The Trinidad Express, recently published a two-part Opinion piece, “The education of children of African origin” endorsed by 23 intellectuals of African origin. It raises some important issues that need to be addressed, and not simply ignored, especially if one is in disagreement.
We must not be afraid to discuss racial issues out of the fear of being called racist.
Similarly, we must not espouse racism in our discussion of racial issues. The purpose of this post is not to say “my group is better than your group”, or any such thing. It is to rationally analyse the arguments and positions set forth in that piece. These are national issues that need to be discussed in a frank manner, but also in a spirit of brotherhood and national development, with the welfare of all in mind.
That said, let me start off by saying that many of the points raised in the piece are valid. However, some are wrong and dangerous. And, even more, many crucial details have been left out, which leads to skewed recommendations, or no recommendations at all.
To begin my analysis, let me tell you about my real life, practical experience in this area.
WORKING IN THE BEETHAM WITH SERVOL AND OUT OF SCHOOL, MAINLY AFRICAN YOUTHS: THE THEN-SYSTEM’S “PUSH-OUTS”
In September 1990, just after the coup while there was a State of Emergency and a strict curfew where citizens could not be out of doors after 6pm, I began working at Servol in the Beetham.
It was an amazing experience that has stuck with me for life. I learned so much, first-hand.
Servol at that time catered to the “push-outs” (not drop-outs) of the school system at the time.
Some people may not remember this, or even be aware of it. Let me remind you.
After the Common Entrance exam, the school system after 30 years straight of PNM rule — even after a massive oil boom that passed through this country “like a dose of salts”, according to Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley — produced a strong educational “caste system”.
The top 20% went to five and seven year schools. The next 60% went to Junior and Senior Sec and Comprehensive Schools, on a “shift system”, where some students would go to school only in the morning, and others go only in the afternoon.
So for half the day, these 60 percent of children were idle.
The bottom 20% had no place at all. Not even in the Junior and Senior Sec or Comp Schools.
I always wondered to myself, why did the Government build such a system? Why didn’t they build enough schools for everyone? Why did they just leave the vast majority of students out of the school system altogether?
It made no sense to me.
And by “the Government”, from 1956-86 that only meant the PNM, who ironically boasted that education was their top priority; that they “educated the country”. Really?
What was particularly notable was that the under-served 80% of students, whom the education system failed, were largely of African descent.
Two points about this need to be pointed out:
1. Their parents formed the bulk (but not all) of the PNM support.
2. Before PNM took over our education system, Africans were always among the TOP achievers in our education system. That changed when the PNM came to power.
Yet somehow, the denominational schools, especially those of the Catholics, Presbyterians and Hindus, are to blame?
We will approach that issue later.
Servol emerged during the Black Power movement in 1970 — which was largely a young black movement against neo-colonial PNM rule, which seemed to continue to benefit the old formerly colonial elite. Servol emerged to address the problem of these unemployed, out of school youth, particularly in East Port of Spain, Laventille and the Beetham, and then eventually around the country.
Servol had no help or support from the PNM Government, despite the organisation’s desire to be incorporated into the formal school system. Why the PNM refused to do so, I don’t know.
They simply wished to leave the excluded 20% out to fend for themselves. “Devil take the hindmost”, as the 23 endorsers phrased it.
THE NAR ADMINISTRATION WAS THE FIRST TO ADDRESS THE BOTTOM 20 PERCENT (MAINLY AFRICANS)
In 1986, when the PNM lost power for the first time, we finally saw some addressing of this matter.
The NAR Government incorporated Servol into the system. So it was some level of reform to the school system. I came into Servol during this period.
The PNM came back in power in 1991, no further changes took place.
THE UNC REVOLUTION IN EDUCATION: 5 YEAR SCHOOLS FOR ALL
It took their loss of power in 1995 to the UNC/NAR coalition for the real Revolution in education to happen. It was remarkable.
The major step taken was to give EVERY CHILD a place in a 5 year school. This was a massive achievement, done in just five years.
The PNM, for some curious reason, not yet properly explained or justified, were against educating all our children in secondary school for 5 years.
Remarkably, they did not want to place the lowest performing students in full 5 year schools.
