The first provisions for education in Trinidad and Tobago reflected the separate existence led by the various racial or ethnic groups that formed the population of the country. In that early period marked by Spanish or English colonial domination, African slavery and Indian indentureship, there was very little that could be considered formal education. As the years went by and the European, African and Indian segments of the population continued to coexist and the indigenous Amerindian people disappeared, an education system began to emerge that reflected the dominant European culture and bore very little relationship to the characteristics and needs of the non-European population.

The establishment of a formal education system was initiated by the colonial government with the construction of the "Ward Schools" at the primary level. By the time the British captured the island of Trinidad1 in 1797 after three centuries of Spanish rule, the Roman Catholic Church and some private bodies had already attempted to start a few schools by incorporating both primary and secondary education. By 1825, Williams2 records that there were only six schools in the island of Trinidad. One was an English female boarding school and three were French3 day schools in Port of Spain. One school was maintained by the Cabildo4 for teaching the English language, and a small day school was being operated in an Amerindian village where only Spanish was taught.

This Ward School System was set up by Lord Harris, who became governor of Trinidad in 1846 through an Ordinance that empowered the Government to establish a system of general secular instruction. Whereas until then the fundamental intent of education was evangelical, this Ordinance introduced schools where no religious instruction was to be imparted.

Lord Harris, who is credited with the now famous statement "that a race has been freed, but a society has not been formed," saw that education had a crucial role to play in forging a viable society out of the disparage groups that had come to inhabit the island, and that the descendants of the African slaves and indentured Indian workers needed more than the proselytizing education that the religious bodies were offering. During the years following the proclamation of this Ordinance, 30 Ward Schools were organized, as well as a model school for boys, one for girls, and a Normal School for Training teachers in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad.

In addition to prohibiting religious instruction in these schools, the other important features of the new system were the creation of a Board of Education, the removal of all school fees, the appointment of an Inspector of Schools, and the requirement that a public school should be established in each ward of the colony.

Although governed by the British, the Roman Catholic community that predominated in the colony initially acquiesced, but later expressed very strong opposition to the Harris secular education system. The Catholics and other religious denominations had continued to set up primary schools throughout the island without aid from public funds.

By 1869, the presiding governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, appointed P. J. Keenan, an Inspector of Schools under the Commission of National Education in Ireland, to make a full inquiry into the state of public education, whether secular or religious in the colony.

The following is a list of the Primary Schools which he visited and examined.

Public expenditure on the Ward Schools and the Normal and Model Schools was very inadequate. Williams reports that Keenan5 issued a devastatingly critical report on the state of education in the colony. Among his harshest comments were the following:

a) The school buildings would bring discredit upon any country that recognizes civilization as a principle of government.

b) A total lack of everything that gives character and tone to a well-worked school in Great Britain or Ireland.

c) The compilation of a set of school books suitable to the Colony and descriptive of its natural phenomena, productions, etc.

d) That the appointment of schoolmistresses should be encouraged with a special view to the teaching of needlework and that attached to each school there should be a workshop and garden in order that the boys might be taught carpentry and agriculture.

e) That instead of establishing any Government Normal School, a scheme of monitoring should be instituted as an effective means of providing highly qualified teachers for the Colony.

f) That the plan then is force of exclusive management on the part of the State should be abolished and that, in future, all schools should be placed under the care of responsible persons having local relation or connection with the places in which the schools were situated.

g) That the management of each Ward School should be vested in the clergyman of the same religion as the majority of the pupils such arrangement, however, not to operate to the prejudice of any person, clergyman or layman, who commanding a sufficient attendance of pupils and a suitable school house might choose to establish a school under his own management.

h) As regards religious instruction, that no child on account of class, creed or color, should be refused admittance to a school aided by the State; and that no child should be exposed directly or indirectly to the danger of proselytism.

i) That every manager should be allowed free scope as to the course or religious instruction he might choose to adopt, and as to the employment of the person by whom such instruction, at some convenient time, is given in the schoolroom.

j) That the parent, by a formal act of registration, should determine the religion of his child; and that the parish clergyman of the same religion as the child should then have the right to give his co-religionist instruction, at some convenient time, in the schoolroom.

k) That the principle of paying for ascertained results should be applied to the Trinidad teacher.

l) The propriety of extending to the East Indian immigrants the opportunity of participating in the advantages of the public system of education.

m) The abolition of the existing Board of Education and the appointment of a new Board of twelve members—six Roman Catholics and six Protestants. In essence then, Keenan recommended the abandonment of the existing government control over education and introduced the idea of dual control in which the Church and the State shared more evenly the responsibility and administration of the educational system. "Denominational" schools owned by a religious group but supported by public funds would be as much a part of the system as purely government schools.

