The Development of Primary Education from 1838 to 1876 By Cecilia McAlmont
Stabroek News
September 26, 2002

Related Links: Articles on historical features
Letters Menu Archival Menu

The theme for Education month this year is "Learn to Read, Read to Learn." This theme is extremely apt at this particular point in time, given the frightening deterioration in literacy among our youths who in the not too distant future would be inheriting the mantle of leadership of our country. In the immediate post emancipation period, permitting the ex slaves and their children to learn to read became an important part of Christianizing and therefore 'civilizing' them. Literacy came to be a mechanism of social control. When the ex slaves but especially their offspring did not go to school voluntarily in large enough numbers to suit the ruling classes, measures were put in place to compel them to do so. The focus of this article is the development of primary education from the end of apprenticeship to the introduction of compulsory primary education in 1876.

In the period after the abolition of the slave trade, the idea of educating the black population especially the slaves was anathema to all the West Indian planters. They were very conscious of the fact that while education could help to maintain the social status quo, it could also have a liberating effect on the beneficiaries by opening the possibilities of new horizons. However, ever fearful of the possibility of slave revolts, the plantocracy in British Guiana, as elsewhere were very reluctant to permit their slaves to be exposed to ideas, which had the potential of making them even more dissatisfied with their conditions of bondage.

Consequently, despite the support of the Colonial Office, the planters bitterly opposed missionary activities in Guiana in the first decades of the 19th century. However, just prior to emancipation, the attitude of some of the planters to educating the black population became more positive. This was due to the fact that they began to realize that physical restraint, punishment and torture were no longer efficient means of ensuring the uniform obedience especially from the slaves.

There was need for some other moral or psychological restraint. At the same time it was observed that most slaves who received a 'good' Christian education, tended to be more docile and had a more positive attitude to work. The missionaries usually urged them to cheerfully accept their station in this world and they would receive their just reward in the next. The Colonial Office embraced the idea because they wished to abolish slavery but not plantation labour for the ex slaves. They feared, a fear fueled by the propaganda of the planters, that unless the ex slaves continued to work on the estates, the colony would be ruined and the ex slaves would relapse into a state of 'barbarism.'

It was not surprising therefore that the Colonial Office appointed the religious bodies as the chief agents for promoting education. Of the 20,000 pounds voted by the British Parliament for the promotion of education in the West Indies, primarily to construct schools, approximately 2,000 pounds was shared among the local church organisations in British Guiana.

In 1840, 15 primary schools with an enrolment of 9,513 children were established in all three counties. The Colonial Office made it clear that continuing financial support for education was to be the responsibility of the Colonial Legislature. In the case of British Guiana that was the Combined Court. By 1840, it had contributed 3,159 pounds as grant in aid.

By the end of the decade of the 1840s however, this enthusiasm for education seemed to have waned. Their socio economic status had changed significantly. The attempts of the planters to coerce them to continue working on the plantations had precipitated a strike in 1842 after which many of them had retreated to the villages. There was another strike in 1848, but on this occasion, it was the Creoles who were forced to capitulate. This increased their disillusionment. They now fully realized the difference between the limited freedom they had gained and what freedom really meant.

This disillusionment now coloured their perception of the ultimate benefits of education. They turned their backs on the plantation and many retreated up the rivers and creeks to squat on Crown lands and take care of their own economic well-being. The enthusiastic support of both the planters and the Colonial Office for religious education, was premised on the assumption that education with a high religious content would help socialize the ex slaves into accepting the status quo which included continuing to work on the sugar plantations. Moreover it would help them to be reconciled to carrying out orders without question. For this to be achieved the children had to be in school but many were not. The strikes of 1842 and 1848 had shown that their parents were not always prepared to carry out orders without question.

In 1850, the first Board of Education was established and the Combined Court attempted to introduce secular education. In 1851, the commissioners had found the system of education "defective and ill adapted to the peculiar wants of the people" the teachers were "grievously deficient both in attainment and educational training." This latter sentiment was to be a recurring theme well into several decades of the 20th century. The religious bodies were appalled at the ingratitude of the planters in ignoring the pivotal role they had played and were playing in the provision of education to the masses of the population. They launched a vigorous protest. The strength of the protest led to the withdrawal of the proposal.

In December 1852, a new plan was introduced. It would retain the religious control of education under a Central Board of Education headed by an Inspector of Schools and locally elected boards in various districts. Education was to be paid for through "self payment" from an assessment tax. This plan was passed as Ordinance no.4 of 1855. The bill established a formal system of dual control of schools by the Church and State. It made the practice of religious instruction a necessity for sharing in the government grant. This was a marriage made in heaven. Despite many vicissitudes the union lasted and fructified for 121 years. Interestingly enough, it took an administration whose political ideology was decidedly non religious to finally bring about a divorce. According to Marguerite Chase, the bill was not aimed at implementing measures to create a progressive system of education. It continued to be weighted with non-functional religious instructions. Moreover, no consideration was given to the provision of education for the children of immigrants, mainly East Indians, large numbers of whom were being introduced into British Guiana as a result by the very Courts three years earlier.

The 21 years between the passing of the 1855 ordinance and the introduction of the Compulsory education Bill in 1876, saw little qualitative improvement in the education given to the children of the working classes which now included a significant proportion of immigrants' children. In 1870, at the urging of the second Inspector of Schools, the Rev W. G. G. Austin, the system of payments by the results of education, known as the Austin System was introduced for the first time. Its impact proved to be extremely negative. It led to the schools participating in the grant by one third. However, public expenditure on education increased from $56,609 in 1862 to $93,724 in 1874 but the attendance rate was lowered to 9,885 of the 20,000 names on he registers of the 170 state-aided schools. The Board of Education was made up entirely of government officials with the governor as president, therefore in 1874, Governor Longden appointed a commission of 17 persons to inquire into, report on the conditions of public education and to make recommendations. The recommendations included, among others, to make the attendance at primary schools compulsory, only certified teachers should be employed and that the Bishops' College should be acquired by the government to be turned into a general undenominational training institution.

The debate on compulsory education helped to underscore the way in which blatant self-interest determined the stance taken by the different stakeholders. In the immediate post emancipation period, the planters and the Colonial Office as the mechanism of ensuring the status quo through socializing the ex slaves the white planters as the dominant group in the society while persuading them of the necessity of fulfilling the functions of estate labourers. By 1870, while the former was assured the latter was in doubt. Compulsory education was now trumpeted as the means of achieving the latter. It was seen as a means to help acquire a labour force for the plantations since it would create a disciplined society in which the Creole parents had to earn money to pay the fees for children to go to school until the age of 11. Among the more interesting clauses of the bill was that religious instruction was made compulsory with the inclusion of a 'Conscience Clause'. This clause was included for the benefit of the immigrants who were non-Christians. They had grave concerns about their children attending the schools and being forced to participate in Christian prayers.

After fierce debate, in 1877, four ordinances of 1876 gave effect to the recommendations and with it began a century of compulsory primary education under dual control for the children of the British Guianese working class.