Free secondary education –– to whose credit?
In an address in the Democratic Labour Party’s lunchtime lecture series, noted historian Trevor Marshall sought to give full credit to the Democratic Labour Party for introducing free secondary education into the education system in Barbados. I had thought the late educator Dr Leonard Shorey had put an end to this discussion by stating categorically the introduction of the Secondary Modern School, which became the newer secondary school, and finally the secondary school, saw the beginning of free secondary education in Barbados.
The debate over free secondary education in Barbados was part of the political debate that consumed the Barbadian public, particularly during the 1920s and after.
It must not be forgotten, though, that in the 19th century Samuel Jackman Prescod devoted much of his time to the topic. The real flag bearers of free education, however, were political activists such as C.A. Brathwaite, Clennell Wickham, Washington Harper and A.E.S. Lewis.
During the 1940s, the debates in the House of Assembly focused, in addition to free secondary education, on the expansion of places at the secondary level. It was clear the older grammar schools were too restricted in their intake in the face of continuing and growing public demand for more secondary school places. In fact, the average attendance at these schools between 1948 and 1949 and 1951 and 1952 was a meagre 2,547 with the boys outnumbering the girls.
At this time, also, there were the private secondary schools –– St Winifred’s, The Ursuline Convent, Codrington High, St Gabriel’s, Modern High, Barbados Academy, Lynch’s Secondary and Industry High –– whose numbers were also insignificant, and whose doors, except for the Modern, were not available to the ordinary working-class Barbadian.
In the 1950-1951 Annual Estimates, Wynter A. Crawford, putting a case for increased secondary school places, had this to say: “Whereas 40 or 50 years ago we had the accommodation but the economic resources of the parents were such that they could not afford to let their children take advantage of the educational facilities, now that the economic position of the parents has reached the stage where they can afford it, there is no school accommodation for the children.”
The leadership of the Barbados Labour Party took the position they would address the deficiency in numbers as a priority. Some members of the House even suggested there be a reduction in the number of Barbados Exhibitions to university while simultaneously increasing the number of secondary school places. The impetus to move in the direction of increased school places by the BLP must have been influenced by the recommendation of the then Director of Education Howard Hayden.
England had followed the recommendation of the Hadow Report (1926) and had established in 1944, in addition to the traditional grammar school, two other types of schools, the secondary modern school and the junior technical or trade school. In Barbados, Hayden followed the English recommendation and in his Policy For Education advocated the establishment of modern schools for the island.
The BLP then proceeded with the first of four such schools: The St Leonard’s Boys’ and the St Leonard’s Girls’ (1952), the West St Joseph Secondary Modern and the Princess Margaret Secondary (1955).
It is critical to note that one of the basic principles arising from the Hadow Report was that education be divided into two phrases –– primary and secondary –– and that the provision of education after 11 plus was to be regarded as secondary. This reorganization of the Barbados education system into infant, primary and secondary has remained unchanged since the 1940s.
The important point to bear in mind was that all children attending these secondary modern schools were accessing secondary education.
But before this reorganization, for those too young to know, there was in the older elementary schools a senior division that comprised children beyond 11 years, and these formed Classes 5, 6 and 7. Many of these children were very bright, but because of the impoverishment of their parents, they could not be sent to the few existing private schools, or take any of the fewer places available at the older grammar schools.
Even if they were fortunate to pass a grammar school entrance examination, they were often faced with the ignominious “interview” that would further restrict their chances of a grammar school education. Furthermore, even if they were fortunate to successfully pass for a Vestry Exhibition, their fate was determined by ballot at a Vestry meeting.
The senior elementary population was a resource that cried out for greater educational opportunity and social justice. Some of these pupils formed the group of select persons who were tutored by elementary school principals in foreign languages and in the higher stages of mathematics. In fact, many of these pupils were transferred to the same older grammar schools.
It was these very persons who gained entry to the lower levels of the Public Service, pursued further educational opportunities and had become recognized for their remarkable academic achievement abroad. These were now the pupils who formed the foundation of the population at the new secondary schools; and they have not disappointed us.
The coming on stream of the newer secondary schools had an immediate impact on the numbers of children accessing secondary education. At August 31, 1955, there were 1,869 children on the rolls of these schools, compared to 2,565 at the older grammar schools. By the first year of Independence, the total grammar school roll was 5,203 in contrast to the newer grammar school roll of 8,039. As they say, “the rest is history”. What had happened earlier in 1962, however, was that the Democratic Labour Party had abolished the fees at the older grammar schools, thus completing the process of free secondary education in Barbados.
In summary, the establishment of the newer secondary schools has had three very far-reaching and highly positive effects. Firstly, it has ensured Barbados has achieved an envious record of universal secondary education as a small developing nation. Secondly, it has empowered our female population through the implementation of a policy of co-education, thus opening the way for thousands of them to access secondary education. Thirdly, it has provided the country with an abundance of technical, commercial and academic human resources.
As the country celebrates its 50th year of Independence, the foresight and vision of the Barbados Labour Party, of implementing free secondary education through the establishment of newer secondary schools, should not be demonized by such statements as “having graduated from those schools you could not become a nurse”. The point to be made is that Barbados’ excellent human resource index could not have been achieved solely by those who went to Harrison College or The Lodge School.
(Dr Dan C. Carter is an education historian and author.)