The SERVOL Integrated Education and Early Childhood Program




91 Frederick Street
Port of Spain



"SERVOL is an organization of weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect yet hope-filled and committed people, seeking to help weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect, hope-drained people become agents of attitudinal and social change in a journey which leads to total human development."






SERVOL is an NGO in Trinidad and Tobago that administers high quality programs in disadvantaged areas such as (a) a parent outreach program for over 3,000 parents between the ages of 17 and 30, (b) an early childhood program for over 5,000 children between the ages of 2˝ to 5, (c) a human development and skill training program for more than 4,500 adolescents aged between 16 and 20 years, and (d) a high technology program for young men and women between the ages of 20 and 25 years.

All programs are entirely run by people from the community, both in content and monitoring. Each of the 160 Early Childhood and 40 Adolescent Centers are under the control of a village Board of Education which hires and fires teachers in consultation with SERVOL. Monthly meetings are convened by these boards for parents to give their input. In addition, three times a year the views of the 4.500 adolescents are canvassed on the effectiveness of the programs and their suggestions for improvement are sought and implemented.

The SERVOL initiative has been made sustainable from 1987 when the government of Trinidad and Tobago through the Ministry of Education established SERVOL as its agent for non-formal education and took over the payment of salaries of teachers and instructors who were formerly paid by grants from overseas foundations. Based on a very special private-public partnership agreement the Ministry of Education assumed full financial responsibility for the SERVOL programs in 1992. Today all 160 public ECCE centers are administered, managed, and closely monitored by SERVOL.


Cultural context


The Black Power riots which took place in Trinidad and Tobago in 1970 were interpreted by Fr. Pantin, the founder of SERVOL, as a cry for help from the ghetto. As he walked up the hill of Laventille to try to respond to that cry he was confronted by the social problems of the area: unemployment, poverty, and low self esteem. But he soon realized that the main cause of these problems was a total breakdown of family life in the area, coupled with inappropriate parenting practices. As he didn’t know how to respond to the situation he decided to begin by listening to the people and helping them to start their own little projects.

It was the people who first asked SERVOL to set up early childhood programs (albeit with day care in mind rather than education), and it was also the people who challenged SERVOL to open up the field of computers and advanced electronics to their sons and daughters by giving them access to programs hitherto beyond their reach and pocket. SERVOL had become a people’s organization which was committed to building bridges between the ghetto and the world of commerce and industry by offering high quality programs to the lower income group. The fact that SERVOL’s Early Childhood Teachers’ Certificate is validated by Oxford University and its Hi Technology programs examined by Cambridge Information Technology is probably the best proof for the initiative’s success.


General approach /



SERVOL pioneers believe that efforts to help poor people had been largely unsuccessful because the well-meaning do-gooders, with their attitude of cultural arrogance, assumed that they could set up intervention programs without consulting the beneficiaries. SERVOL insists that one should begin by asking: "How can we help you?" and by listening attentively to what they say before attempting to set up any projects. This type of intervening in the lives of people is called by SERVOL a process of "respectful intervention".

It was also observed that many poverty programs attempted to address one or more problems in isolation, whereas poverty reaches into every aspect of life and demands an integrated approach. Although the lack of money is clearly important, SERVOL does not view it as the most debilitating affliction of the poor. More pernicious is the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness that makes it virtually impossible for most poor people to climb out of the pit of poverty. Consequently, the entire SERVOL program is, in effect, a process of empowerment of individuals, family structures, and communities effected through integrated educational programs seeking to revive hope.

One of SERVOL’s guiding principles is to use people from the community to develop the community. All programs are truly community based and parent oriented. Every one of the SERVOL centers is managed by a Community Board of Education which is the official employer of teachers and instructors. These Boards of Education are responsible for paying teachers' salaries as well as National Insurance and Health Surcharge contributions from the funds which are transferred to their account by SERVOL each month. In addition, they monitor attendance, punctuality and performance of teachers and in a number of instances have dismissed delinquent teachers after consultation with SERVOL.

