At least 151 primary school pupils dropped out of government schools in Trinidad between the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2022, while another 2,663 students dropped out of government secondary schools during the same period–a figure of 2,814.
The Sunday Guardian obtained the information from the Ministry of Education after submitting a Freedom of Information request earlier this year.
According to several school dropouts and teachers, as well as education stakeholders, the pandemic significantly increased the number of students who left school.
Many of the students felt as though they had no choice but to drop out. Those who have fallen through the cracks mentioned feeling immense pressure to assist their families make ends meet at home as the pandemic worsened things for them.
Many of them said they work odd jobs like construction or selling small items. Others, meanwhile, said they spend a lot of their time helping at home with their siblings. It was uncertain what many others have been doing, however some children who drop out of school have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, dabbling in guns and drugs and getting drafted into gangs.
Teachers and education stakeholders said that the situation was concerning, with more and more students falling through the cracks.
“I know of a child from my school who dropped out of school during the pandemic. Her situation was economic in that she never came online for classes during the lockdown. She was academically weak and repeating Standard Two. Efforts to get her to come to school were futile,” a teacher at a Diego Martin primary school said.
“Put yourselves in the shoes of a child who passed through that situation. You come out of school totally lost. You were weak before, and now, you are totally lost. What do you think the potential for dropout would be? Not high?”
During the pandemic some parents lost their jobs, so they do not have the means to take care of their children and provide for them to come to school, said Shirazudeen Mohammed, who retired as a Success Laventille teacher in 2022.
“What happens then? Because during the pandemic many of us, as teachers, would have put up money to get hampers to give to parents who we know are struggling. It’s nobody’s fault per se, but when the ministry talks, it’s as though they did everything possible, but you and I know that’s not the case.”
A look at the numbers
*A closer look at the government primary schools showed that 24 students dropped out in 2020; 36 students dropped out in 2021, and 91 students dropped out in 2022.
*The education district with the most government primary school dropouts since 2020 was Port-of-Spain and environs with 49.
*The St George East district, which includes schools in Tunapuna, Arouca, Curepe, El Dorado, Morvant, St Augustine, St Joseph, San Juan, Mt Hope and Curepe, had 38 dropouts.
*The Victoria district, which includes schools in San Fernando, Debe, La Romain, Gasparillo, Claxton Bay, Marabella and Pleasantville, had 20 dropouts.
*The Caroni district, which includes schools in Charlieville, Barataria, Carapichaima, Chaguanas, Couva, Cunupia, Caroni and Preysal, had 18 dropouts.
*The St Patrick district, which includes schools in Fyzabad, Cedros, Penal, Point Fortin, Siparia and La Brea, had 14 dropouts.
*The South Eastern district, which includes schools in Mayaro, Barrackpore, Rio Claro, Princes Town, Tabaquite and Kumar Village, had eight dropouts.
*The North Eastern district, which includes Arima, Biche, Brazil, Cumoto, Matelot, Manzanilla, Sangre Grande, Matura Village, Valencia and Toco, had the least recorded primary school dropouts with four.
Meanwhile, in the country’s government secondary schools, 623 students dropped out in 2020; 1,056 students dropped out in 2021; while 984 students dropped out in 2022.
*The district with the most secondary school dropouts was St George East with 724 students. In 2021 alone, 302 students dropped out of secondary schools in the district.
*North Eastern was the district with the least dropouts–281 students.
*The Port-of-Spain and environs district recorded 423 dropouts, the second-highest total.
Children tell their stories
Over the past week, the Sunday Guardian attempted to track down some of the primary school students who dropped out during the pandemic.
It proved difficult in Port-of-Spain, Las Cuevas and Diego Martin. Residents there said many children dropped out, but they were unable to connect us with the former students.
Mayaro was different.
A youngster, now 13, said, “I dropped out of school at the age of ten. The reason for dropping out was that I had other siblings and my mom was a single parent. I helped out by taking care of younger brothers and sisters, seeing how hard mom worked to manage us, and then it was during the pandemic.
“Money was real hard coming in. Mommy used to be complaining about how hard it was. And sometimes we didn’t even have food to carry to school. We had to depend on the box lunch in the school, and sometimes we had to walk to school because we didn’t even have the money for a taxi to school.
“My mom was a bit sad when I dropped out, knowing she couldn’t take care of all of us and send us all to school at the same time. I didn’t get to write SEA because of that. Miss used to be sending messages, sometimes she would come and look for us, and she would try to assist in getting me back into school.
“I would really love to go back to school and hope things will be better off with us. I believe getting a job without education is one of the most difficult things in this world. So yes, I would love very much to go back to school and try again because it’s not like I don’t like school. I miss school, and if we could get a little assistance that would be nice to help mommy more, so we could take our education as we are supposed to.”
Another minor from Mayaro, who dropped out of school, also felt as though he did not have a choice. He too would like to go back to the classroom.
“I dropped out of school around the age of 13. I was in Form Three, right? The reason I dropped out of school is that when I was going to school, my mom was single, and it was five of us, so it was really a battle. So she could not take care of all of us and send us to school and mentee us. She wasn’t working anyway so it was hard for her,” Allan said.
“I was going to school using transportation and then the financial problems, going to school every day was a real issue. So it was just more convenient for her, I guess, for me to stay home.”
