Not Such a Brilliant Idea

This is the text of a talk presented to Northeastern College Alumni in the College auditorium at Sangre Grande, Trinidad and Tobago on 19 July, 2016.

Class of '66

Just two of us, Class of ’66

Why government schools?

You and I, we have lived through what, easily, is the most exciting phase in the life of these twin islands. In 1962, as just two of us here tonight were entering Northeastern, Eric Williams wrote his the History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. He observed how earlier, the colonial government was spending more on police and prisons than it did on education. There were reasons why, which we do not have the time to look into now.

As you know, Eric Williams changed that old pattern of spending. Not on his own, but because he was pushed to do just that by an organization called the People’s Education Movement! With their support, he accomplished what government had not even tried to do in a hundred years.

In 1859 the Governor led a bold attempt to establish government schools in the British colony of Trinidad. He opened the first secondary school, setting aside £3,000 sterling annually for this special institution. Converted into today’s curreney, that is roughly two point eight million Trinidad and Tobago dollars ($TT2,800,000).

That figure hardly changed. In 1962 government and government-assisted secondary schools held 15,000 students. The first year of independence found a new Government spending roughly the equivalent of 1.7 times the amount colonial administrators spent on a single school in 1859. Then the pattern of spending changed. Within five years of independence, state spending on secondary schools rose sharply from four to seven million dollars.

Enrolment in Government and Assisted Schools (1859, 1958-1967 Main Source: Digest of Statistics on Education, Trinidad and Tobago Central Statistical Office

Enrolment in government and government-assisted secondary schools rose just as sharply, to 27,000. That was only the beginning. And again, there were reasons why enrolment now grew dramatically. As you know, Northeastern rode the crest of this wave of effort to change government spending to improve, or develop Trinidad and Tobago.

What was the point of this grand effort to increase secondary school enrolment?

Ripening cocoa podLet’s take the case of one young woman. Her father was a laborer on a cocoa estate; her mother, a housewife before she went blind, when the job of running the household fell onto an eight-year old and on her sister, Irene. This was the background to attendance by Eva at elementary school, as she put it, on the ten commandments. Five at the end of each foot.

John Homer and his wife Pearlie, were teachers who saw Eva’s potential and encouraged her to the extent that she became the first child at North Oropouche RC School to win a College Exhibition.

That is when it became necessary for Eva David to wear shoes. She had passed for St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph and could not go there with bare feet. Though it cost so much to get them, she remembers, “I couldn’t even walk in them.” But in time, she learnt more than how to walk in shoes, despite the many difficulties in her life.

Eva had to wake at five in the morning in order to get to school on time. So she was pleased when, within two years Northeastern opened and she was able to attend school there. Then illness struck. In January, February and March of her last year at school, rheumatoid arthritis left her hospitalized just when she was due to be preparing for exams. She remembers getting out of hospital on 24 April and writing her first exam on the 24th of May, feeling that it was a lost cause. And how exhilarated she felt some months later on learning that she had done well enough to pass seven of her eight subjects, one of them with distinction.

This is the beginning of the story of Eva David-Swain, who describes herself as “A Glutton for Education,” the equivalent of what Eric Williams describes in his autobiography as Inward Hunger. It is the reason why, by 1964 a new government raised enrolment higher than church and state had together been able to do in the previous hundred years in colonial Trinidad and Tobago. Repeated thousands of times over in our country, it illustrates why spending more on police and prisons than on schools like Northeastern, and on children like Eva David was not the most brilliant idea.

That is the reason for  government schools.