Nearly 60 years ago, the government of Trinidad and Tobago signed The Concordat of 1960 — an agreement between the state and religious bodies that gives them the right to determine their own curricula in denominational schools. They also have the right to select 20 per cent of new students entering denominational schools, regardless of their performance on the annual secondary school entrance exams — now called the SEA.
Students who do well on these exams often get into their school of choice based on how their marks are ranked relative to the availability of spaces, but those who don't can still get into desirable denominational schools — often referred to as “prestige schools” — using this 20 per cent rule.
Though denominational schools receive government assistance, they are able to extend this preferential treatment to students based on religious affiliation. As Trinbagonian parents continue to lament the inefficacy of the SEA, the issue of the Concordat goes hand-in-hand with discussions about education progress in the country, more than half a century after the document was signed.
In 2003, newspaper columnist George Alleyne penned an editorial which called out the Concordat as a mechanism of discrimination based on “a mixture of religion and privilege”:
Many children of lower income families were nudged aside in the application of the powers conferred by the state-church arrangement, and those receiving the head start under the Concordat were instead sons and daughters of far better-positioned middle- and upper middle-income families. It was clearly unjust and deprived many a bright schoolchild of a deserved chance at upward mobility. Government should and must move with dispatch to deal with this cruel absurdity of privilege conferred. There must be a rethink of the Concordat, not to see in what way it can be improved, but rather how quickly it can be consigned to the dustbin of history.
If indeed education is better in denominational schools then we must ensure that government schools are brought up to the best level. In the meanwhile the denominational schools should be allocated at least 50 percent of candidates from the lower end of the SEA [Secondary Entrance Assessment] pass list and such students must be given special attention. I am basing this proposal on the fact that religious denominations are concerned with the good of society as a whole and in particular with helping the disadvantaged and so I am certain this proposal will have [their] full support.
Thus far, it hasn't. The 20 per cent list still exists and parents often use it as a guarantee should their children not do well in the exam. Some parents have even been known to change the child's religion based on the denomination of their desired school.
The history of the agreement
The signing of this Concordat took place in Trinidad and Tobago's pre-independence era. The country eventually won its independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1962, led by Eric Williams and his political party, the People's National Movement (PNM).
Williams had big plans for revamping the country's colonial education system, which, until that time, consisted of state-subsidized “mission schools” directed by each religion's denominational board. Until then, access to education had largely evaded the working class; children that did go to school were separated based on religion — which also meant that they ended up being split up along ethnic lines.
Williams’ proposed reforms — including levelling the playing field and broadening the scope of the curriculum — got a lot of pushback. Fearing that influential church opposition might lead to a similar defeat to the one his party suffered in the 1958 federal elections, Williams signed the agreement.
‘Unfairness in the system’
Most recently, analyst Nigel Henry examined leaked data from the 2018 SEA examination and dissected the process by which students are placed. The resulting newspaper exposé — the first instalment of which was published on June 30, 2019 — revealed the inequalities inherent in the system, catapulting the issue of the Concordat to the forefront of the education debate once again.
Government-assisted schools usually cost more to run than the state can allocate, so the schools also do their own fundraising. Besides the children of staff and alumni, their 20 per cent may also include children whose parents have the means to support the school.
The Sunday Express, the newspaper that published Henry's report wrote an editorial stating that analysis of the leaked data “shows how the anomaly of the 1960 Cabinet-approved Concordat, known to the population as the notorious '20 per cent’ introduces unfairness in the placement system”:
[…] As Mr. Henry demonstrated, that 20 percent sometimes mysteriously increases to 21, 25 or 33 percent in Concordat-type assignment of particular students. The Concordat is a common target of criticism and review of it has been repeatedly recommended in reports on the country’s youth population. It appears that Concordat-inspired behaviour has seeped into placements at wholly government-run schools as well.
The problems go even deeper […] A merit point system that uses students’ actual scores to place them in secondary schools is combined with a zoning formula in which scores do not matter […] resulting in sometimes awkward, sometimes arbitrary decisions about the future of tens of thousands of young people and their families.
Read more: Will Barbados be the first Caribbean nation to abolish the secondary school entrance exam?
Lynsley Anderson Doodhai, the current president of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), took to Facebook on July 2, 2019, to make it clear that his trade union has not called for the Concordat to be abolished:
[…] This is not an official position of TTUTA. What I said was that there should be a review to determine the Concordat’s relevance since more than 50 years has elapsed since its signing.
While many find the agreement outdated and irrelevant, Facebook user Sankofa Mfom Tuzinde suggested that the real issue was less “the instrument of the Concordat” and more “dishonesty and unethical practices”:
[…] These denominational schools are not the problem. The government need[s] to fix the other schools. […] In the mean time, start to rotate teachers much like how police officers are rotated.
Implementation of a continuous assessment programme […] could be a short-term [solution], however certain safeguards, control and strict programme supervision tolls have to be in place so that everybody has a fair chance. The SEA is far from perfect but unless we start having a proper conversation with the parties of the Concordat, then SEA will be with us for a long time.
One teacher that Global Voices spoke with by phone — who asked to remain anonymous — believes that the issue with the SEA exam goes well beyond the Concordat. “We're asking the wrong questions,” she says.
In her estimation, some of the key issues with the current system are that it is not seamless, children must go through this stop-gap measure of being tested at age 11 (when, developmentally, the playing field is not level), and there are a handful of secondary schools that people want to go to, making the competition that much fiercer:
Rather than asking why the denominational schools are allowed their 20 per cent, we should be asking how we can raise the level of education and make more schools desirable.