In 2005 basic education became free in Ghana. This meant that parents who fail to send their children to school can be prosecuted. This policy--implemented by the current largest opposition party (then in government)--was welcomed by many as a huge burden lifted off their shoulders. Today, free education is back on the policy (or political, rather) agenda in Ghana. This time, however, the opposition party in Ghana seeks to make senior high school education free.
Normally, such a policy would be met with open arms by all, but no, this is an election year (the country votes for a president in December) so the stakes are high. The current government, naturally, dismissed this brain-child of the opposition as a pipe-dream, citing costs (and paucity of financing options) as major impediments. The government is not alone in its criticism of the campaign policy. An Accra-based think-tank shares the government's sentiments, even publishing calculations and projections that buttresses its point. Spokespersons for the opposition still hold their ground, insisting that education is too important an issue for any amount of money to be considered too much.
An objective assessment of the issue would require looking at comparable countries where free education has been successfully implemented. Uganda and Kenya are two of such examples, both having implemented the policy at the basic levels. Thanks to free education, student numbers have increased robustly over the past few years in those countries, stretching classroom facilities thin. An increase in student enrollment means that the student-teacher ratio increases, reducing the effectiveness of classroom teaching, as the teacher has many more assignments to grade and is unable to reach all students equally due to the big class sizes. Despite the increase in student populations, the government subsidy has not increased commensurately. Upon closer inspection, one realizes that "free education" is actually a misnomer, as parents still have to shoulder consists costs in the form of levies, such as residence costs for students in boarding schools, and uniforms and lunches.
Ghana's existing free basic education is not without similar challenges seen in Kenya and Uganda. Many schools are held under trees (the so-called "schools under trees"), leaving school children exposed to inclement weather. The free meals that are given to children faced significant administrative and financing issues last year. Above all, almost half of school children fail to make the required grade for senior high school admission, thus begging the question "Is free senior high school a top priority in education reforms in Ghana?" A more practical intervention would be to tighten the gaps that exist in the current basic education set up. Funds should be devoted to building more classroom blocks to house the still signifcant number of school pupils who sit under trees as makeshift classrooms. Teacher training should be revamped. At the same time, remuneration for education workers should be made more attractive to attract and retain teaching talent. Additionally, alternative training should be made available for the hundreds of thousands of school children who do not make the cut to enter senior high school. The National Youth Employment Program provides a model for training young people to acquire skills with which they can obtain employment in the security services and other sections of the civil services. These measures would be more useful and sustainable than a blanket (and not quite well-thought out) campaign promise with populist appeal, but in reality would end up as another vacuous promise soon forgotten when the reigns of power are won.