The following summary describes SERVOL projects as of January 2000. It does not describe the slow and often tortuous path toward establishment of the projects, just a few of which have stood the test of time.


How is the program




In line with the organization’s policy of using people from the community to develop the community, 90% of SERVOL’s 600 teachers, trainers, and administrative staff are grassroots people,. SERVOL is, however, guided by current findings on educational and social development, one of which suggests that what happens to children between the ages of 0 and 3 years largely determines how they will develop: "By the time the child reaches the age of 6, it is resistant to change."

This means that waiting for children to enter school is too late to begin an assault on poverty; it must begin with the pregnant mother. A significant number of these mothers are single parents who face financial and psychological stress that often leads to neglect or battering of children.

To reach these people, 25 trained POP facilitators visit the remote villages and ghettos of Trinidad and Tobago each day, going from house to house, making friends with the parents, and helping them to deal with their problems with small children and life in general. The parents are praised for what they have accomplished and counseled on the importance of proper nutrition, breastfeeding, and alternatives to physical punishment. Subsequent meetings allow small groups of parents to share common problems and possible solutions. They are taught income-generating crafts that enable them to earn money while staying home with their children.

The program has been extended by PARENT PARTNERS, in which one parent from the village has agreed to be trained to work with the POP facilitator. Additionally, small daycare facilities for three or four children have been established in the houses of selected parents who are willing to be trained in daycare skills.

POP facilitators do not project the conventional image of "professionals" who have all the answers; experience shows that this approach does more harm than good. Rather, the facilitators praise the parents for what they have accomplished in difficult situations, convince them that they are the primary educators of their children and that they can solve their own problems with a little help from friends.

The program has been enthusiastically received by thousands of parents. One measure of success is the growth in self-confidence of so many of them. Many have become successful entrepreneurs in craft and other products while staying home to care for their children.


SERVOL has established and supervises an ECCE program involving 160 centers and more than 300 teachers and catering for nearly 5,000 children between the ages of 2˝ and 5. All teachers have been carefully trained, and most have acquired a certificate validated by Oxford University.

In this program, too, SERVOL follows its credo that what goes on in the home is more important than what goes on in the school: "A high-quality early childhood education that is community based, parent oriented, and administered by trained teachers is one of the most important ways to bring about desirable, fundamental change in poverty situations." This project extends the process of empowerment from the child and parents to the community and, importantly, encourages and permits the teachers to influence parents’ child-rearing practices. The program aims to have a cumulative effect on parental practices over time.

The community is also active in operation of the centers, because each center is managed by a village Board of Education that is the official employer of the teachers, monitors their performance, and pays their salaries through funds transferred monthly by SERVOL.



With few exceptions, all children find a place in the primary school system of Trinidad and Tobago (5–12 years of age), but only eighty percent of the school population find a place in secondary schools. A large number of the 30,000 children who attend and finish primary school are unable to find a place in a secondary school. SERVOL’s JLC program offers these children an innovative curriculum designed to restore self-esteem and enable them to rejoin the mainstream educational system. The vast majority of them come from poverty areas and are so turned off by the traditional educational system that special approaches are required to rekindle hope.

Classes are small (one teacher to 25 students). Each corner of the classroom has a special function: a miniature bank, a post office, a department store, and a supermarket. These props are used to teach literacy and mathematical skills and to demonstrate that learning can be fun. Data show that 70% of the children perform very well in the post-primary examination and are able to obtain places in secondary schools later on.



In any educational system, some 16–19-year-olds either drop out of school or leave school functionally illiterate, with just a smattering of knowledge. Reasons include poverty resulting in chronic absenteeism, substance abuse, and an overly academic approach to education that is unsuitable for young people seeking vocational training. These are the young people served by ADP, which has graduated more than 40,000 adolescents in its 30-year history.

ADP is a four-stage program. It begins with a 3-month intensive attitudinal component, which transforms hostile, hope-drained adolescents with battered egos into confident, hope-filled young adults who learn to understand themselves through courses in self-awareness, spirituality, literacy, emotional understanding, rap sessions, public speaking, art analysis and more, all administered by trained staff. Most important, both young men and women are exposed to an Adolescent Parent Program that teaches them about the needs of their future children and reinforcing practical sessions in which they interact with babies and toddlers in the centers’ daycare units.