REVERSING PNM HOSTILITY TO DENOMINATIONAL SCHOOLS; REVISITING THE CONCORDAT
The second important change was that the de facto ban on building new denominational schools was lifted.
This was extremely important, as it was another sea change from PNM policy.
The PNM had been hostile to the denominational schools since its founding in 1956. Eric Wiliams had seen these schools as being discriminatory.
However, before Williams came to power, Education Minister Roy Joseph (of Syrian descent), who was part of the Albert Gomes administration (our first Government under colonial self-government), undertook a massive school expansion programme from 1950-6. A revolution in its own way.
It was during this time that most Hindu and Muslims schools got built throughout the country, opening up educational opportunities for the first time to many citizens. They were excluded because they were not Christian, and most schools were Christian. It was a massive expansion in a short time, mainly by private citizens.
ERIC WILLIAMS VS. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Eric Williams was in a heated battle with the Catholic Church, over education in particular, and he wished to nationalise all schools, taking away the power and control of the religious bodies in the education system. This was the basis upon which the Catholic Church based its scathing critique of Eric Williams and the PNM as totalitarian.
There was a protracted struggle between the PNM and the Catholic Church. When the PNM narrowly won government in 1956 with a minority of seats in the Legislative Council, there was a moratorium on all denominational school building. No more religious schools in the national school system would be built under the PNM, who were in power for 30 continuous years.
The agreement was reached on Christmas Day 1960, when the PNM and the Catholic Church arrived at a Concordat. It served as a peace deal and compromise between the PNM and all the religious schools.
The Government would control the curriculum of all denominational schools and could place any student in these schools. Of course, there were only a limited number of places in the denominational schools. They lost control of the vast majority — 80% — of these places. In return for this loss of control, the Government would pay the salaries of the teachers. The denominational schools were allowed to keep the right to choose 20% of the school body, so that it could retain its particular religious nature.
This was the compromise.
Although this agreement was reached with the Catholic Church, it was held to be applicable for the newly built Hindu, Muslim and Presbyterian schools as well, which at that time were NOT prestige schools.
These schools — particularly the Hindu ones — were derided as cow sheds.
THE EDUCATION SYSTEM BUILT BY THE PNM REGIME
Interestingly because of the PNM control of the school curriculum, we aren’t even taught about the Albert Gomes government before Eric Williams, or his education minister Roy Joseph, or Ajodasingh, Norman Tang, or Victor Bryan, because they have been essentially written out of Trinidad and Tobago’s history. We are taught in the State school system that politics began in 1956, with the formation of the PNM.
Even the EBC website ignores all election data before 1956. That is amazingly scary and disturbing. My book, then, remains more comprehensive than official State information, going right back to 1925.
From 1960 onward, under the PNM the Government was the only entity to build new schools in the national school system. Notably, Eric Williams had a preoccupation with seeing schools as a site for racial integration, and stated so on several occasions.
And for some curious reason, the PNM did not see it fit to build enough schools to cater for 5-year secondary education for all students. 80% of children did not get full 5-year secondary education. Only the old denominational schools provided that. And yet they were continuously abused for being “elitist”.
The PNM had the chance to not only build 5 year schools for all children — including children of African descent — but to build schools that would be better than the old denominational schools.
As a rule, they did not, although there have been some notable examples, like Couva Secondary or Chaguanas and Montrose Government Primary Schools.
DENOMINATIONAL SCHOOLS CONTINUE TO SHINE; PROVIDING OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL
The religious / denominational schools retained their status as the top academically performing secondary schools, and they ended up accepting a majority of students from all faiths, from all communities, all over the island, based on the Common Entrance Exams.
It gave everyone a chance to participate in the best that our country had to offer, based on merit.
It is notable, too, that the old elite Catholic schools have lost their dominance in the national school system to Presbyterian schools and Lakshmi Girls High School. These later schools only became “prestige” schools after overcoming many obstacles. They did not begin as “prestige” schools.
Under the UNC-led administration, the relationship of the religious schools to the State changed dramatically.
The denominational schools were allowed to expand again. The UNC recognised that the religious schools were doing something right, and they should be encouraged to have a greater part in the school system, and not periodically threatened and harrassed, as occurs regularly during the PNM administrations.
