

Now this is the bit that interests me. Would there be any benefits that come from opting to pay for your child. You would, after all be saving the state treasury a lot of money if your child does not rely on the state to pay for the list of things that go under the Free SHS?.

Could a parent pay the GH¢1,088 or half that amount? Could a parent decide for example to pay GH¢2,176 a year, which would be double the amount covered by Free SHS and demand a different set of meals for his child?

I suspect that the parents who can and want to pay for their children would not be wanting exactly to send their children to Abutia Senior High Technical School.

They would be wanting their children to go to Wesley Girls, Presec, St Roses, Prempeh and other greatly scrambled for schools and I can see the argument emerging that we have places reserved for fee-paying students in the fancied schools.

And while we are on this train, we might just go the whole hog and maybe designate schools that are fee-paying and those that are Free SHS/TVET. You can be certain that Abutia Senior High Technical is not going to be designated as fee-paying. Mfantsipim and Achimota and the other fancied schools will be filled with children whose parents can and are willing to pay and save the state from expenditure.

Before very long, we shall have parents choosing the fee-paying option to be able to get their children into the fancied school and after one semester, they would be going round the GETFund, Scholarship Secretariat and their district assemblies looking for help to pay.

This is a regular occurrence now with people who enter tertiary institutions as fee-paying students because that is the only way they can gain admission and after one semester, they are unable to pay and have to endure untold hardships to be able to continue or sometimes withdraw completely.

Maybe we won’t go on that route. It will not be left to the parents to say if they can pay and we won’t even rely on their tax returns. The means testing of parents will rely on the primary and junior high schools that the children attend before seeking entry into the Free SHS/TVET system. More often than not, many of these children would have attended extremely fancy and expensive private Primary and JHS and that would provide the answer that you can pay for your child in SHS/TVET as well.

Questions

Obviously, these questions and various scenarios all come up because we are all thinking of ways to cut down on what government is spending on the Free SHS/TVET.

In many parts of the world, secondary schools are not boarding institutions, they are day schools and children go back and forth from home in the morning the same way they do when they are in primary school.

In this country, secondary school means boarding school. It forms a critical part of the rites of passage for a growing child and it is part of our culture. Once upon a time, we spent five or seven years in boarding school and that is where lifelong friendships were formed and you learnt habits that stayed with you for the rest of life.

It used to be the place where you discovered if you had musical or artistic talents, it was the place where you learnt about grooming and heartbreaks. It is not the same experience when you spend three years or two and a half years, which is all the current cohort of secondary school students really have.

I am not at all sure that they have the time and space to acquire the characteristics that defined the old schools in days gone by.

In truth, these schools are living on past glories and it is probably time to take the hard-nosed decision and abandon the boarding schools.

Unfortunately, we can’t really count on day secondary schools as a solution even though they are definitely cheaper to run. It isn’t just because there are emotional attachments to many of the old schools and their reputation rests on their being boarding schools.

Even if we built enough day secondary schools, the children who had no access before the advent of Free SHS/TVET would still be handicapped.

You need a certain type of home environment to be successful in a day school and these children would be fighting daily battles to cope. The children who can live at home and attend day school would be the ones whose parents can pay for boarding.

I have heard some say that there should be a cut-off number for the number of children a parent can benefit from under the Free SHS/TVET.

The Free SHS/TVET is directed at the children and not at the parents. Every Ghanaian child is now and should forever be assured of having a basic education, which guarantees two years of kindergarten, six years of primary school, three years of Junior High School and TVET/SHS.

The parents can be afraid all they want, but SHS/TVET is the minimum, obligatory level of education and that’s it.

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