In the second stage, which lasts 9 months, they follow technical training in a skill of their choice from a list of 14 vocational courses offered by SERVOL. They are then placed with private sector companies for job training, which is evaluated by the company. At the end of this training period, they graduate from SERVOL and either seek employment or apply to SERVOL's sister organization, FUND-AID, for a small loan to purchase equipment and become micro-entrepreneurs.

SERVOL graduates have established a reputation as honest, punctual, hardworking employees, most of whom find a job within a year. Interestingly, evaluation studies have shown that female graduates tend to postpone childbearing to their mid-20s—a significantly higher age than the norm of 16–18 years. Each year the Ministry of Education asks SERVOL to take in 30–40 adolescents who are deemed unmanageable by their school principals. At the end of the 3-month ADP, these young people are free to return to their original school or follow a vocational course with SERVOL. SERVOL has not had a single problem with any of these "delinquent" students. On the contrary, a number of surveys conducted reveal that 78% of all companies interviewed would give preference to SERVOL graduates as they display a more positive work attitude. In 1998/99, another study confirmed that, compared to a control group, SERVOL graduates were ahead in showing a positive work attitude, parenting skills and work ethic.



Five years ago, SERVOL assessed what had been accomplished after 25 years. Despite the documented success SERVOL was dissatisfied with its graduates’ lack of access to technology careers. Having successfully trained thousands of carpenters, practical nurses, electricians and experts with other similar skills, most of whom had secured employment, there was a whole world of high technology sweeping over Trinidad and Tobago to which SERVOL’s graduates had no access. Possibilities to fund a project which would provide opportunities for technology careers were explored.

It was the Inter-American Development Bank which agreed to fund the Hi-Tech project. Today, SERVOL’s craftsmen can take post-graduate courses in computer technology, digital electronics, and computer control electronics in one of the three Hi-Tech Centers that were established in north, central, and south Trinidad, which graduate 400 students yearly. Local industry hires many of them immediately. According to the statistics for the 1998/99 class, 53% were placed in jobs immediately and 20.7% were opting for further education. Only 26.3% of all graduates could not be placed or contracted.


Evolution of the program













Support structure /

Financial background


Three months after the founder of SERVOL walked into the ghetto area called Laventille in 1970, he confessed to a resident called Chaca that he was getting nowhere and was thinking of returning to his teaching post at St. Mary's College. Chaca was vehement in his protest: "You cannot do that! It is true that you have done nothing more than get jobs for a few dozen kids; but what you have really done is to bring HOPE to the area. Every morning you walk up the hill, those watching you think: maybe tomorrow it will be my turn to get a job. And once people have hope, they will continue the struggle."

Today SERVOL still "walks up the hill" every day, but the original two hill climbers have been replaced by thousands of adolescents who bear the emblem of SERVOL on their shirts, hundreds of early childhood educators who journey to their pre-schools, scores of parent outreach workers who visit parents: this little army of trainees, instructors and even pre-school children proclaim silently to people all over Trinidad and Tobago "we are SERVOL and we bring with us a message of hope."

1971–1986: SERVOL was highly depending on the financial support of overseas foundations. The main contributors were:

  • The Bernard van Leer Foundation, The Netherlands (for ECEP)
  • Misereor, Germany (for the Adolescent Program)
  • Helvetas, Switzerland (for infrastructure development)
  • Inter-American Foundation, United States (for rural agricultural and developmental programs)
  • Save the Children, Canada; and Development and Peace, Canada (for training and equipment)

Although SERVOL’s programs clearly provided a valuable service to Trinidad and Tobago, the government, apart from two contributions toward the construction of the Beetham and Forres Park Adolescent Life Centers, provided little or no support. However, significant support came from the business community and the public. Eventually, the organization was able to derive some 15% of its total income from the productive efforts of its adolescent training departments, which accepted construction and maintenance contracts from customers.

