By Karla Lewis, (Educational Policy Studies University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign)
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New Orleans, LA, April 24-28, 2000)


This paper discusses the education in Belize (formerly known as British Honduras) during the colonial era and the lasting impact of the educational foundation of the country. The paper examines the influence the British colonial educational system continues to have in. Belize, 20 years after independence. It gives an overview of the history of primary and secondary education in Belize. Although education existed in Belize well before the arrival of the British colonizers and developed among various cultures during colonization, these are not highlighted in the paper because of the limited impact they had on Belize in general once school attendance became compulsory.


There has been little work on education in Belize (Bennett, 1972, 1979, Lundgren, 1992, Shoman, A. , 1994, and Shoman, K., 1991); most of the research has been anthropological in nature (Gmelch, 1992, Gonzalez, 1988, Kerns, 1983, Levine, 1987, Sanford, 1971, and Wilk & Chapin, 1990). However, there has been extensive work on colonization ( Altbach & Kelly, 1978, Ashcroft, 1973, Fanon, 1967, Gordon, 1997, Magubane, 1979, Memmi, 1965).Twenty years ago, Bennett (1979) discussed the need to reevaluate the educational system, and his work needs to be revisited. Bennett (1979) states, “It (the decolonization process) must enable us to develop our own national philosophy of education and give us confidence that working together we can equip our youth to play constructive roles in Belizean development” (p.23). Those sentiments are still relevant today, because many Belizean youth are not fully able to participate in Belize’s social and economic development because of a lack of educational opportunity.

History of Education in Belize

Some would say the role of a colonial government is to assist in the development, both human and material, of their colony. (Hammond, 1946) However, if one looks at the definition of “colonialism”, there exists an explicit mission to exploit the colony for the “mother” country. Belize is the perfect example of a colony because while the British were draining the natural resources, they continued to be disappointed in the underpopulation of the country and the lack of capital. Although, there were indigenous schools, it is difficult to document because no records were available. (Benavot & Riddle, 1988, p. 197) However, we do know that the Mayans had an advanced civilization that reached its peak between A.D. 250 and 900.

The Mayans also made advances in astronomy, mathematics, writing and the arts. The following is an overview of the history of education in Belize. The first section discusses the influence of religion because the schools are managed by the churches and funded primarily by the government. The second section discusses the period of settlement by the British, during this time Belize was officially managed by the Jamaican (British) government, but the settlers were essentially self-governing. The final section discusses education in Belize after it became a “Crown Colony” of Great Britain.

Influence of Religion

Like other schools in the British Empire, education was a missionary effort. (Bennett, 1979, King, 1955, Wesley, 1932) The Catholic Church took a central role because of the immigration of Yucatan Mayans and mestizos from the Caste War. Jesuits had also come to the Belize settlement to assist the new British settlers. In 1894 the Jesuits no longer reported to British superiors, the new superiors were from Missouri (U.S.A.). King (1955) states, ” The churches were the first to recognize and act upon the need for the extension of some form of education to the masses of the people”. The churches met the basic needs of the people and only later did the government begin to provide monetary assistance to these denominational schools. The British government in 1833 made the first grant for education in the Caribbean colonies. (King, 1955, p.3) King states that in 1840 the British government gave the grants directly to the denominations providing the schools, instead of allocating the funds to the local government to distribute. The religious organizations took it upon themselves to establish a clear educational policy when a group of clergy met in 1923 to discuss colonial education. This group of clergy formed the Committee for Education in African Colonies. The Committee advised the Colonial Office and gave them a list of goals and policies for colonial education. (Bennett, 1979) The 1937 Colonial Report (1938) describes Belize’s educational system, “The system of elementary education is that of subsidized denominational church schools, and is controlled by a Board of Education appointed under the Education Ordinance, 1926 (No. 14 of 1926 as amended by No. 38 of 1935)”.

An interesting note in the influence of religion lay in Black nuns. Miss Henriette Delille, a “free woman of color”, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1842. (Rector, 1982, p. 244) One of the three schools they opened between 1867 and 1900 was in Belize. In total they were responsible for four schools in Belize. They opened Sacred Heart in 1898, Holy Angels operated from 1952 to 1978, Austin High, now Ecumenical High opened in Dangriga (then known as Stann Creek) in 1953, and Holy Ghost operated from 1964 to 1978. They also operated Regina Coeli in Compton, California were many Belizean immigrants in the Los Angeles area attended. These nuns played an integral part in their student’s lives. These Black nuns were the role models for many young women who then aspired to be teachers and nuns, or teachers.

