Foundations of Education


Chronicles the development of public schooling in Ontario from the 1790s to Post-Confederation.

Focus #3: Education in Upper Canada II

CREDIT: The text below is excerpted from: Province of Ontario (1995). For the Love of Learning: Report of the Royal Commission on Learning. Toronto: Queen's Printer. © Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1995. License: Open Government License - Ontario. URL:


When Ontario's school system was being established, few doubted that religion and schooling belonged together. The Roman Catholic Church was instrumental in starting French-language education in the 17th century; in the 19th century, the Anglican Church, led by the Reverend Dr. John Strachan, who was president of the General Board of Education, established English-language instruction for small numbers of children in the settlement at York, with the emphasis on grammar schools for the preparation of potential leaders of the community. Other religious groups, Methodists especially, promoted the concept of a basic education for all the children in the colony.

Individual parents played a strong role in early education, securing the services of itinerant teachers, or choosing one of their own to drill their children in the three Rs [i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic]. Often the impetus for this initiative came from the fourth R - religion with local ministers reminding their flocks (in a largely Protestant population) of their duty to ensure that their progeny could read, understand, and follow the Bible.

Parental attempts to secure a modicum of education for their children got a boost in 1816 when some limited provision was made for government assistance. Professor Willard Brehaut (1984) notes: "As this support movement was extended, evidence of greater public control began to appear. Throughout Ontario's history, as in that of other jurisdictions, public support and public control have tended to go hand-in-hand."

The Common School Act

In the 1840s, the school system was shaped, to a considerable degree, by a series of school acts, beginning with the Common School Act of 1841, which doubled the size of government grants in aid of schools, and introduced compulsory taxes on property as a means of funding elementary schools. In the early 1840s, a General Board of Education was established for the province and consisted of the superintendent and six advisors. By the end of the 1840s, the stage had been set for the centralized administration of schools, with regulations covering organization, classification of teachers, and prescription of textbooks.

One Methodist adherent in particular was key in making a wider view of public education at least a partial reality in his day: Egerton Ryerson, who served as Ontario's superintendent of education from 1844 until 1876. Ryerson was steadfast in his support of a public education system that had a distinctly Christian, but non-denominational, basis.

The Roman Catholic Church established the first English-language Roman Catholic class in Kingston in 1839. From the beginning, the question of separate schools engendered considerable political debate. The Scott Act of 1863 provided more formal recognition and support to Catholic education, allowing for the election of separate school trustees as well as legislative grants to separate schools. The Constitution Act, 1867, confirmed that all provisions in place for denominational schools at the time of Confederation would remain in force and could not be diminished.

Ryerson had rigorously opposed any extension of funding to Roman Catholic grammar (what we now know as secondary) schools, on the grounds that money given to denominational systems would undermine a strong public system. Grammar schools received some public support as early as 1807 but, despite Ryerson's intentions, did not come under effective public control until 1871.

Compulsory and Free

For many years, attendance in public schools was not mandatory. School fees, problems of transportation and travel, and the necessity of children's sharing chores in a rural wilderness made regular school attendance difficult. Not until 1891 were children between the ages of 8 and 14 compelled to attend school with penalties for parents or guardians who did not comply with the law; in 1919, the age was extended to 16.

Elementary school fees were eliminated in 1871 and, with that move, a barrier to access to education fell; secondary school fees were not dropped until half a century later. Both initiatives were accompanied by greater provincial regulation of schooling in the form of compulsory attendance laws.

Compulsory attendance at both school levels brought with it the problem of how to change the curriculum to meet the needs of widening segments of society.

Because it was obvious that many children were neither able nor willing to follow the traditional academic program offered at the secondary school level, it became necessary to offer a variety of programs and courses to meet the needs of a vastly increased number. To this end, manual training, domestic science, and other courses were introduced and later, technical and vocational schools were established (Willard, 1984).

However, one effect of this type of differentiated programming was that young people were being sorted according to their socio-economic origins, which prevented them from moving beyond them.

