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Getting in on the 20 per cent

By Lara Pickford-Gordon



How many of us know about the process used by principals for the selection of the 20 per cent, apart from the persons in the education sector and the parents of different faiths seeking to get their children into a “good school”?  There have been debates about its unfairness, allegations of something amiss but what exactly happens?

The 20 per cent process  

The Catholic News spoke to the principals of two RC secondary schools who elaborated on the procedure. Firstly, the 20 per cent is selected after the 80 per cent is placed; it is 20 per cent of the new intake of First Form pupils. If for example, a school has three Form One Classes each with 36 pupils the total intake will be 108; of this, the 20 per cent will be only 22 pupils.

To be on the 20 per cent list, the child’s parent/guardian must complete a form from the school they wish them to attend.  The form can be most easily accessed if the parent knows a teacher at the school or if they have an older child attending the school. However, anyone can approach the school for a form.  Parents apply months ahead of the SEA exam.

The “bottom line” is religion of the child. “The faith of the child is supposed to be of that of the school that the parent wants the child to go to, so they are supposed to be practising Catholics or practising Anglicans or whatever,” principal A said.

Principal B said there is a perception the 20 per cent is a “back door thing” and “secret” but the process has been around since the Concordat.  They maintained it is in “in support of the religion of the school” whether Hindu, Muslim, Anglican.  The principal said there was never any secret with the 20 per cent placement since all students placed at secondary schools inclusive of the 20 per cent used to be published in the newspapers.

The form also asks the parent to provide a recommendation from someone who knows the family and child. Interviews may also occur in order to verify the information provided. There are parents who will claim to be Catholic only to get in on the 20 per cent therefore, schools request baptismal and First Communion certificates.

“That’s just for our purposes so we know for sure the parents really are or the child is really serious about being part of our Catholic tradition. If we don’t do that, the majority of students that come to our school and to many other schools, the majority of the children are not of the faith,” Principal A said.  They explained in particular areas in the country where there is “a preponderance” of children who are East Indian, many may not be Catholic but they have attained top scores and are in the 80 per cent.

The Catholic News was told many of the children on the 20 per cent list may have narrowly “missed the cut off mark” for the school they are trying to get into. For example, if the student must get between 223 and 250 to be selected in the 80 per cent but made 220.

The principals of denominational schools are called in by the Ministry individually to select their 20 per cent.  “We have a list of names from the forms, so, when called by the Ministry, we go with a list of names for our 20 per cent and then from the list the ministry gives us we choose if we see the child’s name is on that list”. The child’s scores are not shown but they are normally listed based on how they performed in the exam, the weaker students will be listed lower. The child’s primary school, religion and choices for secondary schools are shown. “If the principal has that name as one of his 20 per cent, he will choose that child accordingly because many schools may go with 200 children on the list for 20 per cent so they have to come up with some kind if system of who they are going to choose,” Principal A said.

Principal B said apart from religion, criteria which used by a school can be: the child has siblings in the school; they are the child of an alumni; or their parent teaches at the school. After choosing from the ministry’s list, the names are removed.

The 20 per cent enables students who are not necessarily the top performing to get into RC secondary schools.  “Even if you are academically weaker, that is what Catholic Education is about. It is about educating the child not because they ‘bright’ but it is about educating the child and helping that child come to a full human being, spiritually, emotionally, academically too but it is an all-round thing,” Principal A said.

Principal B said many people do not understand the history of Catholic secondary schools. St Joseph’s Convent (SJC) Port of Spain was established in 1836, SJC St Joseph 1870, SJC San Fernando 1880; St Mary’s College 1863; Holy Name PoS 1904; St Benedict’s College 1930; Fatima College 1945; The early denominational schools began as private schools and with the Concordat became “assisted schools”.  They remain private property.

He said the Concordat places the religion of denominational schools as “paramount” and the state supports this. It is understood schools are not to proselytise.


Another consideration when selecting a child for the 20 per cent is that the child actually wants to attend the school. With few places available to start with, Principal B said, “No school chooses a child that does not want to come there”.  Principal B clarified that filling out a form to get the child on the 20 per cent list does not guarantee they will be chosen.

What about the parents trying to get an advantage by offering inducements to schools, Principal B said they rejected outright because they would not risk their position to be “in the pocket” of anyone.  Even if approaches were made it was up to the ethics of the principal. It was also illegal.  “You can be charged…you can lose your job; we are public servants also.”

Choosing a ‘good’ school 

To increase the chance of their son or daughter getting into a ‘good’ school some parents will choose four top schools as their four choices. This is not advised, given the competition to get into these schools and especially if the child cannot attain the standards required.

“Some parents are unrealistic. They see their child performing in a particular manner and still put schools that are in high demand…. Then do the 20 per cent thing hoping they squeeze in on that and if it does not happen like that they are vex,” Principal A said.

They said the choices of schools should be a “fit” for the child. Parents can visit schools and speak to the principal or vice-principal to get information.  “A child may be performing consistently at the top, [but] one top girls’ school may be a better fit for a child’s personality than another top girls’ school,” they commented.

The principal noted there are parents who just want to call the name of a prestige school and feel proud but, “some children struggle badly in those schools”. They added, “You don’t hear about the ones who leave these schools with few, zero passes or actually leave school before…”.  Principal A said some parents look for a miracle. “Once your child is going to a particular school something happens in the school and he or she will do well academically or they will take part in all the clubs and become this fine upstanding citizen despite what is happening at home”.

The principal underscored, “It does not matter what school he or she goes to they will do well if that parent is supportive”.