In his report, Keenan6 made several far-reaching suggestions for improving the primary school system in the Colony. Following the recommendations in the Keenan Report, an Education Ordinance was passed in 1870 relating to both primary and secondary education. The Board of Education was established with the Governor as President. Primary schools were divided into two types—those already established or to be established by the Government and to be maintained entirely from public funds, and the so-called "assisted" schools to be established by local managers, to which aid would be given from public funds.

At the Government schools, direct religious teaching could not be part of the curriculum, but ministers of religion, or persons appointed by them, were to have access to the schools for the purpose of giving religious instructions to the children of their respective denominations. The conditions under which aid might be given to assisted schools by the Board of Education were:

a) That the property and control of the schools should be vested in trustees, who should be the local managers, having the power to appoint and dismiss the teachers.

b) That the teachers to be so appointed should be duly licensed by the Board of Education.

c) That the school be open to all children without distinction of race or religion.

d) That no child should receive any religious instruction objected to by the parent or guardian, or be present while such instruction was being given.

e) That free access should be given under regulations approved by the Board of Education to all ministers of religion or persons giving instructions to the pupils of their own persuasion.

f) That the schools should be at all times open to inspection.

g) That the fees, if any, payable by the scholars should not exceed in amount a scale to be fixed by the approval of the Board of Education.

h) That the rules and books of secular instruction should be subject to the approval of the Board of Education.

i) That the aid which Assisted Schools were to receive was to consist, first, of grants of money towards providing school houses and the furniture and apparatus (in such proportions to the amounts contributed by the local managers as the Board of Education might determine) and, secondly, of contributions towards the remuneration of the teachers.

The remuneration of the teachers of all primary schools was to consist:

a) of a fixed salary according to the class of the certificate from the Board of Education held by the teachers;

b) of a capitation grant in proportion to the attendance of the pupils at the school;

c) of a capitation grant in proportion to the educational results.

The local managers of assisted schools were to be responsible for one-fourth of the remuneration of the teachers. Power was given to the Board of Education to discontinue any government school in any district in which assisted schools sufficient for the instruction of the children of the district were established and conducted to the satisfaction of the Board.

However, in spite of the offers to the religious bodies in the 1870 Ordinance, it seems that only two primary assisted schools claimed grants in aid during the next five years. Thus in 1875, another Education Ordinance was passed authorizing alternative grants in aid to assisted schools, consisting of annual payments for each scholar who passed satisfactorily at the Inspector's annual examination of the school.

In the same year, a change was made in the Law relating to school fees. Until then, education was free in the Government schools, and the managers of assisted schools were at liberty to charge a fee—the amount of which was subject to approval by the Board of Education.

The competition of the free Government schools was thought to be a major reason for the small number of assisted schools established. Therefore, an Ordinance was passed requiring that fees be charged in all primary schools and that a certain proportion of fees be collected in order for an assisted school to receive aid. These changes in the system of grants increased the number of assisted schools to 35 during the next 3 years and to 76 during the 10 years following.

In 1889, the Governor Sir William Robinson appointed a Committee to study the educational system. It found that very few of Keenan's suggestions had been implemented and so another Education Ordinance was passed in 1890 that changed the grants to assisted schools. Instead of giving grants based on results, aid was to be given to managers to pay for up to three-fourths of buildings and school furniture and teachers' salaries. The compulsory payment of school fees was continued, but provision was made for exempting children of Indian immigrants during their term of indenture, and parents who were too poor to pay the fees.

In 1895, a Commission was appointed to investigate free and compulsory education in the primary schools. It recommended that primary education be offered free of charge, and that it be compulsory for children aged 6 to 10.

In 1899, Tobago was made a ward of Trinidad and Tobago, and 27 of its elementary schools under denominational management were brought under the control of the Board of Education.


1. Tobago came under British rule in 1802 after changing hands by the major European powers in the Caribbean.

2. Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (Trinidad and Tobago: People's National Movement Publishing Co. Ltd., 1962) 82.

3. Although Trinidad was never governed by France, large numbers of planters from the French-ruled islands settled in the country during the late 18th century.

4. The Cabildo was the Town Council that exercised some jurisdiction over the capital of Trinidad during Spanish rule.

5. Williams 20.

6. Trinidad and Tobago Department of Education, Triennial Report 1955-1958.