I recently had a conversation with Ena Campbell, a retired educator in her eighties who witnessed the brutal education system in Jamaica in the 1940’s and 1950’s. She looked back at the system at the time.
“When I came to Jamaica from Cuba in the 1940s as a young girl, the high school education in Jamaica was designed for the white and tan planter class,” said Dr. Campbell. “There were very few premium high schools then, the schools were deliberately kept small to maintain their elite status, and only wealthy families could afford to send their children to the better schools.
“There were schools like Jamaica College, Wolmer’s, Knox, and St. Hilda’s Diocesan High School in Brown’s Town, St. Ann, but the tuition was prohibitive for most Jamaicans, and the boarding schools were then considered the finishing schools for aristocratic families. Schools were staffed almost exclusively by British expatriate teachers, and a school like Westwood was founded by a Baptist minister to provide an education for Jamaican girls who could not come to St. Hilda’.
She said that in the early days, apart from 10 or 20 guineas (21 shillings) per semester per child, the only way to get into the valuable schools was to win one of two island scholarships available in each parish were, with only about 30 super brilliant students across the island getting a shot at high school. She pointed out that in many cases, when the scholarship recipients showed up for the start of school, everyone knew who they were because they were darker-skinned than most of the class.
“Many of the schools practiced selectivity based on class, race, and the moral and social status of parents,” Olive Senior wrote in her book Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage in relation to this pre-independence period.
Campbell, who worked in cultural policy for years at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica, said a skyrocketing class of Jamaicans were exposed to trips to Panama, Cuba and Britain around the turn of the century, and black Jamaican families had become aware of the importance of a good education for a stable future. At the time, teacher training colleges such as Mico and Bethlehem were producing Jamaican teachers of the highest quality. Some of these teachers, who were not employed by the high school network, resented the elitist structure of the school system. They recognized that there was an urgent need for college space and, even before the 1940s, began establishing a number of independent colleges to fill the gap.
The new wave of independent schools included Buxton High School, St. John’s, St. Monica’s and St. Simon’s College, the latter producing top-notch graduates such as G. Arthur Brown, former Bank of Jamaica Governor, Hugh Shearer, former Prime Minister, the Hon. Louise Bennett, Dr. Joyce Robinson and other distinguished Jamaicans. Campbell contended that while these schools offered an excellent general education, they were not government funded and their only limitation was the lack of funds for expanding facilities such as science laboratories.
“A loud and militant voice in the dire need to find high school places for Jamaicans was Wesley A. Powell, who led a protest delegation to the governor,” she recalled. “Powell had previously been a victim of the system when he was denied entry to Womler’s after being told he was too old to enter at the ripe old age of 13. Powell later founded the Excelsior School on Mountain View Avenue in Kingston.
The work of former Anglican Bishop of Jamaica Percival W. Gibson cannot be overstated. Aside from founding Kingston College, other educational institutions were established under his tenure, including Queens School and Glenmuir High, but the expansion also included Infant, Primary and Teachers’ Colleges. And the early appointment of Jamaican principals at both Kingston College and St. Hugh’s was also a major turning point in the Jamaicanization of schools.
Campbell said during her early years in Jamaica, Catholics also founded a number of schools in the Kingston area. Chinese were among the first to abandon plantation culture and move to Kingston. The municipal Catholic schools of the time – St George’s College, Convent of Mercy (Alpha) and Immaculate Conception – were heavily populated by the Chinese community in Kingston & St Andrew. Many blacks could not afford the high fees. Years later, the ethnic composition of these schools began to change, reflecting the Afro-Jamaican population.
“While almost all of the churches that founded schools in Jamaica were of British origin, missionaries from the American Church of God also came to the island and founded Ardenne High School, which had an open-door policy,” she said. “Everyone was welcome and the sense of dignity for everyone there was undeniable. Fees were lower and if parents didn’t have the full fee at the beginning of the semester, they could pay later,” explained Dr. Campbell.
This September, 35,292 students will receive places in secondary schools, a far cry from the 30 scholarship holders in the 1940s.