Role and Qualifications of Teachers

In 1850, when Ontario first adopted official standards for qualifying teachers, the requirements were minimal: candidates were expected to read, spell, write, and to have some knowledge of geography and the basic rules of grammar. The highly variable quality of teachers of the time had prompted Ryerson, in 1847, to establish the first "normal" school, located in Toronto, for the instruction of teachers in the common schools. Ottawa was the site of Ontario's second normal school, which opened in 1875. (The term "normal school" was used well into the 1950s, when it was changed to "teachers' college.")

During the middle and late 1800s, the province also experimented with "county model schools" for teacher training, which offered a lower standard of teacher certification; however, these were closed by 1907. Like the Ontario education system in general, teacher preparation of this period was characterized by strong central regulation (Fleming, 1971).

Manuals described in detail how normal school subjects were to be taught, and the provincial education department was also responsible for setting and marking final examinations for teacher candidates.

The organization and status of teaching was, for the most part, the result of work by the teachers' professional associations. Their importance was recognized by 1944, when the province enacted the Teaching Profession Act, granting teachers automatic membership in the Ontario Teachers' Federation and in one of its five affiliates…

A Growing System

The one-room schoolhouse was the model of Ontario education for generations, Ryerson's efforts to promote enlarged school areas notwithstanding. For generations, local governance consisted of a three-man ("three fit and discreet men") board of trustees.

With an eye on efficiency and equality of opportunity, successive governments slowly developed larger administrative units, culminating in 1969, when the amalgamation of more than two thousand small school boards brought the number to slightly more than 190, most using the provincial county system as the administrative unit. It was at this point that the one-room schoolhouse, relic of Ontario's pioneer past, finally became part of history.

Curriculum and Teaching Methods

In the earliest days of education in the province, rote memorization, often of meaningless material, was commonplace. Teachers assigned a great deal but taught little until the advent of graded texts approved by the government, which permitted teachers to group students according to age and to their understanding of the texts being covered.

The curriculum of the pioneer school dealt with the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) and a fourth R, religion: reading texts frequently used were the Bible and various religious tracts. With the introduction of standard texts, teaching and learning methods changed. Through his Journal of Education, Ryerson was a primary proponent of these new methods, and in 1851 he established the Educational Depository, which made teaching aids, books, and lesson guides available to schools and libraries.

In time, the Ministry centralized provincial curriculum and authorized texts through Circular 14, a list of textbooks approved for use in Ontario schools.

Education and Rights of the French-language Minority

French-language schools in Ontario go back more than 300 years, to 1634, when a school for Native children was established in Huronia (the area around present-day Midland). Schools for the children of French settlers followed later in the century, beginning with a class in Fort Cataraqui (now Kingston) in 1676.

Until the late 19th century, French- and English-language schools were financed in the same way and enjoyed the same status. Because most were Roman Catholic, they were subject to the same rules and restrictions as their English-language counterparts and received no funding past Grade 10.

Disputes about French-language instruction were a constant feature of Ontario education. Although the British North America Act provided protection for the rights of francophones, these rights proved to be somewhat fragile. Following Confederation and into the early years of the 20th century, the province curtailed the rights of Franco-Ontarians; as a minority group, they lacked the power exercised by the English-language majority.

When Regulation 17 was passed in 1912, restricting teaching in French to Grades 1 and 2, Franco-Ontarians immediately organized strong resistance, led by the Association canadienne-francaise de l'education de l'Ontario. Although in effect only until 1927, Regulation 17 was not repealed until 1944. This struggle was a defining event for the Franco-Ontarian community, providing it with an initial focus for demands for educational rights, and control over their own schools.


Brehaut, Willard. (1984). Trends in the history of Ontario education. In Hugh Oliver et al (Eds.). The House that Ryerson Built. Toronto: OISE Press.

Fleming, W.G. (1971). Supporting Institutions and Services (Volume 5 of Ontario's Educative Society). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 22.