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Opinion

Fee-free secondary education secured my future

I am writing my personal story to help Ghanaians, who are going to the polls on 7th December, make up their minds.? I am fully in support of the political parties who are proposing fee-free secondary education for Ghanaian children and I will tell my personal story to show why. I am the son of a poor widowed mother who, but for the dedication of my teachers and scholarships, would still be roaming the streets of my village with no skill or qualification.

I attended elementary school at Pramkese in the Kwaebibrim District. My father passed away in 1971 and it was left to my mother to bring up three young boys. I had not heard then of the Common Entrance Examination until my Headteacher convinced my mother to let me take part. I felt really proud that day when my Headteacher announced my success in the Common Entrance Examination to the entire school at assembly. I went home elated to break the news to my mother. It was then that reality dawned! She was a widow who had no regular income. How was she going to fund secondary school education? Several days of contemplation went on until finally my mother decided to cede to the numerous pieces of advice and encouragement she received. She decided to brave it without knowing where it would all end.

This was how I became a student at Abuakwa State College in 1974. My first week at ABUSCO was filled with foreboding because only part of my fees had been paid and we were given a month to pay the rest. On the 4th of October 1974 (one week after reporting to school), I was called to the office of the Headmaster, Mr. Seth Allotey. It was there that I was told to fill acceptance forms for, not only had I received a Government Scholarship, I had been awarded a CMB scholarship as well. God is great! I was then transformed from owing fees to rather having a credit. I worked hard at Abusco and proceeded toSt. Augustine?s College,CapeCoast to do my sixth form in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry. I completedSt. Augustine?s in 1981 and went on to read Civil Engineering at KNUST. After graduation, I obtained a professional training grant from the UK Overseas Development Agency, which enabled me to work in theUK to pay my way through my Masters and PhD degrees.

I told my story here is to encourage the NPP never to relent in its efforts to introduce fee-free SHS education for Ghanaian children. I know there are countless Ghanaians, in responsible positions now, who can tell similar stories to mine. Were it for the Government and CMB scholarships, I am very much sure that I would have dropped out of Abusco at some point. I can only recall one other classmate from my primary school days that went on to graduate at university. The rest are still struggling in my village. It is not because they did not have the aptitude for further studies ? the means were not there. Some of them had good Common Entrance passes but their dreams withered because of the inability of their parents to afford secondary school fees then.

The issue of brilliant but needy students is real. There are pupils in my hometown currently who do obtain good passes at the BECE. Some of them cannot afford to progress further. Others who progress select local deprived schools (even with good grades) because they cannot afford the formal and informal fees charged at the well-endowed schools. A fee-free SHS will level the playing field in this regard. Such pupils deserve the same break I had.

Ideally, the help that the state can give should be targeted at the poor. But given the degree of impoverishment amongst our people and the lack of adequate employment and earnings data due to the predominance of the informal sector, it might even cost more to means-test parents than offer fee-free SHS on a universal basis. As the first wave of investment bears fruit and the country modernises with reliable and adequate data, the state can then decide to roll back.

There is nothing that worries a parent (especially mothers) more than a brilliant child having to terminate his or her education because of affordability. I can still picture the strain on the face of my mother in 1974 as she struggled to reconcile the numerous pieces of advice she received against the constraints of the reality of her circumstances then. Of all the investments in education that can be made now, the one with immediate impact is the immediate introduction of fee-free SHS education. It would ensure that the current wastage is arrested whilst measures are introduced to gradually improve quality along the entire chain. All the other investments being promised are also needed but would deliver in the medium to long term. It is however necessary that the wastage at the SHS level is immediately arrested. We cannot continue to waste large numbers of our children and hope to have a decent, safe and secured future as a nation.

Ghanashould see provision of fee-free secondary education as an investment in the future of the country. A study of our national budgets shows that the bulk of our national revenue comes from our mineral and other natural resources and the trade taxes applied to these. These are finite resources that would become depleted in years to come. The surest way to increase personal taxation revenue (which at the moment accounts for only 15% of national revenue), to be able to invest in infrastructure and other social services, without resorting to debt financing that encumbers future generations, is to expand the formal sector of our economy. This is not possible without a radical and deliberate policy to produce a critical mass of educated workforce with the relevant skills and knowledge. The SHS level is the gateway to gaining skills and qualifications that determine life long careers. The opportunity to study up to this level should not be denied any able Ghanaian child.

Those who fear that quality might erode need be assured that enhancing affordability of secondary education and quality are not mutually exclusive. South Koreamanaged to do both and they are now the 12th largest economy in the world. They were at par (in GDP per capita terms) withGhana in the early 1960s. I sincerely wish that we could have a national consensus on education. However, if that is not possible, we should throw our support behind those offering policies to immediately arrest the ongoing wastage where we, annually, consign 150,000 15-year olds to a lifetime of hopelessness and ignorance.

I salute all mothers and I hope you would vote wisely!

 

Source: Dr Yaw Ohemeng

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