1987–1991: When a new government came into power in December 1986, the prime minister asked SERVOL to expand its Early Childhood and Adolescent Program across Trinidad and Tobago. Unfortunately, the new government had inherited an almost bankrupt economy and had few funds available for the proposed expansion. With generous support from the three foundations that had provided significant funding over the last years (the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, Misereor, and the Inter-American Foundation), SERVOL was able to negotiate a five-year contract with the Ministry of Education: SERVOL would secure foundation support for the expanded program over the next five years (1987–1991) on a declining basis, beginning with complete funding for 1987 and dwindling to zero funding in 1992; the Ministry of Education would provide minimal funding in 1987 and gradually increase its contribution until it became the sole founder in 1992. As planned, in 1992 the Ministry of Education assumed financial responsibility for the SERVOL programs. A summary of the financial arrangement for this period follows (in US$):

Ministry of Education $617,498

Bernard Van Leer Foundation, $767,180

Misereor, $445,766

Inter-American Foundation, $251,175

1993–2000: In 1992, the Bernard Van Leer Foundation indicated that it would cease funding for SERVOL projects. This posed a financial challenge, because the Ministry of Education funded only salaries of teachers and instructors and SERVOL was entirely dependent on the Foundation for financial help with administrative and infrastructure expenses.

SERVOL proposed that the foundation would help the organization set up an endowment fund that would eventually make SERVOL independent of overseas financial support. SERVOL would launch a vigorous fundraising campaign focused on banks and local business conglomerates; the foundation would match every dollar collected by SERVOL. SERVOL now has an endowment fund of approximately US$3.5 million and has almost reached the stage of being self-sufficient.

The present agreement between SERVOL and the Ministry of Education is a tacit one in which the Ministry has officially recognized SERVOL as its agent in the development and dissemination of early childhood and adolescent programs in Trinidad and Tobago. Though no official contract has ever been signed by the two parties, an official exchange of letters confirms this arrangement and an annual subvention to SERVOL has appeared in the Government budget since 1990. To an ever larger extent SERVOL is allowed considerable freedom in the implementation of its non-formal education programs with the stipulation that regular reports and annual audited accounts be submitted to the Ministry.

When SERVOL began to develop its own system of ECCE in the 1970s, the government of Trinidad and Tobago was not interested in early intervention programs. The only public program consisted of 50 pre-schools that used community centers managed and staffed by young women with little or no training. SERVOL embarked on a program of public education to alert the population to the importance of the early years of childhood. By 1981, SERVOL had become known throughout the Caribbean as the agency that offered high-quality training for early childhood educators, culminating in a certificate validated by Oxford University. Between 1981 and 1987, SERVOL trained 300 teachers for the Caribbean region. As a net effect the SPICES curriculum developed by SERVOL is now widely used all over the Caribbean and has been adopted by teacher training programs of the School of Continuing Studies of the University of the West Indies.

However, SERVOL was not happy with the salaries paid to the training staff and teachers of the 150 centers under its jurisdiction and continued to campaign for an improvement in the status of all concerned. At this stage, the government had entrusted the entire ECCE program to SERVOL, and four significant events indicated the organization’s role in influencing public policy and financing of ECCE programs.

  1. A dramatic reduction in the budget
  2. In 1992, a new government (the one that had been replaced in 1986) slashed the ECCE budget by 40%. SERVOL mobilized the 150 communities that were running parent-supported ECD centers. As a result, the senate postponed discussion on the national budget until the government guaranteed that the ECCE budget would be restored.

  3. An approach to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)
  4. When a team from IDB visited Trinidad in 1994 and was asked to meet with leading non-governmental organizations, the executive director of SERVOL made an eloquent appeal for increasing the ECCE budget to increase the salaries of trainers and teachers. On November 5, 1996, a grant agreement involving the IDB, the Ministry of Planning and Development, and SERVOL was signed, effectively doubling salaries and significantly improving the status of teachers. The agreement implied that with the expiry of the IDB grant the Ministry of Education would take up the financial commitment.

