A brief history of education in Guyana during the 19th Century History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
September 22, 2005

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Education & Religion:

The Early Years

The establishment of formal education in Guyana can be traced back at least to the initiative of Hermanus Post, a Dutch planter, who in 1807 applied to the London Missionary Society for someone to educate the enslaved population at Plantation Le Ressouvenir. After careful consideration by the London Missionary Society, Reverend John Wray was appointed. Post's actions resulted in conflicts between the liberals and the pragmatists of the society.

The latter were of the opinion that education would stimulate further ferment in society. The liberals, on the other hand, argued quite successfully that Christianity had the effect of inducing proper values amongst the enslaved population and that it was useful at that time. Their views found favour with the colonial administration, who granted Wray and later other missionaries licences to teach.

In 1823 the revolt by the enslaved Africans, temporarily halted the progress of education. In 1824, on advice from the House of Commons, the Anglican body in New Amsterdam and Georgetown established two free schools for boys and girls supported by voluntary subscriptions. In addition, the De Saffon Institute and a school for poor white children were established in 1825. In later years a number of schools were established to cater for the needs of the free population and after 1833 for the needs of the emancipated population.

By Resolution 5 of the Emancipation package of 12 June 1833, Her Majesty's Government agreed to "defray any such expense as he may incur in producing upon liberal and comprehensive principles for the religious and moral education of the Negro population to be emancipated." The British Government took two years to decide who should administer the Negro Education Grant. In the end it was agreed that the government would subsidise the works of the existing religious bodies, the Society for the Propagation of The Gospel the London Missionary Society, the Church Mission-ary Society and the Methodist Society.

Christian education was perceived as the vehicle for securing law and orderliness and a continuation of the viability of the plantocracy as was the case in the pre-Eman-cipation era. This scheme lasted for ten years and the grants made were insufficient to implement the necessary measures needed to improve the standard and system of education. With a total emancipated population of approximately 84,915 British Guiana received only 1950 pounds from the local legislature. In 1837, this sum was increased to 2145 pounds, a mere drop in the bucket.

In addition to the imperial government's policy, some degree of progress was achieved with the six denominational schools established under the Micro Charity on 29 July 1835 throughout various parts of Guyana. The charity of Dame Jane Micro Bequest was originally founded in 1680 for the suppression of piracy and the release of Christian slaves. The fund remained dormant until 1827 when the interest accumulated over the years was used to establish the aforementioned schools. They remained active in Guiana until 1841, until they were sold to the missionary societies due to the lack of finances to upkeep them.

Changing lanes

Methods of education must adapt to the needs of the community. It is this philosophical approach, which Reverend John Sterling recommended in 1835. This was to be done with the establishment of a system of secondary education utilizing a broad-based curriculum, including Read-ing, Writing, Arithmetic, English, History, Geography, Book Keeping, Natural Philosophy and Mathematics.

In 1836 an attempt by the Imperial government to impose the cost of financing a system of elementary education on the local legislature was met with a lukewarm response. Planters were at a crossroads and the economic prospects deterred many from conceding to a legal obligation to provide elementary education.

Efforts by the 1840 Education Commission and individuals such as John Wray to implement education as a tool for development were severely hampered by poor attendance and the iniquitous practice of child labour. Under the influence of planters, the administration was not disposed to legislate against the system. Despite the existing laws to prohibit child labour, planters turned a blind eye as in the main they sought whatever labour was available to keep the wheels of the sugar industry spinning.

Another constraint was the quality of teachers. Apart from those recruited from overseas, the majority consisted of locals. In 1834 yet another attempt was made to alleviate this problem with the establishment in Berbice of two teacher training schools, modelled after the Normal School in Britain. Despite the noble intents, the schools were soon closed due to insufficient funding and widespread opposition by the plantocracy.

Despite these constraints the system of elementary education was rooted by 1840. In 1841 there were 151 schools with an enrolment of some 9,513 out of an approximate population of 21,172 children as opposed to 1831 when there were only 74 schools. By the end of the apprenticeship period in 1838, the Colonial Office recognised that there was a need for a change in the educational policy for the West Indies. Secretary of State Earl Grey had decided that industrial, particularly agricultural, training should be an important aspect of the system in the future.

The economic difficulties of the 1840s caused by the Sugar Duties Act of 1846 retarded the small efforts to provide the emancipated Africans with even the most minimal access to education. The failure of the imperial government and the local authorities to seriously attack the problem of funding further aggravated the situation.

In 1845 when the Negro Education Grant expired, the plantocracy was not disposed to granting liberal grants, but rather reluctantly agreed to give one per cent of their annual income. However, this effort was not totally successful, as further financial difficulties were encountered when the Combined Court reneged on the promise to subsidise the salaries of teachers and the establishment of industrial schools and agricultural facilities placed the system in a vulnerable position.

The Colonial Office was severely critical of the local legislature's response to the proposals by Shuttleworth. To make some concessions a call was made for the appointment of an Inspector of Schools by the Anglican, Methodist and Wesleyan bodies. In 1848, Mr. John McSwiney, assumed that position. His reports indicate that he supported the Shuttleworth proposal. He stressed the need for local participation and advised against the attempts by the local legislature to wrestle control of the education system from the religious bodies. His findings infuriated many. It was not surprising that McSwiney lost his position in the stringent measures adapted in wake of the 1848 Civil List dispute.

