“The education system in nineteenth century colonial British Guiana” By Tota C. Mangar
Stabroek News
September 19, 2002

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It is perhaps reasonable to say that very little was done during the long years of Dutch colonization towards educating the slave population in the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice.

Such a happening was not entirely surprising as these earliest European colonizers focused their attention primarily on trading and agricultural development. Dutch planters were more interested in the acquisition of large unskilled labour for their estates and hence they saw nothing advantageous to themselves in attaching importance to education. Whatever little opportunity availed itself to the slaves came from the Church in the form of evangelization and with the emphasis on qualities of spiritual and moral goodness.

The immediate post- cession years witnessed a general reluctance and even discouragement on the part of planters to educate their slaves. Indeed, education was far from being a governmental policy and planters were highly suspicious of missionary activities. They were, to a great extent, fearful that missionary work would go beyond the stage of proselytizing and that their teaching might eventually incite slaves to rebel. With such an attitude around, the work of early missionaries was considerably hindered.

For example, John Hawkshaw, a Methodist clergyman, was promptly expelled when he attempted to provide religious instruction to slaves. In 1823 Reverend John Smith, a member of the London Missionary Society (LMS) was blamed and made to suffer for the East Coast Slave Insurrection. In the first place planters were concerned with their personal safety and also the economic stability of their plantations. Coupled with this was their obvious fear that “the notions of freedom and equality inherent in Christianity would lead to a disruption of slavery.”

Despite tremendous odds the London Missionary Society in particular did reach out to some slaves during the early stages of British control. From the 1820’s onwards it became more and more obvious that some missionaries were making an impact in their struggle to educate the slave population. For example, the Anglican Church established the St George’s Free School in 1824 and five years later this body followed up with the opening of the all Saints School in New Amsterdam. All the same, the overall situation was such that there was the existence of a “mere embryonic structure of elementary or primary education”, in the pre-emancipation era. It was only after 1833 that a formal system of elementary education emerged in the country.

Following emancipation and under the apprenticeship scheme, all ex-slaves’ children under the age of six years, were regarded as free persons. Initially, this in itself led to the establishment of a few infant schools with the aim of providing day-care for children of the labouring class. In addition the British Government endorsed a plan for state subsidized religious and moral education.

Towards this end it allocated the annual sum of 25,000 pounds Parliamentary Grant for Negro Education in the West Indies. Of this figure the then British Guiana received a mere 1,430 pounds. In any event the motive for providing education to children at this particular juncture was seemingly to groom them to become good servants and not so much as to make them fit to live in society.

The immediate impact of the education grant was an increase in the number of schools by various religious bodies. Most of these schools began their classes in church buildings because the chapels which housed the churches were readily available buildings and further the teachers were either clergymen or they were closely associated with the Church.

At this early stage the quality of instruction provided was unsatisfactory due to inadequate numbers of qualified teachers. As a result the monitorial system dominated as monitors were used to teach the less academically gifted under the supervision of the schoolmaster. Moreover, there was a high degree of absenteeism. In any case education, instead of affording the masses the opportunity of improving their lot, was subtly geared “towards the production of a servile, neo-citizenry who could remain a permanent labour force for the plantation system.”

It was not altogether surprising therefore that from around 1845 several of the denominational schools ended in closures, adequate finance was a major problem. In this regard a severe blow was dealt by the Colonial Office itself. It implemented a phased withdrawal of the annual education grant. Consequently the onus was left on local legislatures to shoulder the responsibility of financing education. This task was made even m ore difficult since various immigration schemes were given preference during this crucial stage of crisis, change and experimentation and colonial British Guiana was no exception.

The Court of Policy, our highest decision making body at the time, was prepared to offer only a pittance in terms of budgetary allocation towards education. Besides, the quality of education provided must have had a rebounding effect. It contributed to an attitude of nonchalance on the part of both parent and children towards the whole business of education. Of significance too, was the fact that ex-slaves were moving off the plantations. With a mobile population resulting from both exodus and immigration it was rather unsettling for parents and children to view education seriously.