  5. Introduction of the POP program into the Ministry of Education Program
  6. In 1993, the government commissioned a task force to review the entire education system of Trinidad and Tobago, and SERVOL's executive director was asked to chair the ECCE subcommittee. One of the subcommittee’s resolutions was to approach the World Bank for a loan to build and staff 50 new pre-schools and to augment the Parent Outreach Program by paying for 25 additional parent outreach facilitators. Although this signaled a break-through in educational policy, bureaucratic problems have prevented the appointment of new facilitators.

  7. Establishment of an Association for ECCE

In 1999, enthusiasm for ECCE had increased to a remarkable extent, fueled largely by the growing number of trained personnel emerging from the SERVOL training program. A number of these graduates formed an association for ECCE in Trinidad and Tobago, which included ECCE personnel from both the private and public sectors. The formation of this association represents a significant step forward in the history of ECCE.


Basic principles leading to success


  • IDEALISM permeates the organization. SERVOL is one of the few places in this world where one can witness miracles on a daily basis, the miracle of the transformation of human lives. Being in contact with small children, adolescents, the mentally challenged, parents, and communities and seeing them CHANGE, one realizes how oneself becomes an instruments in this change. Then one goes home each evening exhausted but electrified, because in helping others to change, one oneself is transformed in a very rewarding and satisfying way.

  • DECENTRALISATION: SERVOL is a very decentralized organization in which all players have enough room and autonomy to do their own thing within certain limits. To the extend possible, everything is done to cut down a creeping bureaucracy as the organization expands.

  • CONSTANT TRAINING and retraining of staff leading to sustainable capacity building: Being a relatively small NGO, SERVOL invests so much time and money in the on-going training of staff that it can rely on its own human resources and promote its own staff without having recourse to "outsiders". Staff members have risen from the rank of instructors and coordinators to the highest levels of administration. Approximately 25% of SERVOL staff members were once trainees in the adolescent or early childhood programs.

  • TIGHT FISCAL CONTROL of all of SERVOL’s finances. Vouchers and receipts are demanded for even minor financial transactions.

  • FULLFILLMENT AND SATISFACTION: Most significant of all, SERVOL is a place where the average citizen can do good. Deep down in the heart of every human being is the desire, for at least a part of their life, to do something noble, something that draws them outside of themselves and impels them to devote themselves to a righteous cause. SERVOL offers people this opportunity. This is why so many of SERVOL’s dedicated staff stay on even when the apprentices they have trained come back to announce that they are making more money than their instructor.



SERVOL has expanded its early childhood and adolescent programs to nearly every country in the English-speaking Caribbean and as far afield as South Africa and Ireland. This expansion begins with an invitation to interested persons to visit a SERVOL project. If they decide that it is applicable to their country, they are invited to send a senior person to spend time (ranging from 3 months to 1 year) to be trained as a teacher trainer. At the end of their training, they return to their country to initiate their project.

At this point, the groundwork has been done to establish high-quality ECCE in Trinidad and Tobago. Now it is time to build on what has been achieved and to encourage the expansion of the program so that every child between the ages of 2˝ and 5 years has access to high-quality ECCE. In addition, there is an urgent need to focus on programs directed to children ages 0–2˝ years. By the time a child enters an ECCE center, unenlightened parenting practices could have inflicted considerable damage. Because it is far easier and less expensive to begin preventive programs than to repair damage already incurred, the establishment or expansion of some type of Parent Outreach Program is urgently needed.

In addition, more support for private child care centers is needed. Trinidad and Tobago have approximately 600 private and 160 public ECCE centers of which the public centers are closely monitored by SERVOL. Regular evaluations ensure that the quality of the programs is maintained. But to ensure that ECCE is offered to the poorest of the poor, the number of ECCE centers must be doubled or even tripled. The private centers receive little or no attention from the Ministry of Education and are allowed to operate as they see fit. Most of the teachers are untrained, and many of the structures housing the centers are inadequate or unsafe. There is an urgent need for the ministry to monitor these centers or to appoint an agent to do so.