Despite these difficulties, the establishment of Queen's College in 1844 marked the silver lining of that dark cloud. The College, though established primarily for the children of ordinary white parents who could not afford to send their children abroad to be educated, admitted in 1848 a coloured child from Berbice, on an experimental basis. On account of his academic merit he secured the subsequent admission of persons of colour to this elitist institution.


Attempts were made even before the Shuttleworth Report to codify the system of education. These efforts encountered strong opposition from the missionary societies and religious bodies. In addition, the Colonial Governor was not prepared to give the local elite too great a command over the system.

The attempts by planters to secure an alternative supply of labour after the emancipation of the enslaved Africans resulted in a multi-cultural society as Chinese, Madeirans and Indians were imported. The need for elementary education to respond effectively to this diversity was apparent to all but the churches. Of extreme importance was the need for the reduction of the religious content of the programme. This, it was argued, would make formal education more acceptable to sections not enthused with Christia-nity. Administratively, the churches tended to establish schools in areas where they deemed them expedient without regard for the population. They were also very reluctant to make concessions to the local legislature.

In 1850 a Commission was appointed by the Combined Court to review the state of education in Guiana. As was the case with previous reports it noted the diversity of language and religious groups as the major reasons for the inability of the education system to standardise and adapt to changing situations. On account of its recommendations the first Council of Education was established in 1850.

The inefficiency to the system of education was once again highlighted in the Commission's report of 1851. They noted that the `system was defective and failed to adapt to the peculiar needs of the people and that the adult population was very indifferent to education.' Efforts to induce new measures to alleviate the system were frustrated by the various religious bodies, despite the approval of the recommendations by the Court of Policy and the Secretary of State.

On 15 December 1852, Governor Barkly proposed that education should remain firmly in the hand of the religious bodies. He recommended that it should be supervised by a Board of Education, headed by an Inspector of Schools. In the circumstances Mr. George Dennis was appointed as Inspector of Schools. Under this system, Geography and Grammar were added to the curriculum and some attempts at industrial education were undertaken on a small scale.

In 1855, an Ordinance 'to define the terms and conditions on which assistance will in future be granted from public funds for the promotion of education, was passed. This ordinance introduced a formal system of education and legitimised the role of the administration in financing, organizing and administering the system. The control of the system was placed in the hands of the Inspector of Schools, who reported directly to the governor.

The ordinance also acknowledged the role of a dual system of education between church and state, classified schools, established criteria for the allocation of merit grants and legalized the uniformity of holidays and hours of attendance. Under this system distributions were carried out with some level of success. In 1861 Estate Schools for the education of immigrants' children were established.

In 1852 the number of children on register was 10,877 and by 1862 this number had increased to 12,425. The system was deemed inefficient and in 1862, the situation was again reversed as the Inspec-tor of Schools was replaced by a Board of Education, which consisted of five members, all government officials. The Governor who was the President of the Board nominated all of them.

Between 1862 and 1874 the Board introduced a number of state-owned schools and payment by results. Despite these steps, the system was still perceived as backward and in 1874, Governor Sir James Longden appointed a Commission of seventeen members to examine the state of public education in Guiana.

In their report it was recommended that attendance at schools be made compulsory. They further classified schools into three distinct categories: elementary, industrial and colonial. Progress was slow, but the system of elementary education developed and with each passing year became stronger and institutionalised.

In 1877, effect was given to these recommendations by four ordinances of 1876, which led to:

- An Ordinance to enforce Elementary Education in the Colony

- An Ordinance to establish a more representative Board of Education

- An Ordinance to establish and regulate an Institution for the Training of Teachers

- An Ordinance to vest in the Colony Queen's College and Bishops' College

These measures, regarded as the 'Longden System', were adopted to make the schools efficient. There was one flaw, however, the constitution of the Board of Educa-tion. Governor Sir Henry Irving in his analysis of the board concluded that they were too extravagant and their budget did not yield fruitful results.

In the circumstance the board was abolished and an Inspector of Schools was once again placed in charge of the education system. The Irving Code discontinued grants for the construction of buildings and facilities and for teacher salaries as had been implemented under the Longden system. It introduced a bonus system varying from $1 to $4 for each child in attendance and according to the percentage of passes obtained in reading, writing and arithmetic.

This system where grants were given on the basis of results would later lead to substandard education being offered to the masses. In 1884 the British Guiana Teachers Association was founded. "An overseas training scheme was introduced, whereby six teachers were sent each year for training at colleges in Barbados and Jamaica". The system, like its predecessor, suffered from similar critique and in 1890 it was replaced by a policy by Lieutenant-Governor Sir Charles Bruce.

The new system recognised the limitations of previous systems and attempted to rectify the situation. The latter years of the 19th century saw the introduction of scholarships as one of the means to attract persons into the education system. Under Governor L. M. Hodgson the Board of Education was reintroduced to advise on plans for the improvement of the system. The scheme to have teachers trained as well as an improvement of working conditions as recommended by the Long-den system was initiated.