The Settlement Years

Previous to end of slavery the British had taken large tracts of Belize for free, but they did not want the former slaves to benefit from the “free” land grants. The British settlers wanted to keep the ex-slaves from working their own land and providing for their families. But, Creole parents did not want their children to be forced to work in mahogany gangs; therefore, they saw education as a way to gain access to other occupations. However, the educational system prepared a majority of children for the values acceptable to Europeans and North Americans.

School Management

During slavery, the mulatto children of the white settlers were often sent to England to be educated (Wesley, 1932). When the children stayed in Belize they were educated privately. Generally, slave owners did not want slaves to be educated and saw it as a “dangerous instrument”

” The recorded history of education in Belize commenced in 1816 when a small school was set up for the elementary schooling of poor children in the Settlement
– Bennett (1979)

The aided schools were founded and operated by various religious denominations. The aided schools would report their enrollment, attendance and administrative costs, and the government would give them a grant. Although school was free, there was a nominal fee. The government only had one school during this period, Honduras Free (Grammar) School. The other schools were classified as unaided (private), because they did not receive any funding from the government. The parents absorbed the expenses at these schools. The majority of students who attended the aided schools were Creole’s. The children of the British settlers received a private education in unaided schools.

During this period, the most important education a child could receive was primary school, because most would not have the opportunity to receive a secondary education. There was definitely a need for teacher training. In 1855, an Act was passed that required the “head master and mistress” to be certified teachers from a school in Britain. The qualification was abolished in 1863. The government officials admitted that they were being sent unqualified teachers, but there was no effort made to form their own
teacher training institute.

Crown Colony Era

Education played a large role in bringing people on the margins into Belize society. The number of schools rose significantly during the 1880’s and schools were able to be found throughout the colony, even those without road access. The period preceding and during World War II emphasized the need for self-reliance. Faced with a depression and starvation without a lack of foreseeable assistance from abroad, as well as the sentiments from those who had been hired to work on the Panama Canal and in the American South, there was a cry for change. There was also another addition to the population’s diverse landscape by the arrival of Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrian Arabs who were fleeing the political unrest in the Middle East.

School Management

During the Crown Colony era, Belize significantly increased its educational expenditures, as well as expanded the opportunities for higher education. In 1879 14 schools received 1, 440 pound in funds. In 1930, only 3.3% of the country’s budget went to education, in 1951, it was about 8%. In the 1970’s about 17% of the budget was used for education. (A history of Belize: Nation in the making, 1983, p.61) By the early 1960’s students were awarded government scholarships to study at the University of the West Indies and to universities in England. By the late 1970’s higher education had been established (BELCAST) in Belize and expanded.

Primary and Secondary Education

The 1903 Colonial Report mentions the need for grants to assist these schools. Also, was the need for bilingual teachers to teach the Mayan children; the teacher would need to know the Mayan dialect (there are several), some Spanish and would have to teach in English. By the end of the 1920’s there were 75 primary schools throughout the country and 6 secondary schools in Belize City. Although, the word secondary is used, it does not mean the students were receiving a secondary curriculum.

Secondary education was provided at 5 schools in Belize City: St. Johns College (est. 1896), St. Hilda’s College (est. 1897), St. Catherine’s Academy (est. 1883), Wesley College (est. 1888), and St. Michael’s College (est. 1900). By the late 1940’s there were 88 grant aided schools enrolling 11, 298 students. The number of private schools had decreased to 23, with an enrollment of 883 students. Secondary education was modeled after that in the United Kingdom. This system provided an opportunity for social mobility, but did not meet the needs of all the people. The amount of students attending secondary schools in Belize has always been low, because most students never finish primary school. Therefore, the eligible population is small. Also, access to secondary education and higher education in Belize was restricted, due to finances.


Belizean history was not taught in schools.

The way in which people learned about the history of Belize was mainly through the stories told by the older generations.
– Heusner (1987)

The educational materials, including the textbooks were either from England or the United States, which means that the books had nothing to do with being Belizean.

Teacher Training

By 1937 the Carnegie Corporation of New York had sent three school supervisors trained in rural life. Eventually, a technical high school (government-run) was opened in Belize City January 1952 as the result of a Colonial Development and Welfare Grant. Beginning in the settlement era there was a concern for the training of the colony’s teachers. Most of the teachers were missionaries from the United States or sent from England. Many other teachers were really apprentices.

From 1965 to 1980 the teacher education program increased from one year to three years. During this period other options for teacher education and higher education became available through the opening of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. The people went from completely trusting in the government and churches, to demanding their right for a “modern education”. The churches have been praised for educating the masses, but their shortcomings have also been noticed. It’s difficult to unify an educational system, when it is divided among religious lines.

The whole colony is, however, largely influenced by the comparative proximity of the U.S. and the people as a whole are more American than British in their outlook. This may be due to a limited extent to the cinema, but is more directly attributable to the influence of trade and education.
– British Governor of Belize, Sir Alan Burns

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