I approach this subject with ambivalence as someone who is not a stranger to poverty and its effect on ones chances of being educated. In 1989, I passed my common entrance exam and got admission to Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School, Legon, Ghana. After a whiff of excitement, reality dawned.

How was I going to pay for my deposit? After attempting to get a loan from friends had proved futile, my mother called me at dawn and said, ‘I have no other choice, but to sell my wax prints to pay for your deposit, promise you will not disappoint me’… she said. It is worth noting that by our economic standing at the time, wax prints were valuable assets.

After making a solemn promise to work hard at school, she took her wax prints and off we went to Makola Market. At the point of parting with her cloths, tears welled up in my eyes whilst streams of tears run down her cheeks. She sold her cloths for an amount just enough to pay for my deposit.

I certainly did not disappoint her, she did not live to see me become an (MSc) Engineering geologist currently working in the United Kingdom, as she passed away in 1992 after buying my bucket and ‘chop box’ in preparation to send me to the boarding house.

I had to work on construction sites to buy my uniforms, textbooks and provisions. Sometimes in areas like East Legon, where most of my colleagues lived, doing my best to avoid being seen by my mates. I must however stress that, this is not to lend pathos to my article, but to reinforce my earlier assertion that I am no alien to poverty.

On the evidence of my background, my default response to the promise of free secondary education in Ghana is, yes we can!!!! And that is purely emotional, given that I once belonged to the constituency this proposal is supposedly designed to help.

Indeed, it is a promise designed to appeal to emotions rather than the intellect, to hoodwink the populace who do not have the capacity to negotiate the printed word or the ability to engage their brains in critical thinking.

I do not intend to go into the costing as a lot had been said by IMANI among others (whose valuation in my view is a gross under estimation), even though they did after the likes of Kwesi Pratt (Managing Editor of The Insight News Paper) and Felix Kwakye Ofosu (Member of Government Communication Team) had already doubted the policy’s feasibility after subjecting it to the rigours of reality tests, based on sound estimates.

The proponents of this policy had argued on various platforms that, if countries like Uganda, Kenya, Cuba etc. who have fewer natural resources than Ghana are able to do it, we should be able to implement this policy with very little difficulties.

I would like to look at how the implementation of free universal education policy had performed in these countries among others; and whether it is really free and worthy of emulation. They also cited some Scandinavian countries as shiny examples.

Comparing Ghana to developed countries such as Finland, Denmark etc., is like comparing apples with oranges but I would like to take up the challenge.

The introduction of free universal secondary education in Uganda had undoubtedly increased access to education but had inevitably led to deteriorating academic standards, as students are just promoted irrespective of their academic performance. This was acknowledged by the 2010 Overseas Development Institute Report. Examination results lend credence to this reported decline.

In 2006, nearly 95% of O-level candidates in Uganda achieved at least the minimum pass rate to qualify for a national certificate. In 2007, with a 54% increase in candidates, 80% qualified for the certificate.

There are also reports that, only the tuition fee component of the cost of education is actually free.

Even at the primary level, only 444,020 pupils out of about 1,050,000 who joined Primary one (P1) in 2001 were able to sit for Primary Leaving School Examination (PLE) in 2007, in spite of an automatic promotion policy. Fees in schools were said to be partly responsible, even though primary education was supposed to be free.

The failure of free primary education is even more spectacular when it comes to the Kenyan implementation. In a paper written by Professor Daniel .N. Sifanu (a lecturer at the Department of Educational Foundations at Kenyatta University, Kenya) and published by ‘Wajibu’ A Journal of Social and Religious Concerns.

In this paper he recounted that, in the 1963 general elections, when the Kenyan Africa National Union party became the ruling party, it published in its manifesto a pledge committing the party to offering a minimum of seven years of free primary education.

After failing to deliver, in its 1969 elections manifesto, the party again re-echoed its commitment to providing seven years of free primary education.

In 1971, a presidential diktat abolished tuition fees for the most poverty stricken districts.

A second decree was made on 12 December 1973 during the Kenyatta era without any counter measure about how to replace the lost revenue. Only a year after introducing the FPE policy, the Kenyan Education Ministry had to rethink its priorities in order to cope with the staggering rise in pupil enrolment.

The lost revenue forced school management committees to resort to levying parents under the pretext of a ‘’building levy’’, ostensibly aimed at building new facilities. In most cases, the levies turned out to be higher than the school fees charged prior to the presidential diktat.

Some schools had to introduce as many as five extra streams in a desperate bid to cope with the lack of infrastructure and logistics bedevilling the implementation of the FPE policy. These conditions left some parents with no other options than to withdraw their children. In the end, enrolment reverted to levels prior to the presidential decree in 1973.

The high dropout rates were a response, not only to the very high levies but also to the drop in quality of education due to overcrowding in classes and; the lack of teaching and learning materials due to corruption and financial constraints.

After the botched attempt by the KANU party in implementing the free primary education policy in the 1970’s, during the 2002 general elections, the National Rainbow Coalition party (NARC) made the provision of free primary education part of its election manifesto. The ministry of education duly launched the free primary education to fulfil the NARC’s election pledge in 2003.

The implementation, in spite of the tremendous financial support it received from the donor community, was and still is bedevilled with the same problems that afflicted it in the 70’s. According to Professor Daniel .N. Sifanu, the attainment of free universal and quality education in Kenya continues to be illusory due to corruption, lack of accountability, understaffing in schools, increase in unqualified teachers and overcrowding in classrooms.

The same could be said for other African countries that sheepishly embarked on this idealistic project.

In part two, I will look at more critical issues in the debate on the feasibility and the likely impact of implementing the so-called free education policy in Ghana.

By: David Klutse

Email: [email protected]


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