BANNING CORPORAL PUNISHMENT; THE BACKWARD PNM EDUCATIONAL POLICY
The final revolutionary act was to eliminate corporal punishment from schools.
Again, the PNM were against this as well.
One can see from their policy positions, what the PNM’s philosophy of education really is: exclusion of the lowest performers from schooling, state domination of the system, in spite of the success of the religious schools, hostility toward the participation of religious bodies, and licks for children in school.
The UNC were the complete opposite, and radically changed the education system forever, in just 5 short years.
Notably, Kamla Persad-Bissessar was the Minister of Education during all these revolutionary changes.
THE SECOND ROUND OF THE EDUCATION REVOLUTION: AFTER 10 YEARS OF STAGNATION
The next set of revolutionary developments had to wait again until the UNC came to office in 2010, this time with Kamla Persad-Bissessar as Prime Minister. It took another whole decade, as the PNM did not introduce any fundamental changes or improvements, as per their education ideology.
The revolutionary measures undertaken under the second UNC-led administration were:
1) becoming the first country in the world to have Universal Early Childhood Education,
2) giving free laptops to every single child going to secondary school no matter what their grade was in the SEA exam,
3) beginning reform of the SEA system so that other non-academic subjects such as dance, drama and physical education would be incorporated
4) making the SEA assessment continuous over three years, rather than being based in one single, stressful make-or-break exam;
5) The unprecedented, radical expansion of school building and upgrades throughout the country
Kamla Persad-Bissessar was no longer Minister of Education, at this point, but rather Dr. Tim Gopeesingh, who had been Clinical Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the UWI and who had a strong educational administrative background. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar maintained her keen interest in education reform in Trinidad and Tobago, exactly opposite of the PNM philosophy of education.
PNM REACTION AND SUPPRESSION
Indeed, we saw the PNM philosophy illustrated in their policy positions, again. They opposed giving laptops to students, they stopped the school building programme leaving schools to be abandoned and overgrown, they reduced funding to Early Childhood Education so that it was no longer Universal for all, and they reverted to the old stress-filled, narrow-curriculum SEA system.
The difference is clear.
The education system under this administration is in a crisis state.
“THE EDUCATION OF CHILDREN OF AFRICAN ORIGIN” AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
Given this history, and clear differences in educational policy, we now have the Trinidad Express publishing over two days a piece endorsed by 23 highly prominent black intellectuals, “The education of children of African origin”.
They point to the crisis of education particularly as it affects black children. They take an explicitly racial position.
Given the facts presented above, one would have to conclude that through their policies the PNM have hurt under-performing black children the most, by excluding them from the formal system and neglecting them.
In fact, this conclusion logically follows from key points of the article’s diagnosis. They call for universal early childhood education as key, yet the PNM have reversed support for Universal Early Childhood Education; they call for equalising the quality of education in all schools, yet the PNM cancelled laptops for students — which was one of the quickest equalisation measures in education; they call for quality school places for everyone in every part of the country, particularly where black children live, yet the PNM halted construction of higher quality schools throughout the country; they call for an end to the SEA system, yet the PNM has reversed reforms to the SEA system; they call for empowerment of poor, black families, yet the PNM increase economic pressure on parents by cancelling the free textbook and cutting the school feeding programmes.
Almost to the letter, the PNM have cut and reversed the very policies that this group has identified as the ones that will most help children of African origin.
Yet they do not lay blame there.
IS “DISCRIMINATION” TO BLAME FOR “INEQUITY”?
Instead, they blame some vaguely alluded to discrimination that produces educational inequality.
While fanning the flames of resentment against the children in Victoria county, they wrongly blame denominational schools for not letting in black children, and demand an end to the examination system and merit-based school placement.
This does not sound like a solution to the problems faced by poorly performing students, but rather the continuing of the old, long-standing PNM (and racist and socialist) agenda against denominational schools.
The “exclusion” argument makes no sense, because 80% of places are awarded by the Ministry of Education on the basis of merit.
It is the poor performance of children of African descent that need to be addressed here.
The question, however, also needs to be asked: Why is this group only concerned about students of African descent? Why not all poorly performing students? The 23 endorsers do not explain why.
