Not every Christmas gift can be opened on Christmas Day. Some gifts stay secret long after delivery, one notable example being recent exposure of issues literally surrounding Queen’s Royal College (QRC). Public airing of problems at the school means unwrapping a Christmas gift received before independence. This is the first of a three-part series on an institution that arguably, matters more than any other institution to the welfare of Trinidad and Tobago. Part One locates the school within long-term effort to improve Trinidad and Tobago. Part Two situates QRC within the development of education internationally, while Part Three considers the unique position of QRC in twenty-first century Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean.
To summarise recent developments: in December 2016 the headline, “Cops vs QRC” broke news of an unusual confrontation between, on the one hand representatives of law and order and on the other hand, schoolboys. Unlike confrontations usually headlined in the media, this one caught the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) in a disarming, if not outright awkward position.
The subtitle, “TTPS gets land ahead of school” went to the heart of the matter. After two weeks of deliberation, the Ministry of Public Administration and Communications advised, “The old site of the Ministry of Education… is now being occupied in part by police officers.” Its Property and Real Estate Services Division (PRESD) cited “settled policy for the allocation of the State’s limited property resources” to explain why it “temporarily provided to the Guard and Emergency Branch” a building on the QRC compound. However, “settled policy” could hardly be older than the state itself. And timing of the Ministry’s release on Christmas Eve, at the peak of Christmas shopping threw light on a package unwrapped by PRESD, revealing a “gift” Trinidad and Tobago received before it became a state.
To appreciate unwrapping, in 2016 of what previously was an obscure gift, it is necessary to understand the pivotal role of Education Minister in the affairs of Trinidad and Tobago. The intimate relation between the Education portfolio and other matters of public interest was clear the moment the first ministerial appointee assumed office in 1950. A century of frustration spilled immediately onto a ministerial system in the making. Labour representatives in the new parliament spoke out for “the masses who are the suffering thousands in the Colony with their education-starved children.” 1
There was no mention of numerous matters that attracted public interest as the colony became independent. However, people interacting with children detected a threat that mattered more than lack of food. The Minister faced a confrontation, not with labour activists, but with well respected schoolteachers. A careful historian recorded his refusal to make education compulsory, or favour state provision above schools operated by religious denominations. “Great bitterness” followed. While elsewhere, the post-war years found people engaged in bloody confrontations on other issues, in Trinidad and Tobago a popular parent-teacher movement engaged a consultant called Eric Williams. And teachers passed a motion of no confidence in the colony’s first Education Minister.2
Controversy seemed to subside when a second Minister of Education took office. Broad teaching experience had swept John Shelford Donaldson into leadership of a pioneer teacher movement. A century after the governor of colonial Jamaica suggested compulsory education for the former slave population, Donaldson’s appointment as head of the Ministry of Education was logical. So also was what followed under Eric Williams, Chief Minister, Premier and after, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
There was a problem, however. Provision of schools in colonial Trinidad and Tobago depended on religious zeal. Spanish and French-speaking Catholics were the first to apply such zeal in establishing schools. In the 1850s English-speaking Anglicans, and a decade later Canada-based Presbyterians shared this religious work. Public funding strengthened the arrangement so that it became permanent. Four years after teachers voiced their lack of confidence in the Minister of Education, he commissioned a landmark report that detailed the outcome of religious zeal.3
The chart above pictures religious zeal: two established churches accommodated one half of enrollment in primary schools the colonial government recognised and helped to maintain with public funding. Together, three leading churches accounted for 68% of all enrollment. Gradual recognition, since 1948 of Hindu, Moslem and other Christian initiative had increased enrolment by 23,000 children – 15% of the total. Thus, religious zeal accounted for 83% of recognised primary school enrollment in 1954. In contrast, thanks to recent effort, the colonial administration accommodated 17% of the total.
To resolve bitterness over a keen, widespread desire for education, new authorities had to provide for 31,671 children still not enrolled in any school. With prospective self-government looming ahead, they had to coordinate expansion of suitable post-primary schooling. Another critical need was clear. As the Report to the first Education Minister put it, authorities had to assure “effective control over the type and quality of education imparted in private [in reality, all] schools, or the qualifications of the teachers employed in them.” 4
One man, Eric Williams had to decide with help, primarily from Donaldson. In a post-war, late colonial environment he needed to devise new provision, coordinate schools development and ensure quality teaching of an appropriate curriculum. This called for mediation between creating new non-denominational schools, QRC-style and on the other hand, reassuring traditional religious providers of inadequate, but highly regarded education. Prospects of ending educational starvation in Trinidad and Tobago pivoted on a decision announced in terse Assurances for the Preservation and Character of Denominational Schools:
The Minister of Education and Culture wishes to clarify for general information some of the proposals on Education with reference to the re-organization of Education so far as those proposals affect the Denominational Boards of Management, the Governing Bodies and Principals of Assisted Secondary Schools.
The timing of this notice then, and its repetition fifty-six years later remains a matter of curiosity. To add to that curiosity, the sole signatory was the leader of teacher initiative in 1950:
Signed by Hon. J.S. Donaldson, Minister of Education & Culture, on behalf of Cabinet on 22 December 1960, and published on 25 December, 1960.
Not only was the timing significant. The signatory was a local official in one province of what, at the time was the West Indies Federation. And underlying these considerations was a statistical detail: support for religious denominations that provided 83% of traditional primary school places outweighed the momentum of desire for education finally available in non-denominational schools.
The circumstances of this curious Christmas “gift” became clear in a political alliance formed to counter the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Eric Williams. Study of the alliance revealed “one unifying factor,” an “‘attack’ on the PNM’s ‘godlessness.’”5 Opposition to “godlessness” was not new in Trinidad and Tobago. The term referred to early teacher initiative in a PNM disposed to favour state schooling above denominational provision. And state favour for non-denominational provision was being modelled with outstanding success at QRC, symbol of “godlessness” in colonial Trinidad and Tobago.
In this context came another less obvious aspect of mediation between existing religious schools and implementation of new, secular provision. Government initiative in the 1960s to extend schools’ provision and broaden the basic curriculum brought QRC under intense pressure, ironically from the Ministry of Education. With relatively few trained, or competent teachers available, particularly for non-denominational teaching, no school was positioned to contribute the way QRC did to government initiatives. Through staff members such as Ralph Laltoo and Rowell Debysingh, this one school helped resource government initiative to assure universal education. The result was that, in supplying personnel for new government schools, no school suffered staff depletion, with unavoidable institutional loss the way QRC did.
Also, by the 1970s, the successor to John Donaldson moved the Education Ministry into buildings occupied previously by staff members such as Ralph Laltoo, on the western side of the compound. Loss of its Old Farmhouse, Loinsworth House and Masters’ Flats left the school literally boxed by the Ministry of Education into a space that made necessary extension and improvement impractical as its enrollment grew steadily larger.
QRC represented the question of progress for Trinidad and Tobago in a troubling way. Government offered assurances for preserving the character of denominational schools as it moved to guarantee universal provision, unachieved after over a century of effort by religious denominations. That achievement would necessarily come through non-denominational schools. However, Government offered no assurance to the one school that flew the national flag for non-denominational provision. Slow unwrapping started of the “gift” delivered on Christmas day, as Trinidad and Tobago approached independence.
1 Butler, Tubal Uriah “Buzz”, “Relation Between the Masses and Present Education Needs,” The People 8 July 1950, 2.
2 Mark A. Mc Peanne, ‘Birth of the People’s National Movement’, http://www.pnm.org.tt/ content/about_pnm.shtml (21 October 2009).
3 Leslie R Missen, Education in Trinidad and Tobago – Report of the Working Party, (Port of Spain, 1954).
4 Ibid., 5.
5 Scott B. McDonald, Trinidad and Tobago: Democracy and Development in the Caribbean, (New York: Praeger, 1986), 109.
I belong to the Mossi people of Burkina Faso in West Africa, brought to the Caribbean in years when Tobago changed hands as many as thirty times among rival European states. The reason for that rivalry was obvious. My ancestors were taken to Tobago to work for Scottish planters primarily. They grew cotton and sugar cane, generating wealth legendary in Edinburgh and London at the end of the eighteenth century. I am also the product of circumstances described on a "mystery" tombstone in Plymouth, on the western side of Tobago. It reminds readers of the nameless mother held in a relationship like one in my ancestral line that left me with the Scottish name, Scobie. Those were the years when samaan trees first stood distinct on the Tobago skyline as Moravians and long after, Seventh-day Adventists made schools so much a part of everyday life that islanders began to see education no longer as a privilege, but as a right.