A generation of Trinbagonians have begun to come of age, a generation that has been supplied with opportunities unknown to those that went before. The history of education in Trinidad and Tobago as well as that of the wider Caribbean has been one of limited opportunity, one in which only the exceptionally gifted and academically inclined were allowed to advance. In 1961, around the period of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, the secondary school enrollment was limited to – 15,000 pupils as against 187,000 who were in primary schools (Williams 1981). That turns out to approximately 8% of those enrolled in primary schools advancing to secondary schools. By 1967, this number had risen to 30,000, still proving to be less than a quarter of primary school students even advancing to secondary schools. Higher education, especially to the tertiary level, was considered an unbelievably high privilege.
The present situation in Trinidad and Tobago is of such that there is a secondary school place for every primary school child. In addition the G.A.T.E (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses) program has now made it possible for University education to be undertaken with limited cost. The benefit of such advancement in educational opportunities therefore limits the possibilities for poverty levels to rise.
The causes of poverty have been researched in great detail over the years, and some have narrowed its main cause down to a lack of formal education. However, such may prove to be too narrow a view. The late UCLA public policy Professor James Q. Wilson noted, after lengthy research that if one fails to do the following three things, there is a 79 percent chance that one would eventually become poor: 1) finish high school, 2) don’t become a parent until at least the age of twenty, 3) Get married before having children. Although it is most likely that such a study focused mainly on American society, it is certain that the principles could be transferred to a society structured like Trinidad and Tobago.
Finishing high school in T&T and the Caribbean simply means securing five ‘O’ level subjects with the inclusion of Mathematics and English Language. However, the emphasis placed on such academic achievement has come in for much criticism as being tinged with a ‘literary bias’. Excessive attention placed on literary attainments could become counterproductive. Eric E. Williams on this particular issue noted: “Three quarters of a century ago Jose Marti, the renowned Cuban philosopher, in appraising the Latin American type of secondary education especially in its Cuban context, warned that the head of a giant was being placed on the body of an ant. Marti was condemning the literary emphasis in education in a society predominantly agricultural. This is precisely what looms here in Trinidad and Tobago...” (Williams, 1981). He further highlighted that which has become even more pronounced in our present-day society, “...worst of all, exposing the unfortunate students to the personal suspicion and often the public accusation that, by failing to make the ‘O’ levels, they are inferior” (Williams, 1981). Of this, one must be weary.
Nevertheless, the vast array of opportunity on the twin-island state of T&T limits the excuses that one may have for not improving himself/herself. If one is more inclined to vocational study, programmes such as M.U.S.T (Multi-sector skills training) and Y.T.E.E.P (Youth Training Employment Partnership) allows for career paths of a vocational nature. As Trinidad and Tobago’s economy industrializes further and eventually makes the transition to a technology based economy, tertiary-level education would eventually become an imperative in order to satisfy the needs of the economy.
Higher education has opened opportunities for a new generation. Whether this would lead to substantive or long term solutions to the plethora of problems facing the Republic is yet to be seen.