AFRICAN DESCENDED PERSONS MAKE UP THE BULK OF ROMAN CATHOLICS
In terms of the 20% discretion, the authors rest on the factually incorrect statement that African children do not make up a large number of the congregations of those religious denominations that run the prestige schools.
This is factually incorrect with regard to the Roman Catholics. Non-Indians make up 89.7 percent of the Catholic faith, with people of African descent being the bulk of followers. If there is discrimination within the Catholic Church, then this must be addressed.
Hindu, Muslim, and Presbyterian schools were not prestige schools when they were founded.
There is an implicit notion that these schools started out as prestige schools and were meant to provide better education than that given to African children. In fact, these schools were worse off in many material ways, and by sheer determination and will they have clawed their way into the rank of prestige schools.
Miracle Ministries has boasted of notable successes. Why haven’t more denominational, single-sex schools been established in the Afro-dominated religions, since this has clearly been the model which has produced educational success in the existing system in Trinidad and Tobago?
The authors speak of “the poor educational performance of children of African origin in Trinidad and Tobago, and, relatedly, about the poor quality of schools in predominantly black locales in the country.” They appear to suggest a causal link.
While schools need to be upgraded in these locales, that cannot be the explanation for the poor educational performance of children of African origin.
ADDRESSING THE DECLINE IN BLACK EDUCATIONAL PERFORMANCE: WIDER CULTURAL, IDEOLOGICAL AND FAMILY DYNAMICS
The authors raise the most important point in this racial analysis, but do not bother to answer it. Namely, they note, “Going back in time, there is ample evidence that black children performed well, and indeed exceptionally, at school, making their way into the middle and professional classes as educated adults.
How did we go from this to the culture of academic failure among black children that has now become routine and expected?”
THIS is the most important question with regard to the racial issue, which the authors are so concerned about.
It must be remembered in this discussion that in the 1950s, the most prominent lawyers, doctors, academics, and professionals were Afro-Trinidadians. One hardly found Indo-Trinidadians among these ranks at that time.
Some in the group of 23 endorsers may in fact be descended from them.
The performance of black children today in the SEA results merits examination, particularly since many of their grandparents and great-grandparents did so well in the Common Entrance Exams ever since the colonial days.
What is not being passed down from generation to generation, and why?
These issues need to be addressed by the society as a whole, in partnership with black families themselves who must have a vested interest in the welfare of their children.
Are these 23 endorsers claiming that there was more discrimination against black children during Independence — mainly under PNM rule — than during the colonial era?
If that is their argument, it is remarkable.
From my observation, the change in black (elite) performance in schools appears to have occurred in the 1970s. By this time, blacks did not dominate among the top performers like they used to. Statistical historical analysis would be very welcome here.
BLACK POWER AND REJECTION OF “WHITENESS”?
My hypothesis is that the Black Power Movement was central to this. With the rejection of neo-colonialism came a critique of the education system as promoting “white” or European values. However, the movement did not produce anything suitable to replace those so-called “white values” and what was left was simply rejection. Nihilism.
I believe this problem remains today, in some form or other. That high achievement is seen as “being white”, not “being real”, or not “keeping it real”. “Authentic” black culture is seen as ghetto life. This is not only the result of Black Power, but also the powerful entertainment industry (especially from the US, controlled by non-blacks, particularly Jews and whites).
So there is a cultural problem to be tackled.
IN DEFENSE OF THE BLACK FAMILY
The second, related, issue is the breakdown of the black family and absent fathers. Study after study shows that children who come from stable, two-parent, married households consistently perform better in school, on average. (Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.)
It would be interesting to compare SEA results, broken down by race, and broken down by family structure. I suspect that you will find that poor performance in the SEA is better predicted by dysfunctional homes and absent fathers, rather than race.
In other words, I believe that even Indian or other non-African children from single-parent or common-law married homes will perform worse than Africans who come from stable, two-parent, married households, on average. (There will always be exceptions.) Again, empirical research on this would be welcome.
The solution, then, would have to be to address this problem: cultural values and family structure.
That these issues are ignored by these 23 endorsers is a serious shortcoming as well. Indeed, I find it curious that although they “stand for black children” they do not at the same time stand for the Black family. The stable, two-parent, married Black family needs standing up for and saving. How can you stand for children without standing for their families too? Study after study shows that stable, two-parent, married families produce children, on average, who do better in school, have better mental health, have better jobs, live longer, engage in less risky behaviour, are healthier, and are more likely to stay away from criminal activity.
