Brief History of Education in the Caribbean

Dec 30 / Isabel Dennis
In Barbados from as early as 1686 (Gordon, 1963) Charity and Free schools opened their doors to what we could consider the beginning of public education in the Caribbean.

While these schools were not government funded or managed, they required varying degrees of interaction with the government for permission or approval to organize the endowments and trusts that funded them. 

These, largely church managed, endowments and trusts allowed the schools to offer education for free and catered to all citizens who wanted a British Christian education but could not afford to send their children back to Britain or hire private tutors.
At this time, because the British barely considered Africans human, far more citizens, Africans had no access to these public schools; however, some had sporadic access to religious education from as early as 1710 in Barbados (Gordon, 1963). These two types of education, one for the British and one for the African, along with the private tutorship and schools for the children of Plantation owners could be considered the beginning of the hierarchical public education system, by race and class, that exist in the Caribbean today; where each race and class is educated for a particular purpose - one for managing, one for being managed, and one for manual labour.

The 2nd Change

Birthed from that foundation, we could consider the second iteration of public education occurring around the Emancipation Act of 1833 where there was increased government involvement. Driven by the fear of losing control over the Africans who vastly outnumbered the British, the Sterling Report of 1835 suggested that because:
“their [Africans’] performance of the functions of a laboring class in a civilized community will depend entirely on the power over their minds of the same prudential and moral motives which govern more or less the mass of the people here. If they [Africans] are not so disposed as to fulfil these functions, property will perish in the colonies for lack of human impulsion; the whites will no longer reside there; and the liberated negroes themselves will probably cease to be progressive. The law having already determined and enforced their civic rights, the task of bettering their condition can be further advanced only by education” (Gordon, 1963. p.21).

In other words, the prime motivation for Britain’s push to ‘civilize’ Africans through education, was to be able to maintain control over them so that they could still be ‘of service’ to the whites; to preserve the pecking order. At this point in my exploration, I am unclear as to how the Africans felt about gaining access to education but it is important to remember that they would have had some perspective and position on this shift; whether excitement of being able to access something that they could not have had previously or being upset that they must now do something that they do not think was useful or any position in between.

During this time of Emancipation, there was an increase in both the number of schools in the region and the level of government involvement in education. The British Government, through the Negro Education Grant, offered Christian missionaries, who were already engaged in the education of the Africans, two thirds the cost of construction of building new schools for the education of Africans (Gordon, 1963). In order to manage the Negro Education Grant and to make sure it was achieving the goal of ‘civilizing’ Africans, the British government began monitoring and regulating the curricula, attendance, and performance of students, teachers and schools in the region through various Education Commissions and Departments. This was the beginning of the partnership between government and church in education that still exists today throughout the Caribbean. Eerily so, the same 2:1, government to church, school funding policy exists today, in the 21st Century, for denominational schools in Trinidad and Tobago, and I would hazard a guess that it may still exists in some form in other Caribbean countries.

The 3rd Change

Even though Emancipation brought a shift in access to education, it did not bring about a shift in design or purpose, as Britain still dominated the region – physically, economically, politically, and psychologically - with its narcissistic delusions of grandeur. Education for the Africans then became the means by which they ‘proved their European-ness’ in order to secure government jobs and reclaim some of their stolen dignity. It was where Africans were encouraged to denounce their African-ness in order to prove that they can learn as well as or even better than whites. Education for the whites remained tied in the same way to Britain and the British Curriculum, where those that could not afford stayed in the Caribbean and those that could were shipped out to receive or continue their education. Again, we can see the replication of this in the way education is organized in the Caribbean today with those who can afford shipping their children out to complete their tertiary education outside and those who cannot afford staying and completing their tertiary education here.

The third shift in what we could call public education in the Caribbean, came around the time of independence, which occurred at different times for different countries between 1962 and 1981; when colonies became countries and began governing their own affairs. While this was a major turning point for the region, in hindsight, the shift that occurred in education was largely a shift on paper and in semantics. The governments that were pioneering the shift towards independence were engaged in a herculean task of identity formation and nationhood building that required negotiations among the often competing agendas of the citizenry, international relations and campaign promises. Despite their efforts and the efforts of revolutionaries and scholars, within the region, what essentially happened was that they built on what already existed by increasing the number of schools, students, teachers and administrators, and changing some of the language used to describe the purpose of education, but making no major change to the foundation; the way it is organized by race and class, the partnership with religious organizations, and the centering of the curriculum on experiences and knowledge from the outside (see table below).

In Summary

This is, in a very small nutshell, my understanding of the framework from which Caribbean education institutions were built on – a European identity and suppression of the cultures and experiences of the Africans and to a lesser extent Indians and Chinese.

This over 300 year old foundation is what the public education of 2017 rests on and is one of the countless intersecting reasons why, I believe, the Caribbean is stuck in a dilemma of wanting change but is finding it absolutely difficult to do anything differently; we underestimate the depths and strength of this 300 year old education legacy. It is against this legacy from which I ground my position that by mapping the Caribbean Learning Practices that exist within our cultural spaces, we will create a guide that can be integrated into every meeting, class, and experience that we have and will be the roadmap from which we can live the future we wish to experience within our societies; learning to live, not the reform of education being the driver of the shift into the future we wish to experience.
Jules, D. [UWI MonaMedia]. (2017, June, 22). The future of education and the education of the future in the Caribbean [Video file]. Retrieved from
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th ed.). (M. B. Ramos, Trans.) New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. Retrieved November 2017, from
Gordon, S. (1963). A Century of West Indian Education. London. Longmans.

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