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La Educación
Número: (121) II
Año: 1995

The Origins of Educational Inequality in the British Caribbean

The education systems that were established and that evolved in the British Caribbean during the second half of the 19th century were closely related to social structure and, at the same time, were deliberately fashioned to preserve the status quo and reinforce class boundaries. Elementary education was therefore intended for working class children and since it was assumed that they would eventually replace their parents as agricultural laborers, it was felt that they should “be taught from their earliest years to take kindly to labor, to persevere in it and to be proud of it.” Mere book instruction was therefore inadequate and “education in its thoroughly practical sense [had to] be made available.”19 The inculcation of desirable attitudes and habits was also important. As the children progressed through elementary school they were expected to acquire “the habit of obedience, order, punctuality, honesty and the like,” which would then be likely to “stick to [them] all through life and make [them] better laborers.”20

Secondary schools were establishments to enable “the education of the middle class to keep pace with that obtained by the laboring class in the elementary schools.”21 It was defined as being “education of a higher grade among those classes of the community who would value it, if placed within their reach but whose means do not enable them to send their children to Europe for the purpose of receiving it.”22 Since the wealthiest classes were in fact schooling their children in Britain and France, by definition secondary education was intended for the rising middle class in the Caribbean. For example Keenan, the inspector sent by the British Government to make recommendations concerning education in Trinidad, found that the fathers of the children in the three leading secondary schools were professional men, planters, merchants or civil servants. He also found that 142 of the 184 children were white. The rest were colored.23

The two systems were designed to be separate from each other. It was not intended for working class children to attend secondary schools; the superior secondary schools were intended specifically for middle class children. Teachers in secondary schools were the products of secondary schools and British universities, while those in elementary schools had been selected from among the brightest products of these schools and trained in normal schools. The two systems operated like parallel lines which never met. “Inferior” elementary education for the many, “superior” secondary education for the few became the norm. For example in 1891, the government of Barbados was spending two-thirds of the funds allocated for education to educate five to six hundred pupils in secondary schools, while the remaining one-third was spent on the elementary schools which were providing education for the over 23,000 children of the working class.24

There was inequality even within the system of secondary education itself, particularly in those territories which had established a graded secondary school system. Whereas second grade schools were expected “to train the pupil in the power of analysis, in accuracy, in skillful command of language, and to teach him to make use of his reasoning power and his faculty of observation,” a first grade education was intended to “educate the boys’ taste and inform his mind, to create a desire for further information and to impart to him that undescribable something that we call “culture.”25 The same source attributed to primary schools the function of developing “memory, attention and intelligence.”26

But many children were not enrolled in any school. In some territories this number accounted for approximately half the children of school age. Thus, as late as 1889, the governor of Trinidad appealed to influential groups in the society on behalf of the 17,000 out of the 36,000 children in the island who were “not receiving any education whatever.”27 Statistics for Barbados show that in 1891, 48.5% of school-aged children did not recieve any education.28