In September 2017, the government of Ghana announced that all students at the country’s publicly owned senior high schools would not have to pay any fees or charges, including at boarding schools.
This fulfilled an election campaign pledge and, as some have pointed out, a constitutional requirement that also charges the government to make education in Ghana ‘progressively free’.
This followed the implementation of Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education, launched in 2005, guaranteeing fee-free education to Ghanaian children up to the junior high level.
Education was central to the election campaign that brought the current government to power. Nana Akufo-Addo, in his first year as President, stressed that education was the bedrock of a modern society and the key to transformation of the country and its economy.
Countries like America, Singapore, Korea and Malaysia, the latter of which became independent at about the same time as Ghana and used to be poorer, had achieved enviable levels of development through high quality mass education, the President pointed out.
Justifying the high cost of the programme, to which critics had alluded, he said: “The cost of providing free secondary school education will be cheaper than the cost of the alternative of an uneducated and unskilled workforce that has the capacity to retard our development. Leadership is about choices – I have chosen to invest in the future of our youth and of our country.”
Prior to the implementation of the Free SHS policy, an estimated 100,000 students were dropping off the educational ladder between junior and high school every year, mostly due to the inability of parents and guardians to fund their way after exiting from the free basic schools.
With its implementation, enrolment at the senior high level has improved significantly. Between 2017 and 2022, enrolment increased by 50%, reaching a gross figure of 1.2m.
Government expenditure on the programme has also grown from $400m in its first year to about $1bn annually. An improvement in the results at the West African Senior School Certificate Examination posted by the first batch of students to go through the Free SHS programme was touted by policy makers as further justification, especially as there had been concerns about the impact the plan would have on quality.
In 2020, the first batch recorded a 54.08% pass rate in English; 65.70% were successful at Integrated Science in 2021 and 54.11% passed Maths – all better figures than in previous years.
However, without a corresponding expansion of educational infrastructure, there were initial problems. To deal with the issue of a shortage of classrooms and other facilities, the government introduced a double track system where students attended in batches, rotating through the year. Permanent solutions have however now been put in place. Under a Free SHS Intervention Programme, some 800 infrastructure projects were undertaken around the country, adding to the classrooms, dormitories, science laboratories, dining halls and other facilities for the use of students.
With the expansion in facilities, the policy has now been phased out and school terms have now reverted to the regular schedule.
Overhaul of entire education system
The government has also taken steps to overhaul and improve the entire education system. The reforms are broadly focused on a new standards-based pre-tertiary curriculum, tertiary education, teacher education, technical and vocational education as well as the management of institutions within the sector. These efforts aim to enhance teaching and learning and ultimately improve educational outcomes. The Education Strategic Plan (ESP 2018-2030), which received approval from the cabinet in November 2018, serves as the guiding document for these reforms.
The primary objectives are, the government says, aligned with UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, which focuses on achieving better learning results, fostering accountability, and promoting equity across all educational levels, especially pre-tertiary education.
The overarching purpose of embarking on these key reforms is to adapt the country’s education system to evolving national development priorities and aspirations. They aim to set clear performance standards that will effectively guide the processes of teaching, learning, assessment, and student grading. Also included is the professionalisation of teaching and the application of standards in the classroom.
Other reforms have focused on the structure and content of education in the country. Kindergarten, primary school, junior high school (JHS) and senior high school (SHS) are now all considered basic schools.
Students in JHS 1 to SHS 1 follow a Common Core Programme consisting of nine subjects, including, among others, mathematics, languages, science, career technology, computing, and creative art and design.
Students at primary 2, 4, 6 and JHS 2 will have to sit for a new examination, the national standard assessment test, while the basic education certificate examination which used to determine whether students qualified for senior high, will now be replaced by a placement examination, with all students promoted to senior high, vocational or technical institutions.
During the first year of SHS 1, all students will continue to follow the Common Core Programme (CCP), without selecting specific science, business, or arts programmes.
After sitting a Common Core Examination at the end of the first year, students will be required to choose between career-related vocational and technical programmes or high school diploma programmes in science, business, or arts.
The West African Senior School Certificate Examinations are being scrapped and will be replaced by a high school diploma presented on completion of the third year of senior high school.
The government says the education system now emphasises research, community engagement, and project-based learning with reduced content. Computer literacy is a major focus in the CCP programme, with all educational stakeholders expected to provide adequate IT facilities for students.
Wider breadth of specialisation
At the tertiary level, reforms have been centred on expanding and diversifying opportunities to cater for a wider breadth of specialisation, while improving quality.
For example, in a strategic move to elevate the status and relevance of technical education, polytechnics have undergone a transformation, becoming technical universities. This conversion aims to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world applications, equipping students with hands-on expertise and ensuring they are well-prepared to tackle real-life challenges in their respective fields.
More specifically, the Ghana Institute of Languages, Ghana Institute of Journalism, and National Film and Television Institute have merged to form the University of Media, Arts, and Communications, a dynamic institution catering to the growing demand for skilled professionals in the media and creative industries.
As of 2022, the gross enrolment ratio at the tertiary level stood at 20%. The President, in his 2021 state of the nation address, charged stakeholders to aim to hit a target of 40% by 2030.
Expanding access, improving quality and bringing Ghanaian education in line with modern standards and practice must necessarily entail the deployment of digital tools.
Many schools at the senior high level have long had ICT labs, some of which have been retooled and upgraded. More recently, there have been efforts to provide wi-fi connectivity on school campuses.
According to Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia, over 80% of the high schools and colleges of education in the country are currently fitted with wi-fi capability, as part of broader efforts to ensure that learners are equipped with the skills they need to participate in the digital revolution.
The Ministry of Education is also collaborating with the United Nations Children’s Fund’s Ghana office to get more than 35,000 schools around the country connected to the internet in order to enable digital and distance learning in those schools.
In September 2021, the Vice-President launched the one laptop per teacher policy, moving the digitalisation of schools agenda beyond infrastructure to equipment.
The policy, by which the government bears 70% of the cost and teachers pay the rest through monthly deductions, was accompanied by training sessions for teachers to ensure that they are able to make optimum use of the computers in their work and for the benefit of students.
Students themselves are not to be left out. Government is currently preparing to roll out a programme that will see hard copy textbooks replaced with laptops and tablets in senior and junior high schools.
Distribution is expected to commence at the beginning of the academic year in September, while the migration to digital teaching and learning is expected to be fully completed by the end of the year. If successful, the programme will complement the government’s general digitalisation efforts and place Ghana firmly within the digital revolution, as Vice-President Bawumia has often called for.