Thursday 11 August 2011

Lord Harris: Live and Learn!

Statistics today show it clearly: girls come out at the top of examinations in school and at university. The success of girls has a long-standing tradition: Trinidad’s first secondary school was St. Joseph’s Convent!

After emancipation, from the 1830s to the 1860s, education for most children meant basic primary schooling. The catholic and protestant churches were the first institutions to set up and run many primary schools all over Trinidad and Tobago. In 1851, the colonial government also opened primary schools. After 1870, any church school which was big enough was eligible to be state-assisted. The criteria for the monetary aid was that the school had to accept both boys and girls from any faith or denomination, and that the curriculum had to follow guidelines set up by the government. Up to the present day, Trinidad’s primary schools are either Assisted Schools (founded by the various denominations) or Government Primary Schools.

Lord Harris, Governor from 1846 to 1853, was a promoter of egalitarian education. But not quite egalitarian! Harris talked about black and coloured boys only, and he would not have dreamed of the academic successes of Trinidadian girls 150 years later. Lord Harris, who was appalled at the low educational standard in Trinidad, divided the island into eight counties and instructed the wardens to establish at least one school in each section. In 1851, enough money had been collected by the wardens to start seven primary schools. Harris also started the first public library in Port-of-Spain, as well as the first inland postal service, which enabled people in San Fernando to send letters by post to people in Port-of-Spain. No wonder that in 1853, the last year of his tenure as Governor, a steamer that shuttled between south Trinidad and Port-of-Spain was named after him. Today, Lord Harris Square in Port-of-Spain is reminiscent of the man who brought mass education to Trinidad.

In 1836, the Port-of-Spain Gazette featured a series of advertisements:

“The Ladies of St. Joseph have the honour to inform the heads of families that their establishment will be opened on the First of March.” St. Joseph’s Convent is to this day a successful girl’s school. It was started by the Little Sisters of the Order of St. Joseph de Cluny, who had arrived in Trinidad in January of that same year, just a few weeks before the establishment of the school. At first, lessons were held in the house of a Madame D’Heureux in Frederick Street, but in 1840, the school was moved to its present-day site in Pembroke Street.

St. Joseph’s Convent was so successful that the government decided to have a secondary school for boys as well. In 1859 Queen’s Collegiate school for boys was opened in what is now Abercromby Street, which was in 1863 renamed Queen’s Royal College. The catholic church also started a secondary school, St. Mary’s College (CIC), in 1863, and the Canadian Presbyterians set up Naparima College in San Fernando.

Up to the turn of the 20th century, these four secondary schools were the only ones in Trinidad. All of them charged tuition fees, which made them accessible for children of well-to do families only. It was only the establishment of scholarships to QRC and CIC in 1872, called ‘Exhibitions’, that brought more children of African and Indian descent into the secondary school system. Even though there were only four scholarships available in the beginning, those who won them were nevertheless exposed to the possibility of winning an Island Scholarship that would take them abroad to study law or medicine.

The first schools which offered post-primary education to the children who did not come from the higher classes were the teacher training schools. The schools associated with this teacher training scheme were the Boys Model School and the Girls Model School, which later became Tranquillity Boys and Tranquillity Girls.

Tobago, being much more developed in the 18th century than Trinidad (with which she didn’t have much dealings in any event), got its first infrastructure for schools in 1783, when a comprehensive settlement plan by the British government divided the island into eight parishes and allotted land for a school and a teacher in each parish. Not much more happened, however, and education in Tobago remained at an ebb throughout the 19th century, and only the Moravian and Methodist churches tried to alleviate that situation.

The island’s first secondary school, didn’t come into existence until more than a century later. It was a private school for boys started by a Barbadian called Laurie Hendy, in 1888. Between 1900 and 1915, according to Tobagonian historian Susan Craig, two other private secondary schools existed, catering to the children of the small planters’ middle class. The Bishop’s High School was started by the Anglican Church in 1924.


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