Poverty and educational achievement

Stabroek News
September 24, 1999

This is not the only country with a crisis in its schools. For many years now the English authorities have recognized major problems in their school system more particularly, plummeting academic standards, which all kinds of tinkering has not really alleviated. In a major investigation published by the London broadsheet The Guardian on September 14, 1999, the underlying reason for the visible lack of improvement was expounded. Put quite simply, it is poverty. To quote the paper:

"If a school takes in a substantial proportion of children who come from a disadvantaged background - if their parents do not read, if they have no books at home, if they are awake half the night and then half asleep all day, if they have been emotionally damaged by problems in their family or in their community, if they have suffered from an environment which is likely to expose them to drug abuse and violence and alcohol abuse and the collapse of social boundaries, then the school is more likely to fail academically. A school which is based in a disadvantaged community will struggle with its children, while one that is based in a more affluent area will prosper."

The report goes on to say that a disadvantaged intake can make things tough for a whole school, and not just specific individuals. Poverty in the U.K. has trebled since 1979, says the article, so that nowadays one third of all British children are estimated to live in poverty. The proportion of children who are poor entering the school system, therefore, is infinitely greater than it was two or three decades ago, and this is being reflected in the overall levels of educational achievement. It adds that the findings of British researchers are by no means nation specific; they have been replicated in the United States and the European Union.

What it means is that for the past two decades in places like the U.K. the whole structure of reform has been wrongly directed. Politicians have concentrated on school reform, when improvements at the school level account for only about five to ten per cent of improvements in pupil performance; the other ninety per cent can be attributed to the background of the children. The report does not deny that there have been some remarkable results emanating from schools in certain deprived areas. However, these are invariably the result of a charismatic head, who manages to bring the parents, the community and the teachers together in order to achieve educational success. Changes which are dependent on a single individual, or even a group of individuals in a given school are not systemic, since there is no structural basis for the continuity of the changes.

So what lessons does this research hold for us? Can the results from the developed world be extrapolated to the developing? The answer is probably a qualified `yes.' Of course, Guyana has some special problems seriously exacerbating the situation, such as a chronic shortage of qualified teachers. In the U.K., unlike here, most teachers in most schools are both qualified and tolerably competent. In Britain too, textbooks are available to all, and books in general are accessible in public institutions like libraries. The problem there is the absence of a book-reading culture in poor families, as opposed to a shortage of books.

Of course, sceptics might say that poverty has always been with us in Guyana, and that in the past children from very deprived homes went to Queens and Bishops. etc., and did well. The first thing that has to be remarked is that the matter of proportion is critical. No one can dispute that Guyana over the last decades has sustained the loss of its middle class which placed an overt emphasis on education, and that a far higher proportion of the pupils admitted into schools nowadays originate from impoverished homes than used to be the case. In the second place, in a pre-television era where a high percentage of the population was undeniably literate, reading of one kind or another was a past time among all sectors of the society.

Children saw books around them and were stimulated to read. Most of all, however, there was an acknowledgment throughout the population of the importance of education, and there was co-operation between teachers, parents and community in ensuring children received decent schooling. What is now a fluke in odd British schools in deprived areas, was virtually a system in Guyana. The destruction of that sense of community, so much a feature of the past, has undoubtedly been a major contributory factor in the decline of our levels of educational achievement.

The research coming out of the first world is something our educational planners need to ponder.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples