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Ghana’s “Free” Senior High School Program

By Christine Joseph, Vice President, US Board of Directors
free-high-school-ghana

Close your eyes and imagine: You're 5 years old in rural Ghana, born into severe poverty. But unlike many others, you find a beacon of hope in a locally-led non-profit that offers a lifeline – boarding, housing, and education. Fast forward 11 years, and you've defied the odds, graduating 8th grade with good health.


At 16, you're a village success story and yet ‘what now?’ is the question that haunts you ahead. It's not about your drive or potential; everything hinges on one crucial reality: Can you afford high school, or not?


For most at-risk students from poor socio-economic households, the answer is no.


Without high school: Prepare for a harsh reality – generational poverty, limited opportunities, and the allure of risky underworlds like "quick-cash" schemes that prey on vulnerable youth and trap children into criminal underbellies such as drug and sex trafficking. 
With high school: Ghana's vibrant economic hubs and promising careers become within reach. Imagine enrolling in school, with food, safety, and life skills fostering your growth. That’s the promise of High School in Ghana.

It's undeniable: Education is a game-changer in the fight against inequality. That’s why Education is a priority here at Mako Opportunity Fund.


The educational landscape in Ghana is fascinating, and undergoing transformational change. The barriers to Senior High School are still vast and varied, but there’s promise ahead.


Ghana

Up until 2017, the majority of impoverished & capable children in rural Ghana fell into poverty because they couldn’t afford High School. Thanks to donors, our Ghanaian educators and Ghana’s landmark ‘Free Senior High School Policy’, Mako Children’s Fund has been able to give 21 High School Scholarships since 2017 - a feat that was once inconceivable.


Mako’s US Board is often asked:

Why do you need High School scholarships and funding support when the government made High School free?


We’re here to inform you on the monumental free education policy - where it has garnered great impact and where its gaps are too vast and wide to close without donor support. Nothing is free and in Ghana, the complex challenges run deep.


Program Overview

In September 2017, Ghana’s President, Nana Addo Danwa Akufo-Addo, implemented a first-of-its kind program, the ‘Free Senior High School Policy’ - a program that was nine years in the making.


The Free Senior High School Program intended to reduce the socio-economic disparities; enabling Ghana’s youth (their largest population) to access greater economic opportunity. As President Akufo-Addo said, this will “widen the gates of opportunities to every child, especially those whose talents are arrested because of poverty.”


Why It's Monumental

In Ghana, Senior High School is the pathway to job security and 90% of employment opportunities. Historically, Senior High School was mainly accessible to upper-class households with children educated in private, prestigious preparatory schools. The socio-economic disparities that lack school access has riddled Ghana for decades.


For the last few generations, Ghana’s middle to lower class completed education until Grade 7, on average. That’s changing, thanks to the Free Senior High School Policy.


Despite opposition, President Akufo-Addo’s government pushed the free education proposition forward after recognizing how other leading countries in the world put education at the heart of economic development, including Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Korea. President Akufo-Addo understood the potential in the future of Ghana, through educating the youth of the country. Investing in their futures would be more economically beneficial, in the long run, than an uneducated workforce.To solve for the funding of such an ambitious program, revenues from Ghana’s top industries – mineral, oil resources and raw material exports – were used.


The Gaps

Ghana saw a notable increase in student enrollment in SHS after 2017. The government created a lottery placement system to assign all graduating JHS students to a quality high school program based on their academic performance and BECE (Basic Education Certificate Examination) exam scores. The lottery was launched, yet inequities remained -  inadequate technology, resources and corrupt stakeholders compromised the lottery success; but the premise was good and annual improvements are being made to improve the lottery rollout. The government is supposed to absorb the cost of tuition and assist students with resources needed to attend high school. What we can say with confidence, is that the government has alleviated costs of Senior High School enrollment and attendance; but at $1,300 average cost per year to attend with boarding, food and school supplies, it’s still inaccessible to many families - especially those living below the poverty line in rural Ghana.


Financial Restraints

Ghana has endured a 70%+ inflation rate and economic volatility, unprecedented for recent times. With program demand at an all time high and program funding at an all time low, the financial gaps for eligible students of 2024 are steep.


For kids in poverty stricken areas, like ours, pooling funds from families and villages, working and saving to return to High School as young adults, are near-term solutions.


Demand Exceeds Capacity

The problem isn’t just financial, it’s scale. There are more students than there are schools, teachers and resources. Overcrowding has further restrained free education access.


