ACCRA, Ghana — At dawn on a recent Tuesday, 18-year-old Jane Newornu pulled on her blue gingham school uniform, stuffed her books into her knapsack and grabbed a banana as she ran off to school.
Her twin sister, Jennifer, still in her pajamas, watched with a pang of envy. Instead of going to class, Jennifer was staying home from school on a two-month hiatus mandated by the government.
The twins, like all high school students in Ghana, now must take turns. The problem is the result of the tumultuous rollout of a new government program, intended to expand access to free secondary education.
When President Nana Akufo-Addo took office in 2017, he made good on one of his chief campaign promises: tuition-free high school for all. It was part of a broader effort to make Ghana internationally competitive in educational standards, agriculture, tourism and more.
But the program has proved so popular — 430,000 students are enrolled this school year, up from 308,000 in 2016, according to the education ministry — that demand has overwhelmed capacity.
“We want parents to see education as what can transform this nation,” said Yaw Osei Adutwum, deputy minister for education. “And therefore, even if they have to make some sacrifices, it’s worth it.”
Staggering students has been used in many countries to reduce overcrowding, including Japan and Australia. Ghana’s idea was inspired by California, according to Dr. Adutwum, who ran a network of charter schools before being appointed deputy education minister in 2017. Starting in the 1970s, some school districts in California adopted a multitrack system after a boom in the student population.
While elementary and middle school are compulsory and free in some parts of West Africa, tuition-free high school is rare. A handful of countries, like Burkina Faso, offer free high school for poor students if they keep their grades up. Last year, Sierra Leone also introduced free high school for 1.1 million students. But the rollout was fraught: some children were turned away because of lack of space, according to news reports.
Under what Ghana’s government calls a two-track system, some children go to school while others take a break. It has succeeded in wedging more students into classrooms. Supporters say it is a temporary solution while more teachers are hired and schools are built and put it down to growing pains.
But many parents, watching their children sit idle for two months, are furious. They now believe they were sold a bill of goods by a government that made a promise it couldn’t keep. If sidelined children slip behind in their studies, some adults and students say, then free school comes at too high a cost.
“I’m not happy with this system,” Jennifer Newornu said as her sister sashayed out the door to class while she stayed in bed. “I stay home for too long. It’s actually boring. And not helpful.”
But the government is unwavering in its support of the new system, saying it delivers adequate education to more children. Before the program, 67 percent of children who attended elementary went on to secondary school. But since the launch of the new program, it climbed to 83 percent in 2018, according to the ministry of education.
In Ghana, elementary and middle school has been free and compulsory since 1995, with a 90 percent enrollment rate. But high school, though government-run, required tuition.
Government boarding schools cost about $289 per school year, day school about $120, according to government data. These are significant costs in a country where the average annual per capita income is about $1,900, according to the World Bank.
The program has only been implemented so far in high schools with high demand, but the government expects more to be added as enrollment increases. Sixty percent of public high schools in Ghana are boarding schools, which are included in the free tuition program.
Free high school is one of a number of reforms under President Akufo-Addo’s ambitious overhaul of Ghana’s entire education system, officials say. Student performance will be evaluated yearly, rather than in one all-important final exam before graduation.