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What makes a successful school?

By Kevin Baldeosingh

Private primary schools had the highest number of pupils in the Top 200 list for the SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment) examination this year. And Government and Roman Catholic primary schools had the lowest numbers, despite having the most pupils enrolled in their schools. (See Box One)
“Our watchword for success is commitment,” says Lynette Lalla-Chote, owner and principal of the Specialist Learning Centre (SLC), which had 10 pupils among the top 200. Of the 72 pupils from the SLC who wrote the SEA exam, 67 passed for their first choice school. There was a total of ten private schools which had 37 pupils among the top 200, even though private schools account for just one per cent of all pupils writing the SEA exam.
Similarly, the Muslim schools, although accounting for just four per cent of primary school pupils, had 26 pupils in the top 200, with 18 of them coming from the Trinidad Muslim League (TML) schools in St Joseph and San Fernando. These schools, plus a third in Rio Claro, have about 1,100 pupils.
“TML schools always had good administrators,” explained Farouk Khan, secretary of the nine-member TML school board. “There is a culture of working hard and having high standards.” This year, 66 per cent of the pupils from the St Joseph school passed for their first choice, while 98 per cent of the pupils from the San Fernando TML did.
The Government primary schools did the worst, having only seven per cent of top pupils even though government schools account for 30 percent of total enrolment. Moreover, of the 14 pupils placing in the top 200, six of them came from one school – Chaguanas Government Primary School, which also had 60 per cent of its SEA pupils passing for their first-choice schools. “It’s a matter of motivation,” says Asha Rampersad, who has been principal since 2007. “Here we work as a team.”
Lalla-Chote and Khan also emphasised the importance of the teachers in the success of their schools.
“The success of a school is never dependent on one person.” Lalla-Chote said. “My teachers are well-paid, they have a certain number of days they can take but, if they don’t use them, they are paid for those days.”
The SLC, which is marking its 20th year anniversary this September, has 30 teachers and averages 600 pupils. “New teachers are never given a class,” said Lalla-Chote. Instead, they spend three months helping other teachers or filling in for any who are absent. At the end of that time, they decide if they can handle the hard work or Lalla-Chote decides if they have the right attitude for the centre. She herself still teaches classes full-time after 55 years in the profession. “I love teaching. I think that God has put me in a job where I can make a difference,” she said. “I lead by example.” All SLC teachers also have their bachelor’s in education or are encouraged to get it.
Khan also pointed to TML recruitment process as a key factor. Every prospective teacher is interviewed by the board members, most of whom have some background in teaching. Interviewees are rated on a spreadsheet, with the highest and lowest marks for each category being discarded. The names are then sent to the Ministry of Education for approval.
“We take complaints seriously,” Khan said. If a parent says that their child isn’t getting enough work, for example, the board will call the teacher in to get his side and look at his books. And, although all the TML teachers are Muslims, Khan says that there is no favouritism. “They don’t get any favours when they come to the board, just because they have relatives in the mosque,” he said.
The 40-plus teachers at Chaguanas Government Primary are all appointed by the ministry with no screening from the school. But, says Rampersad, who describes herself as a visionary leader. “When they come here, they become different teachers. The culture, the ethos, of the school lends to how the staff will perform.” She added, “I tell my staff this is not a job, it is a vocation, a calling from God.” Every staff meeting starts with a prayer and includes a professional development component.
In their book The Teaching Gap, pedagogy researchers James W Stigler and James Hiebert note: “Although we applaud the desire to raise standards for certification and to increase the pool of talented teachers, we believe that long-term improvement in teaching will depend more on the development of effective methods for teaching than on the identification and recruitment of talented individuals into the profession.”
Khan noted that Islamic principles, like accountability (ihsaan), underlie the school’s culture. “Our principals walk the corridors and check the lesson books,” he said. Rampersad also this was standard practice for her and her vice-principal.