Looking into this issue is extremely important, because the forces breaking up the black family are numerous — including economic forces and cultural forces — and they need to be confronted.
Yet, the authors did not address this issue. They did mention that black children were born into poverty and dysfunction, and that this had consequences in education, but there was no further analysis.
WRONG DIAGNOSIS LEADS TO WRONG PRESCRIPTIONS
Here is what they did address: Poor quality schools in areas where mainly black children live, exclusion by denominational schools, the lack of Early Childhood education.
The main target seems to be the Concordat, but also a vague notion of inequity, with strong racial innuendo. It is a highly flawed argument and creates a straw man, removed from the real problems that are at the root of black under-achievement in school.
FAILURE OF EDUCATION SYSTEM
On the other hand, they fail to criticise the education system itself. The late, great Lloyd Best, my friend and mentor, used to say that the failure of our education system is not demonstrated by the academic failure of those at the bottom, but by the social failure of those at the top!
In other words, our education system has produced so many graduates in so many fields of endeavour: sociology, engineering, politics, agriculture, business, management, criminology, medicine. Some of the top academic performers in the world. So why after 58 years of Independence is our country in such a mess?
Our education system is clearly failing us as a society.
But such an analysis is not found here.
SCHOOLS IN PNM CONSTITUENCIES
Instead, there is a comparison of failing schools in Port of Spain and St. George (presumably meaning “black schools”) and more successful ones in Victoria (presumably meaning “Indian”, although that is not quite correct).
There is the suggestion that schools serving black children are worse than schools serving non-African children.
If this is so, one would have to ask why the schools in the constituencies that support the governing party for 48 of our last 64 years are the worst, when the Government has been in firm control of education since 1960. It is a serious question.
But, one also must ask, is this actually true? Hindu schools were famously branded as cow sheds. Some of them in actual fact were. Lakshmi Girls Hindu College was known as the “see through college” because it had no doors or windows when it was built and first used. It now holds a record in secondary education.
This is not to say that Indians are better than Africans. That is not my point, because it is not true.
My point is that there is a problem in these areas that must be identified that goes beyond the resources allocated to the areas. One cannot escape the political question as to why the PNM constituencies have the worst schools when the PNM were in government for 48 of the last 64 years, and they actually built our school system in the flawed ways described above.
The next point the authors mention is that Early Childhood Education must be made available to all children.
Again, what they fail to note is that Universal Early Childhood Education was achieved under the PP administration. We were the first country in the world to achieve this goal. So why has the PNM discontinued it while they are in office? Why aren’t these difficult political questions being asked? If a solution to this difficult problem is to be found then difficult questions need to be asked.
DANGER OF VICTIMHOOD IDEOLOGY
There is a tendency in the article to imply that “low-income” means “black”. That is incorrect and, curiously, it’s racist. Not all blacks are low income. And not all low income earners are black.
The victimhood ideology seemingly espoused by the authors can dangerously lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. By painting black people on the whole as powerless, low-income victims of the powerful elite, there is a perverse incentive to keep them that way. Firstly it is not true, as black people have proudly held some of the most powerful positions in this country for decades. And secondly, if black people start to be perceived as other than low-income victims, the victim narrative loses its power. So there is an incentive to appear as never doing well.
ATTACKING THE CONCORDAT, UNJUSTIFIABLY
Here is where the authors attack the Concordat. They argue that “The aim then was to set aside school places in prestige schools for the children of the elite, through the medium of their religious bodies.”
While there may be truth to that in the Catholic schools, it certainly does not apply to the Hindu, Muslim or Presbyterian schools, who in no way could be said to have formed an elite in 1960, or be anywhere near the elite.
The Concordat, in fact, was arrived at in order that religious school maintain their religious character. How could a Roman Catholic school have under 20 percent Catholic students? It would lose its character.
How could a Muslim school have under 20 percent Muslims? Etc. etc.
Eric Williams was literally at war with the Catholic Church in the 1950s, and the Concordat was the ceasefire.
Since 1960, Government schools had every chance to show the religious schools that they were superior. However, they did not.
