Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Until the twentieth century, education in Trinidad and Tobago was designed primarily to prepare the elite for study abroad and the eventual assumption of political and economic leadership roles in the society. With the exception of a few missionary schools, slaves were discouraged from attaining even minimal literacy skills. Educational opportunities did not expand greatly following emancipation; the first teacher-training program was not begun until 1852, and the first public secondary institution did not open its doors until 1925.

The public school program, which was modeled after the British system, took form in the twentieth century and eventually opened up avenues for upward mobility to all elements of society. The East Indian population, because of its lower socioeconomic status, was the last segment of society to benefit from education, but it eventually became known as one of the most academically motivated groups on the islands.

In addition to government-sponsored schools, private denominational institutions were created to pass on cultural and religious instruction, as well as traditional academic knowledge and skills. Public financial assistance to Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Muslim, and Hindu institutions eventually evolved into the modern education system of the 1980s, which incorporated schools that were both publicly and privately administered.

Under the authority of the Ministry of Education, the school system in the late 1980s consisted primarily of government and publicly assisted denominational schools. The former were administered and financed under public supervision, whereas the latter were privately controlled by religious groups, yet financed with public funds. Both maintained a similar curriculum and were free to all students who could pass the admission tests. Approximately 27 percent of all primary students attended government schools; the rest were enrolled in denominational programs, most of which were Roman Catholic.

Formal primary education commenced at age six, although many parents elected to send younger children to readily available kindergarten programs for one or two years prior to entering the school system; education was compulsory through age eleven. In the 1982-83 school year, virtually all school-age children were enrolled in one of the 467 primary institutions. At that time, there were approximately 7,500 teachers, who instructed nearly 167,000 primary students, providing a student to teacher ratio of 23 to 1.

Successful completion of primary school, as determined by a national examination, permitted students to pursue instruction at the secondary level; those who did not pass were allowed to continue primary education for an additional two years, enter a private secondary institution, or leave the school system. Junior secondary education was also available at government and assisted schools, of which there were a total of twenty-three in 1983. Total enrollment was approximately 39,000 pupils with a teaching staff of 1,400. The program consisted of three years of study in general academic subjects. Virtually all those who finished were advanced to the senior comprehensive program, which afforded an additional four years of more specialized academic or vocational instruction. There were 18 such schools in 1983, employing roughly 1,600 teachers and instructing approximately 22,000 students.

Numerous options were available during the secondary-school years in the late 1980s. In addition to academic programs, students could enter five-year technical education or teacher-training programs at the Point Fortin Vocational Center, John S. Donaldson Technical Institute, San Fernando Technical Institute, or one of the five teacher-training colleges. Instruction was offered in mechanical repair, clerical skills, construction, and education. The Eastern Caribbean Institute of Agriculture operated a two-year program that graduated approximately fifty students each year. Students who completed the full seven years of secondary academic training were eligible for further instruction at the university level.

The St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies was the only local institution of higher eduction in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980s. It offered both graduate and undergraduate programs in liberal arts, agriculture, science, engineering, and law. Total enrollment, including foreigners, was between 2,000 and 3,000 in the mid-1980s.

Although education was looked upon as a way of achieving upward mobility and was generally admired in Trinidadian society in the 1980s, the education system achieved only partial success in meeting the needs of society. Despite increases in the national literacy level from 74 percent in 1946 to 95 percent in 1984 and expanded efforts to develop both academic and vocational programs, employment statistics suggested that significant gaps still existed in the 1980s between formal education and the needs of a developing society.

In the mid-1980s, some observers contended that vacillating employment figures were the result of simultaneous surpluses and shortages in the work force. Although additional statistical evidence was needed to determine detailed manpower trends, it was clear that the unemployment rate of unskilled workers had gone above 25 percent, while many skilled and professional positions could not be properly filled. This situation was attributed to a deficient education system (particularly the lack of vocational training), the emigration of trained personnel, and unrealistic expectations of unskilled job seekers. These observers also noted that the highest unemployment rate was among those who had attained between one and six years of education. Members of this group refused to take menial jobs held by less educated segments of the population, yet they were unqualified to fill positions requiring specific knowledge or skills.

Increased training of teachers, greater skills instruction for those students considered unlikely to complete the junior secondary programs, and realignment of expectations of both students and workers were thought to be critical improvements. Without these changes the education system would be unable to affect employment patterns and assist with national development.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress