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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
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
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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