Noble: The Opportunity gap and crime—how wealth, connections and education wall off working class children

On 30 May 2015, the then Prime Minister, Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar said: “Without education and training, you are doomed to remain at your same level. That is why my government provides so much money for educating the young people.”

This high-sounding statement masks the reality of life and promotes the myth of a “Trinidadian dream”, where every creed and race finds an equal place. It presupposes that every citizen has an equal opportunity for success.

Spectators look on during the 2019 Independence Day Parade in Port of Spain.
(Copyright Ministry of National Security)

It holds the view that if we were to work hard and play by the rules, we would be rewarded with success. The truth is that working hard does not guarantee success—however, that success may be defined.

As a former colony, we never paused sufficiently long to consider the form of education we desired for our children. In his description of the secondary school curriculum of 1961, Dr Eric Williams said it was “pronouncedly metropolitan in scope orientation and character, designed to prepare the students for metropolitan examinations and metropolitan university systems.”

That system remains unchanged. We may have substituted CXC and CSEC for the GCE “O” and “A” levels, but the system remains intact.

We jostle each other to celebrate what we term academic success, hardly acknowledging that we are still living in the backwaters of a global economy. We fail to recognise that many of our best students go abroad, never to return.

Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams (standing) addresses the opening session of the Independence Conference at Marlborough House, London on 28 May 1962.
The talks lasted about two weeks and resulted in Independence for Trinidad and Tobago.
(Copyright AP Photo/
Staff/ Laurence Harris)

In our several analyses of what ails our society, we do not accept that we live unstable, dangerous lives because we have not developed our own engines of growth. We are hangers-on to the developed economies, subject to all their quirks.

Having rejected the paths of Eric Williams and Michael Manley, we continue to embrace the illusions of Edward Seaga. We do this despite the explicit declaration of Henry Kissinger: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

In her latest paper, Rhoda Reddock quotes Saskia Sassen (2014) to explain our economic plight: “…the past two decades have seen a sharp growth in the number of people, enterprises and places expelled from the core social and economic orders of our time.”

A protest at Fanny Government Primary School.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

We have experienced the dizzying effect of roller coaster energy prices. Our sense of significance in a global setting is derived and subject to the whims of others.

Education became the gateway for personal wealth creation rather than a public good in its own right. But this drive for money became complicated by the rise of drug-related activity, which also delivers cash rewards.

Consequently, our society has become divided—some pursue formal education, and others criminality and violence.

Yet we do not stop to evaluate but persist in promoting the achievements of the privileged few. We do not pause to examine the opportunity gap that leads to this unsatisfactory situation.

We buy into the “we-them” binary explanation of our society: we work hard and are successful; they are lazy and immoral and tend to criminality. If they were like us, life would be safer, and we would all be happy.

St Mary’s College supporters celebrate their triumph over Trinity College East during a Secondary School Football League (SSFL) contest on 9 September 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/ Wired868)

But if merit determined who went to our prestige schools, then all the places would be decided on one’s ability. But this does not happen. Instead, family income is a key predictor.

The wealthier your family is, the more likely you are to attend a decent secondary school. While a few will succeed because of their ability and hard work, many will benefit from their inherited wealth and opportunities.

The system that was intended to provide equal opportunity to all has turned into a hereditary class structure. The educated ones pass on their money and connections to their children. Their children benefit from witnessing their work ethic and participating in conversations which expand their vocabulary.

These professionals spend inordinate amounts of time researching their children’s schools. They pump money into them. They know which schools are the gateways to the best secondary schools and that escalator only carries the special few.

On your marks…

The children growing up in other circumstances fall behind and have less chance of achieving parity. School is now walled off from the working class. The life and struggles of this group are unrecognisable by the Fortunates.

The notion of fairness is cruel, since it implies that you have nobody to blame for your inability to rise. Success is earned, or so we are led to believe. Failure is the result of bad choices and decisions.

“You did not work hard enough!”

The successful ones carry around a grim sense of satisfaction when they meet someone less fortunate. There is no conception of how class and privilege, and opportunity happen.

We fail to recognise that families outside the pale of opportunity will remain there for generations. These families do not have a sense of career options besides what they see in their communities. Therefore, the young people do not believe they can dream about alternatives.

Keep going…

Sadly, many teachers never encourage them to do so. Students cannot generally perform better than the expectations of their teachers.

If a teacher believes a child has no future, the child fulfils that prophecy (Noguera, 2010).

The assumption that there is equal opportunity masks the lack of resources in the schools in specific neighbourhoods. This mistaken belief leads those who do not live in the community or are unfamiliar with the school environment to conclude that the lower achievement levels are caused by the intrinsic characteristics of the students, their families and the community.

We ignore the reality that affluent parents do not stomach neglect of maintenance of school buildings and more successfully lobby for computer labs and other facilities. They have the time to visit the schools to complain about things that do not satisfy them.

Online education supposedly exacerbated societal inequalities.

The wage earners do not have that leverage in their children’s schools.

The preschool surroundings in the communities where the wage earners live do not give the students the skills to become independent learners. The children do not have the home experiences that would allow them to develop communication and interaction skills.

The classes have more students, and many teachers—if present—are less qualified (World Bank, 1983).

On top of these disadvantages, some students suffer emotional and mental challenges arising from their home situations. The schools in these neighbourhoods also face the constant churn of teachers who leave at the first opportunity for a better school or job.

These factors militate against any improvement in achievement in all but the best children.

Education for all…

Our gross inequality is memorialised in the World Bank (1996) report):

“Not only did T&T’s 9-year-old students perform poorly by international comparison, but there were also large between-school differences … The intraclass correlation [or] rho was 0.32, indicating that 32 per cent of the variation in achievement is between the schools, and 68 per cent is between students within schools.”

Often 0.3 is taken as the cut-off point for identifying serious equity problems.

“The 14-year-olds performed slightly better. However, the rho was 0.58, indicating that 58 per cent of the variation in achievement is between the schools, a very serious equity problem.

“By contrast, the rho in Finland was 0.02, indicating it does not matter which school a student attends, she would have learned as much.”

Students learn at a school in Finland.

How do we remedy this situation? How do we pay our debt to these students and their parents?

We can invest more heavily in early childhood centres and so narrow the gaps between students at the start of school. We can maintain these early gains by providing continued comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years, including meaningful engagement of parents and communities.

Will we condemn our children to lives of crime to make a living? Or will we revamp the schools which serve them and thereby provide an opportunity for a better life?

The choice is ours.

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