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Church schools secure privileges before crucial election

The prospect of independence for Trinidad and Tobago threatened to end the tradition of mission schools. These were state subsidised, but “totally controlled” by each religion’s Denominational Board. Just before a crucial election the religious interests pressured the government to accept an education “concordat” which hampered government plans for school reform.

 The 1960 concordat, signed on the brink of Independence, represents a compromise. The government of Dr. Eric Williams planned a national education system for the new country, but the religious interests, led by the Catholic Church, wanted to retain the control that they had exercised throughout the colonial period. Williams, smarting under the six-four defeat his party had received in the 1958 election, feared that opposition from the Church might lead to a further defeat in the upcoming 1961 election. He had already experienced its tactics in the run-up to the 1956 election.  Roman Catholic priests had attacked his party from the pulpit up to the very day before the election, when a newspaper even featured on its front page a statement by a priest, with a photograph of Williams placed beside one of Adolf Hitler. [1]

Williams wanted others to have the same chance to a good education that, against all odds, he had managed, and during the six years leading up to independence his government doubled the expenditure on the country’s schools. [2] His party went on to win the 1961 election on a platform of secondary education for all — “to educate is to emancipate.” [3]

The government had four good reasons for wanting to curb the religious interests which had “totally controlled” education in the Colony. [4]

♦  First was the need to meld the diverse population into a functioning state and not to continue separating children along religious lines (which, in Trinidad and Tobago, also tend to follow ethnic ones).

♦  Second, was the desire to give the children the best curriculum and the best teachers, rather than letting the religious schools force both to conform to their doctrines. Yet, in the end, the government was forced to cede control to the Denominational Boards in articles 2 and 4 of the concordat. Another concern was teacher qualifications and in articles 8 and 9 there is a compromise about teacher training and certification. Prof. Spence points out that this still obliges the state to subsidise “unqualified” teachers in the denominational schools, some of whom have neither a university degree nor teacher training. [5]

♦  Third, the government realised that the new nation needed more varied skills than the denominational schools could impart. These had concentrated on educating a small elite primarily through courses in the arts. [6] By contrast, the government promised to provide secondary education of some type for every child who would benefit. [7] To this end it introduced “Central Schools” which included courses in the agricultural, technical and commercial fields. [8] The Denominational Boards, both then and since, have shown no interest in doing likewise. Yet they feared that the government would do it for them by taking over some of their secondary schools in order to offer a more practical curriculum. [9] Articles 1 and 7 serve to prevent this. Thus even today the “prestige schools” which focus on an academic curriculum are mainly denominational. 

♦  Fourth, the government wanted to give equal opportunity to all. Yet the religious schools are better endowed and cater to higher-income pupils. They receive government subsidies and, at the same time, are more successful than the state schools in raising private funds, and thus can afford better facilities. [10] Furthermore, article 5 of the Concordat lets the Denominational Boards cherry pick the best pupils for 20 percent of the places. According to a Trinidadian editor the concordat has meant that many children of lower-income families have been nudged aside, “which has deprived many a bright schoolchild of a deserved chance at upward mobility”. He concludes: “Taxpayers' money should not be employed to fund and maintain privilege”. [11]

In the light of this situation, Prof. Spence ends his commentary with a beautifully-phrased proposal.

If indeed education is better in denominational schools then we must ensure that government schools are brought up to the best level. In the meanwhile the denominational schools should be allocated at least fifty percent of candidates from the lower end of the SEA [Secondary Entrance Assessment] pass list and such students must be given special attention. I am basing this proposal on the fact that religious denominations are concerned with the good of society as a whole and in particular with helping the disadvantaged and so I am certain this proposal will have the full support of the denominations. [12]


1. [George Alleyne], “Government must rethink the 1960 Concordat”, Newsday, 12 March 2003.,1952.html

2. Carl C. Campbell, Endless education: main currents in the education system of modern Trinidad and Tobago 1939-1986, Press of the University of the West Indies, 1977, p. 102. Google reprint 

3. Derren Joseph, “Postcolonial Education and Afro-Trinidadian Social Exclusion” in Merete Falck Borch, ed., Bodies and voices : the force-field of representation and discourse in colonial and postcolonial studies, 2008, p. 295. Google reprint

4. Campbell, p. 103.

5. John Spence [Professor Emeritus and former Senator of Trinidad and Tobago], “The Concordat on Education”, Trinidad and Tobago Express, 6 April 2006.

6. Campbell, p. 105.

7. Joseph,  p. 295.

8. Campbell,  p. 109.

9. Campbell, p. 104.

10. UNESCO IBE [International Bureau of Education], World Data on Education, 6th edition - Trinidad and Tobago, August 2006.

The [Education Act of 1966] Act enshrines compulsory, free education for all children aged 6-12 in public schools. [...] The reality is that free schooling continues for most of the secondary school population, until age 15. It is only because of a shortfall of secondary school places (for about 25%-30% of the cohort) that compulsory, formal, free education comes to an end for some students at age 12. Even so, many in this group are accommodated until age 15 in post-primary classes. Free education means that students do not pay tuition fees but they do pay for books, school uniforms, and transport.

11. Alleyne.

12. Spence, 20 March 2006.


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