Money Buys Opportunity

Mako’s children and staff experienced the gains and gaps of the SHS Program since year one. In fact, in 2017, one of our students had to hide under a table as a riot broke out due to the school’s overcrowding - parents demanding classrooms and boarding homes get reduced to the standard ratios. School faculty were to blame - many admitted the government lottery students on top of admitting students with parents willing to pay bribes to guarantee their child’s enrollment. Thankfully, our students and staff hunkered down and ensured their well-earned lottery awarded slot. We did have to pay extra to ensure that slot, but our child did earn their spot in Senior High School by academic merit. Today, that same student is thriving in University - a feat that surpassed the odds, as only 3% of his socio-economic group made it to High School let alone University in 2017..


Overcrowding Remains a Reality

Overcrowding compromises two subjects the most: science and ICT.  Food resources are stretched thin in many of the schools, and students either sustain long periods of hunger, or incur substantial absences as they work to secure their own meals - meals the school had promised to provide, but can rarely afford.


Teacher Development Needs an Overhaul

Teachers require more training and professional development to handle larger class sizes. Further, a gender gap also revealed itself, noting female students at a disadvantage to male students for lack of resources, attention and being responsible for duties at home which are often viewed as more important than education.


The Gains

Senior High School admissions went from 62,118 students in 2018 to 472,000 in 2019, according to Research Gate. Between 2015 - 2021, there was a 27% increase in Senior High School enrollment. The Covid-19 pandemic stunted enrollment, but students are returning at surge rates once again.


There’s a direct correlation between increased earning potential, power and agency in young adulthood, and probability of breaking generational poverty cycles tied to Senior High School enrollment and graduation rates in Ghana. The future is brighter than ever.


How does the free senior high school program affect Mako?

Each year, Mako offers secondary scholarship opportunities – full and partial – to our graduating JHS students. This is done through our Mako Scholar Collective Program.


Students must meet eligibility requirements which includes exhibiting true financial hardship, having a history of academic excellence, commitment, attendance, investment in self study, and good citizenship status within the community.


While Mako is a beneficiary of the Free Senior High School program, its reach is limited and does not cover 100% of the costs. Gaps in the program include lack of funding for textbooks, stationary, transportation, uniforms, boarding costs, extracurricular activities, some meals, medical emergencies, personal hygiene supplies and misc smaller expenses. These are the extra expenses Mako covers to supplement what the government does not pay for, which translates to approximately $1300 per student, per year.


According to Sir Knox Odumah, Mako’s Executive Director in Ghana:


“Mako, through its continuous educational program, intervenes to ensure uninterrupted learning for students during vacation periods by organizing vacation classes and also arranging tuition with private tutors. Additionally, Mako is addressing the shortfall of educational materials caused by government funding limitations by supplying exercise books and textbooks to students. To supplement government feeding in school, sponsored students receive additional provisions such as food items, toiletries, and pocket money. Mako is also incurring costs for extra tuition to address any challenges that may arise from the implementation of the Free Senior High School program.”

Mako currently sponsors 8 students attending secondary school – five females and three males. Our program has produced 17 secondary school graduates between the years 2018–2023 – five females and twelve males. While we are incredibly proud of our success stories, not every student makes it to graduation. Unfortunately we have had 3 students drop out of our secondary program for various reasons, thereby never finishing their secondary education.


Sir Knox concludes:


“The Free Senior High School program, which was initiated by the government of Ghana, has undeniably brought about positive changes in enhancing access to education. However, it is crucial to recognize and address the substantial challenges that have arisen, particularly concerning the drawbacks associated with the double-track system and the need for sufficient funding to support essential educational materials and provisions for all students. Mako, through its Continuous Education Program, plays an active role in mitigating the challenges faced by our sponsored students, ensuring their educational journey remains seamless and fruitful.”

Ghana's Free Senior High School program opened doors for countless students, but as you now know, it’s not the whole story. While the initiative increased enrollment, it also revealed gaps that your generous support helps bridge.


Your impact goes beyond individual students. You're investing in:

  • A brighter future for Ghana: By empowering its youth, you're contributing to a stronger, more educated nation.

  • Closing the gender gap: You're helping ensure girls like Mako have equal access to the resources they need to succeed.

  • Breaking the cycle of poverty: Education is a powerful tool for breaking free from financial limitations and building a secure future.


Mako's youth embody the transformative power of your support. With your continued generosity, we can bridge the gap in Ghana's education system and empower countless young minds to reach their full potential.


Together, let's make a lasting difference.


Donate today and invest in the future of Ghana's youth!



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How to Support Mako Children

Every dollar counts in providing continuous care for our kids. Become a member of our EveryChild and Scholar Collectives, make a one-time donation or get involved as a volunteer or board member today.




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