Retired teacher weighs in
In 1986, Shirazudeen Mohammed, fresh out of the University of the West Indies as a qualified teacher, was assigned to Success Laventille as a mathematics teacher.
Mohammed spent his entire teaching career at the East Port-of-Spain school, before retiring in 2022.
And while he saw many things, good and bad, over his three decades at Success Laventille, the challenges posed for students by the pandemic were the most difficult.
The difficulties, he said, pushed many students to the limit, resulting in some opting to drop out of school.
“The lack of connectivity. No devices. Parents were working and they were not aware of what was happening at home, because remember everyone was on lockdown. So parents are going to work, thinking the children are doing work at home, but nothing is happening.
“Could you imagine that process as a child? Sometimes they are not even coming to class. Luckily enough, all my students came to class. That was by the grace of God, maybe I found a way to do things that interested them. Was it the kind of work that I would have liked them to do? No, because sometimes you call the roll and the child does not answer. Sometimes they are honest. They say, ‘Sir, I went to get something to eat. Sir, my mother called me.’
“Sometimes you hear the parent calling them. All of this led to frustration in a child because they couldn’t meet their friends, so that was another level of problems in their minds. A real host of issues would have caused a dropout,” Mohammed said.
Another major issue confronting teachers and the school system is the impact of poor parenting, according to the former Success Laventille teacher.
He said many times during his career he raised concerns with parents about their children’s performances, but some of them do not have the ‘wherewithal’ or ‘technical knowledge’ to follow through and get the required help.
“Some feel a bit hesitant to ask for help because it’s as though there’s a stigma attached to their child if they go and ask for help. Some of it is plain negligence, they say here is what, I provide for you, you have a house, place to live, food to eat and if you don’t do this or that by a certain time period, you are out on your own.
“You have some children who have no choice but to go and work to make ends meet for the family, and it’s no shame to any family, but it’s just the circumstances that they are in. When they start to work and get their own money, you know children, they feel that is the end all, they are making money and they have some change in their pockets. They now think that they are big and they don’t want to hear anything about studies, so the easiest thing now is to drop out because you are making a dollar. But they don’t look down the road when opportunities dry up,” Mohammed said.
The retiree said seeing the students fall through the cracks was frustrating and saddening. He said there was a feeling of helpless because sometimes it is impossible to get through to them or their parents.
“You are talking about parents you would have liked to meet during the tenure of a child’s life at school, and some of those children are unreachable. Unreachable. For many reasons. Either message doesn’t go home. Phone numbers changed and it’s not updated in school. Nobody saw it fit to update. Sometimes they change addresses. Even though at one point in time we were able to get police assistance.
“I must say the officers of the Hearts and Minds project were wonderful and caring officers who worked with us, but sometimes you send them to an address you had on file looking for a parent, only when they reach there they find out nobody lives there anymore.
“I once asked a parent to meet at Maracas Beach because one of the reasons that parent couldn’t come in was because of the turf war. Sometimes parents are reluctant to come to school. The boy was missing a lot of schools, but I know he was a young man who had a lot of potential. This boy was in Form One. He was no longer living with his mother because there were issues. Of course, the child was aggressive because he can’t live with mommy, he can’t live with daddy, and he has to fend for himself at that age,” he added.
That young man, Mohammed said, never returned to school.
School dropouts are a growing concern to the president of the National Parent-Teacher Association Kevin David, who said a lot was going on in the system right now.
He said they have to analyse the details and probably include further discussion with the ministry to find out whether or not these children have just fallen out of the school system or have taken on different approaches to being educated, like for example, homeschooling.
“So that is something that we want to look at, especially at the primary school level,” he added.
“At the secondary school level, we know that there is a level of dropout. This has been confirmed with discussions with our guidance counsellors and those sorts of support staff within the school itself. That is what we are aware of and are concerned with. In terms of how that matter is being resolved, our understanding is that these guidance officers go out and look for these students themselves with the intention of actually trying to find the issues and probably bring them back in,” David said.
According to David, while there is an obvious issue, stakeholders are facing difficulties in reaching and convincing students directly, or through their parents, to return to the system.
He believes that there is a significant level of support within the system.
“The problem is that firstly, are people aware of the support? And that is where stakeholders like myself come in and we provide the necessary information to the parents. The second one is, are people willing to take up our support? And I think that is one of the major issues that we have. Not just that there isn’t any support or insufficient support, but if people are willing to take up that level of support.
“So, for example, we can do a comparison in times gone by in terms of the level of support in schools. We did not have guidance officers, guidance counsellors and those other things in schools. But in these times we have these. These people go out and talk with them. And they are the ones that have a better idea of what is happening underneath the surface within the school environment itself. So that support is there, but honestly a lot of our students, our parents are not thinking about using that support and those support mechanisms that are in place,” David lamented.
No response from Minister, TTUTA, Association of Principals
President of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association Martin Lum Kin acknowledged receipt of questions on the issue but did not provide any responses.
Questions were also posed to the President of the Association of Principals of Public Secondary Schools Sharlene Hicks-Raeburn. She also acknowledged receipt but did not respond.
Minister of Education Nyan Gadsby-Dolly was also contacted for comment but she did not respond.