THE FATE OF QRC AS A WARNING
Indeed, what happened to Queen’s Royal College is what Eric Williams wanted to happen to all the religious schools.
Whereas once QRC stood tall among prestige schools, producing Eric Williams, VS Naipaul, CLR James, Lloyd Best, Karl Hudson Phillips, Rudranath Capildeo, Lloyd Braithwaite, CV Gocking, William Demas, and so many others, it lost its status during Independence.
I had asked Lloyd Best about that, and what he told me was this: Eric Williams decided that he would send the great teachers from QRC to other schools in the country with the idea of spreading excellence. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with that. Practically, however, it had the effect of destroying excellence. That is because the excellence did not reside in individual teachers, but in a collective culture, which when broken up, could not survive.
Destroying the Concordat would mean doing the same to the other denominational schools. Destroying our centres of excellence — however flawed they may still be — in the name of “equality”, but is more likely revenge and resentment.
IGNORING REAL REFORM POLICIES AND EFFORTS
The authors rightly note that children have different abilities and should be allowed to excel based on development of their innate talents. I agree with that wholeheartedly.
Indeed, we have to go back to policy. The UNC did introduce aspects such as drama and physical education into the SEA marking. However the PNM removed these things — again, sticking with a frankly backward model of education. Why is the PNM intent on this failed model?
The 23 endorsers don’t dare to ask such necessary questions.
Instead, they falsely and conveniently claim that there has been no attempt at reform of the system. From what I outlined above, that is simply not true. The UNC introduced what have amounted to revolutionary changes in our system. More change in this direction needs to be done, I agree. But to say that there has been no attempt at reform is simply untrue.
I don’t think anyone can argue against the desire that ALL secondary school places be high value, and not only some. But this should not mean that the best places should be brought down for the purposes of equality. Rather, the deficient schools need to be brought up to standard, by all means necessary.
One has to ask, then, why wasn’t the system constructed this way by the PNM? Why did they produce such an unequal system, and why do they insist on keeping it that way?
Indeed, the UNC’s laptops for every SEA student programme was one important method of equalisation. Every child, no matter what their mark, where they came from, what their income level was, or what their family structure was like, had access to the Information Superhighway even in their homes. It was a revolutionary programme.
Yet the PNM strenuously opposed the programme and took it away. It once again illustrates the backward vision of education that the PNM has inflicted upon this country, which has been affecting black children in particularly devastating ways.
WHY WE MUST KEEP MERITOCRACY AND NOT PROMOTE GEOGRAPHIC INEQUALITY
Here is where the dangerous suggestion comes: removing the SEA and making geography the sole determinant of school placement.
This is what is behind the vast inequalities of education in the United States. Where you live determines the school you go to. So poor children are condemned to schools in poor neighbourhoods, and wealthy children, no matter what their grades, get the privilege of going to wealthy schools.
It would destroy the social mobility that our existing school system has been able to provide, despite its shortcomings.
The quality of education would solely be based on wealth. I find it hard to believe that the authors of this piece would advocate for such a system.
This must be resisted.
SUPPORT FOR GOOD EDUCATION POLICY AND CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT
Indeed, once again we must look at Government policy. Whereas the UNC made textbooks free for school children, the PNM has made parents pay. Even programmes such as the school feeding programme have been cut back.
The authors have chosen a victimhood narrative and imply that non-Africans are denying African children human rights to quality education. This is plainly false. If there is any group to blame for the plight of the black child in the school system, is the People’s National Movement.
Would the authors of this piece have the interests of black children so much in focus as to throw down that gauntlet, as the Black Power movement did before?
Important steps toward providing quality education for all — including vulnerable black children — have been taken, but sadly reversed.
I am not asking the authors to campaign for the UNC or against the PNM, but to be honest about the sources of the problem, about remedies undertaken, and further work that needs to be done.
Hanging the problems of black children on the Concordat, which seems to be the main thrust, is misguided and misdirected. It is using a very real and very important problem to advance their position in a long-standing feud, while unfairly casting blame on others. This will not provide a solution.
Let us work together to transform the quality of the education system for all, without sacrificing our centres of excellence, because this is NOT a zero-sum game. We must all win, and not at each other’s expense. There is room for all.