Govt must rethink the 1960 Concordat
Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003
by George Alleyne, Newsday/TT
Government must rethink the Concordat which the Roman Catholic Church, then headed by the powerful Archbishop Count Finbar Ryan, pressured it to agree to in 1960. Dr Eric Williams, then Premier of Trinidad and Tobago, smarting under the six-four defeat his Party, the People's National Movement, had received from the Democratic Labour Party in the March 25, 1958 Federal Elections, feared that opposition from the Church may have led to a further defeat in the 1961 General Election.
He had been witness to that opposition in the run-up to the General Election of September 24, 1956, when Roman Catholic priests had attacked the PNM from the pulpit up to the day before the election. Indeed, on Sunday, September 23, a newspaper featuring on its front page a statement by a priest, juxtaposed the photographs of Williams and the late Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler. But the concerns of the Church (incidentally, the Catholics had been joined by other religious groups) were understandable. Finbar Ryan wanted to continue the old British and European custom of maintaining the Church's commanding position in education, even when that position was funded by taxpayers' money.
Williams had clearly preferred the approach of the United States, which in the late 19th century had banned the running and/or the subsidising of parochial schools with taxpayers' funds. The Irish-born Archbishop Ryan was British or European in his thinking with respect to primary and secondary education and Trinidad and Tobago was still a British colony.
It was a thinking that ran contrary to that enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, who had urged "a crusade against ignorance" in his insistence on State-funded, State-run schools. Continued Jefferson: "The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than a thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles, who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." Williams would, however, yield for what to him were pragmatic reasons.
Although the Concordat would not be wholly a victory for the Church, the Church, indeed all religions and sects, which controlled secondary schools, would be allowed to select 20 per cent of the persons entering their schools annually 'based' on the then 11-plus examination. The first line of discrimination, which would emerge, would be based on religion, or was it a mixture of religion and privilege? It ran counter to the philosophy of United States President Lyndon B Johnson's Head Start programme, which he had created in 1965. Admittedly, Johnson's Head Start was for pre-schoolers and ran in the summer months, rather than year round. But it was essentially for children of lower income families, and aimed at giving them a needed opportunity of achieving success later in school, primary, and secondary.
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 despatch 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.
Nothing which I have written should be construed to mean that I am anti any of the religions, which took part in the creation of the Concordat, and whose well positioned members' sons and daughters benefited, if not by any education opportunity gained, at least simply by being there. Or was their merely occupying seats at what so many love to call prestige schools a genuine benefit? What of the forced price paid by those who have been marginalised by the Concordat? Government should set a date for the end of this system. I will not suggest a date, though my preference is for this year's SEA examinations to be the last under which the system of privilege continues, admission wise.
Taxpayers' money should not be employed to fund and maintain privilege. Instead, there should be equality of opportunity for all. Schoolchildren should be able to gain access to the schools of their choice, not on the basis of who their fathers are, or what their religion is, but on marks gained in the SEA through "toiling upwards in the night". Was it not the economist W W Rostow, who would say in an article - The Take-off Into Self-Sustained Growth - published in the Economic Journal of March, 1956, two months after Dr Williams launched his People's National Movement: "Education, for some at least, broadens and changes to suit the needs of modern economic activity." For the past 42 years and more the "some" did not include the Concordat marginalised sons and daughters of lower income families, save perhaps for the odd case here and there. The Finbar Ryans of this world have had their say. It is time for the nation to 'cut its losses' and move on.
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