Poor children need ‘good’ schools most

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The attention on the 40 scholarships won by Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College and their winning the President’s Medal overlooked the mind-boggling consistency of St Augustine Girls’ High School that copped 28 open scholarships, which is 13 more than their closest rivals.

The Greater St Augustine area, defined as from St Joseph to Trincity, through seven schools accounts for 80 such scholarships or 45 per cent of the national total. This concentrated achievement cries out for examination as a means of lifting the national performance.

The area is an amalgam of middle- and upper-income neighbourhoods with parents who have higher education and considerable assets, thereby increasing the potential for school involvement and the inevitable bond with the teachers. Family cohesion and monitoring of children, combined with the parental social networks, enable the nurturing of cognitive, social and emotional skills which facilitate the students absorbing more at school.

The community has low crime rates and therefore is a less stressful environment with a range of learning opportunities. The parents have higher expectations for their children and form networks which agree on academic and life goals and which act as a brake on potential behavioural problems. This reduction of the potential for aggression and inattention increases potential positive social skills, which are positively correlated with achievement.

They inculcate in their children a positive growth mindset. The children believe that they can do whatever they put their minds to. They have a lower fear of failure and therefore set higher learning goals. This dominant theory that ‘if we work hard, we will achieve’ is undermined for the poor who are disadvantaged by the absence of the enabling factors noted earlier.

The children of poorer neighbourhoods seldom are encouraged to develop evidence of personal competence and have fewer positive role models. Their parents’ networks are feeble and limited. Time, a scarce resource due to work hours and competing demands on their available cash limit the potential school involvement for these parents.

The cost of homes in the high-performing areas preclude residency by the poorer families thus creating higher travel expenses. The emphasis on zoning creates another structural barrier for poor students with ability. The least experienced teachers go to the worst performing schools in poor neighbourhoods.

School performance is driven by the quality of the leadership, the principal and the board. This is and has been demonstrated in the Catholic, the Presbyterian and now the Hindu schools. The tragedy of many government schools is that tenure, and not commitment to the academic cause, determines who is the principal.

High academic achievement is self-perpetuating, success attracts the best teachers and students. But a tradition can be created if there is a clear vision focused on student learning and proper organisation of the curriculum, and if the school is supported by the host community.

The continuing success of Bishop Anstey and Trinity College East, a relatively new school, which got ten open scholarships this year, is an example.

Children from wealthier families have many chances at success, poor children often have only one, the educational route. How we treat them tells us who we are.

Noble Philip