Khan added, “Islam means submission, and we foster obedience in our schools.” However, in the St Joseph school, one-third of the pupils are non-Muslim while in the San Fernando TML, half are. But all pupils attend the religious instruction classes, except for the ones where Muslim prayers are taught. While the Concordat allows parents to reject their child being taught any particular religion, Khan said the only objection had come from Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Lalla-Chote said, “Our goal is to get the best out of every child.” Noting that all children may not be academically inclined, she said that the SLC looked to develop each child’s talent. She rejected the suggestion that the private schools did better because only well-off parents could afford to send their children to these schools. “We have children of civil servants here, even a gardener,” she said. “You have parents who are struggling, but they make the sacrifice.”
Chaguanas Government’s pupils, who number just under 900, all come from the catchment area, though Rampersad noted that there were parents who rented in Chaguanas just so their children could get into the school. The school also got assistance from corporate citizens.
Khan, who admitted that many TML pupils came from high socioeconomic backgrounds, also said that the schools’ main goal was to produce “a well-rounded pupil who can cope with a normal secondary school, and who strives for excellence at all times.”
Rampersad echoed this sentiment, saying, “I want to put a child out there who can take his or her place in society, not just be a brilliant academic.”
Education consultant Pasi Sahlberg, in his book Finnish Lessons, notes that progressive education systems are moving away from high-stakes exams and toward continuous assessment. This is because, in an exam-oriented system, teachers “adjust teaching methods to drilling and memorising information rather than understanding knowledge”. Box Two lists the main elements of Finland’s continuous assessment system, which produces pupils who routinely top international tests.
Lalla-Chote said the main challenge the centre faced was not having the full support of some parents. The children of single parents sometimes had difficulties, she said, recalling one incident of a child who had not had breakfast. “That indicates a bigger problem in the home,” she said.
Khan also pointed to parents as the schools’ biggest challenge. “The younger parents are not loyal to the mosque or the religion,” he said. However, he emphasised that all the stake-holders – teachers, parents and ministry – had a good relationship. All three educators said that their schools had very well-attended and active PTAs. “Without that parental involvement, you wouldn’t have that kind of success,” said Rampersad.
In terms of pedagogy, Khan said there was no significant difference in the way TML teachers approached their lessons from other schools. “However, we are ahead in technology. We had one of the first computer labs, and all our teachers are technology trained,” he said. Professional re-training was also a regular part of the TML school year.
Lalla-Chote said that SLC teachers taught mathematical concepts using practical examples, while English language was taught as a second language, since most children spoke the Trinidadian dialect. She also emphasised the need to teach poetry properly for children to get a proper grasp of the language.
Rampersad did not identify any specific subject-area approaches, instead saying, “We work on changing their attitude, because if you have a disciplined class, you will have optimum academic performance.”
But what is the core factor which has these schools producing so many top pupils? Raymond Hackett, a lecturer and trainer at UWI’s School of Education says, “I have found no significant differences in teaching methods between performing and non-performing schools. What distinguishes the better schools is leadership – the boards and the principals and the heads of departments. It is the personality and philosophy of the good teachers and the leaders which makes the difference.”
But Stigler and Hiebert write: “Teaching is a cultural activity. We learn how to teach indirectly, through years of participation in classroom life, and we are largely unaware of some of the most widespread attributes of teaching in our own culture.”

Box One: Ratio of school enrolment to top pupils

Category School enrolment per cent Top 200
per cent
Government 30 per cent 7 per cent
Roman Catholic 26 per cent 8 per cent
Presbyterian 15 per cent 18 per cent
Hindu 10 per cent 8 per cent
Muslim 4 per cent 13 per cent
Private/Other 1 per cent 18 per cent

Source – Ministry of Education

Box Two: Main elements of continual assessment

• Personalised learning and creative teaching.
• Students’ progress judged against their respective characteristics and abilities, rather than by uniform standards and statistical indicators.
• Each school is responsible for determining a student’s personal and cognitive progress.
• Data about student achievement in various subjects are collected through sample-based standardised tests and thematic reviews.

Source: Sahlberg, 2011

Box Three: Principles for a better education system

1. Aim for continual, gradual, incremental improvements
2. Focus on student learning goals.
3. Focus on teaching methods, not teachers.
4. Make improvements in context of society, school, and classroom.
5. Give teachers responsibility for improvements.
6. Ensure system records and shares improvements between teachers.

Source: Stigler & Hiebert, 1999
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