The depressing situation was further exacerbated by the Civil List crisis of 1848-1849. The consequential stoppage of supplies led to a withdrawal of service of several headmasters because of the uncertainty of receiving salaries and education grants. School attendance was badly affected and attendance fell from the average of 3,026 in 1948 to that of 1,686 the following year.

In 1844 Queen’s College was established. Initially this development was primarily intended to provide for those whites who could ill-afford to send their children to Europe for a classical education. Non-whites had to be “extra-ordinarily gifted” to find themselves at this institution and by 1848 only two Negro boys were attending the school in addition to white students.

Mr John Mc Swiney was appointed the first Inspector of Schools in 1849 and the following year a Board of Education was formed. Following his assumption of duty Mc Swiney visited schools country-wide and he forwarded a detailed report for the general improvement of the education system.

Among his recommendations were local governmental control of education, compulsory attendance at schools, better record keeping and more qualified teachers. Despite these calls there was very little encouragement from the highly influential and powerful plantocracy and the Inspector of Schools’ proposals never got off the ground.

In 1850 a Commission appointed by Governor Barkly to outline plans for the introduction of popular education, proposed among other things, the creation of local district boards, religious instruction to be made optional, the continued usage of church facilities and expertise and the cost of education to be partially financed by an assessment tax on parents of recipients and partly by a colonial grant. These recommendations met with strong protest from religious bodies. Added to this were government’s financial considerations and the intensification of immigration. In the end the plan was shelved.

Governor Wodehouse’s Education Bill of 1855 placed executive control over education. Among its main aspects were a formal system of dual control of schools by Church and state, a specified period for religious instruction, the remuneration of teachers on merit and the payment of school fees as sine qua non for the entitlement to government grants. In spite of these changes problems continued to be experienced. Attendance of children was extremely poor and the payment of school fees was undoubtedly having the effect of keeping children away. It was also the tendency of parents to encourage their children to work on the plantation to supplement meagre family income. Inadequate teacher training, a lack of standardization of content and problems of language and religion experienced by children of East Indian immigrants were also contributory factors.

In an attempt to improve the quality of teachers without entailing much expenditure, the pupil-teacher system was introduced in 1857. By the 1860’s there were repeated calls for compulsory education in order to stem the tide of absenteeism. Around this time some estate schools were established in Demerara and Berbice to cater for immigrant children and one Reverend Bhose in particular, worked actively among them. Bhose was of the view that the system of compulsory education was doomed to fail unless attendance was enforced and parents were compelled to send their children to school.

In the ensuing years Governor Francis Hincks instituted a system of payment by examination results in an attempt to make teachers more proficient but instead of achieving this desired quality, it led to “cramming and gross dishonesty.”

Under this scheme teachers’ remuneration was based on the examination of children who had made a certain number of attendances during the school year.

Hence, preparation for examinations involved much cramming on the part of students and even the forging of registers to ensure many children were eligible to be examined.

By the 1970’s there was very little improvement in the system. More school-age children were still out of school when compared with the number making attendances. It was not strange therefore that several newspapers of the day joined in the calls on whether it should be a completely secular or a compulsory denominational system. Supporters of the former argued that denominational education would lead to little training and the concentration of too many schools in one locality due to intense rivalry among the various denominational bodies.

On the other hand, those of the latter countered by predicting an increase in immorality and crime in the society under the secular system.

In 1874 Governor Longden appointed a Commission of Inquiry to examine the system of education with a view to identifying and removing its deficiencies. Its recommendations included a single training institution for teachers, the writing of the Teacher’s Certification Examination by unqualified teachers and ‘Certificate Pay’ under which there was a fixed salary to teachers according to their levels of certification. This was closely followed by the 1876 Bill which introduced Compulsory Education in the colony. Under it the labouring class was compelled to send their children to schools. The schools fell under two types ‘Aided School’ which was under the management of religious bodies and ‘Colonial School’ which was directly under government supervision. It was suggested that religious instruction be provided in both types but that there should be no cathecism in the government ones.

It was clear that the Compulsory Ordinance was motivated by a need to protect the social status of the plantocracy more than anything else. After all, social problems of the 1870’s had severely threatened the plantation society at this important junction of Guyana’s colonial history.