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Up to 1870 very few Indian children were attending schools and this became a matter of concern to the Government. In 1876 the Compulsory Education Ordinance was passed to enforce elementary education. This Ordinance prohibited the employment of children under the age of nine years or those over nine who did not hold a certificate of proficiency from a primary school. School attendance was made compulsory up to the age of twelve in rural areas and fourteen in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Buxton. As a result of this Ordinance, the country was divided into educational districts, each with an education officer to enforce attendance of children to schools.

East Indian parents, most of whom were Hindus and Muslims, objected to this Ordinance on the grounds that the schools were run by Christian bodies, and they feared that their children would be forced out of their religions and converted to Christianity. Some of these parents opposed it also because it removed the children from working on the estates which helped to supplement family earnings. As a result, the Ordinance contained certain exceptions in regard to enforcing compulsory education on East Indian children.

Since there were no Hindu and Muslim schools, except for those held in the afternoons in temples or mosques to teach religion, it meant that at first most East Indian children did not attend any primary school. This suited many of the sugar plantation owners very well and they made full use of the excessive child labour on the sugar estates.

By 1890, the Government gave grants to support schools while the sugar estates provided money for school buildings and staff. However, only a small number of East Indian children were attending the schools since many parents at that time did not show much interest in educating their children. The estate managers seemed content with this state of affairs and did little to improve the situation.

As a result of the non-attendance of the great majority of East Indian children in the existing schools, the Governor, Sir James Swettenham, not wanting to upset East Indian parents, in June 1904 issued a circular to address this problem. This "Swettenham Circular" contained instructions to the effect that East Indian parents should not be prosecuted during the first ten years after their arrival in the Colony, if on "religious grounds" they refused to send their children, particularly their daughters, to the schools operated by Christian churches.

In other words, the Circular, which was supported by the sugar planters, almost completely exempted East Indian parents (and their children) from the provisions of the Compulsory Education Ordinance of 1876. Nevertheless, a growing proportion of parents sent their children to schools, but in most cases the daughters were kept at home.

The Swettenham Circular was finally withdrawn in 1933 after much agitation by Indian community leaders, and primary education became compulsory for East Indian children. However, up to then only 19 percent of East Indian children were enrolled in primary schools; in 1937 the figure increased to 29 percent.