Foundations of Education


Examines the policy shifts in Ontario's secondary education system throughout the 20th century.

Graded Tasks

  • prepare for your seminar this week

20th Century Developments in Ontario Secondary Education

Although it is rare for an education report in one country to have a significant impact on education in another country, the 1984 U.S.-based A Nation at Risk report was a notable exception. Its call to tie the role of schools in society to the future employability of students was soon echoed in Ontario (and Canada more widely).

More directly, a series of Ontario government education reports throughout the 20th century led to significant changes in the structure of Ontario's secondary educational system. Note the sheer number of Ontario government-issued reports and policy documents which are italicized in the passage below (which is itself excerpted from an Ontario government report).

Author: Report on the Royal Commission on Learning (1995)

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:
For more than a hundred years, the debate about the formal education of adolescents has focused particularly on the best ways to bridge the last years of elementary and the early years of secondary school, the relevance of the curriculum to students with very different needs, and the extent to which schools and programs should be tailored to academic and vocational outcomes.

In the 1930s, experiments that involved combining Grades 7 and 8 (and, sometimes, 9 as well) into one organizational and administrative unit, in order to better serve the needs of adolescents, reached their peak. But political opposition from teacher federations, and the implications such groupings would have if funding of the separate school system were ever to be extended, forestalled this as a general model.

In 1950, the Department of Education directed school boards to create committees of teachers from Grades 7 to 10, to plan "local instructional programs for the Intermediate Division" but these were largely ineffective. In the 1950s, however, a limited number of junior high schools were established.

The 1961 Program of Study for Secondary Schools (named the "Robarts Plan") reorganized secondary education into three programs of equal status: arts and sciences; business and commerce; science, technology, and trades. Students were streamed into one of three options: a five-year program leading to university; a four-year program leading to entry into employment at the end of Grade 12, or to the new system of colleges of Applied Arts and Technology; and a two-year program designed for direct employment after age 16.

Robarts's successor as Minister of Education, William Davis, replaced the Robarts Plan with Circular H.S.1: Recommendations and Information for Secondary School Organization Leading to Certificates and Diplomas 1969-70. It organized programs into four areas of study: communications, social sciences, pure and applied sciences, and arts, and gave students a wide choice of subjects.

The circular also introduced the system under which students are awarded a credit for each subject completed in a school year, allowing them to advance in that subject to the next year; any subjects failed must be repeated. This means that students are promoted in subjects, not grades. A certain number of credits had to be earned in order to attain a Grade 12 diploma, and an additional six credits for the Honours Graduation Grade 13 Diploma. In place of two-, four-, and five-year streams, subjects were organized at four levels of difficulty: advanced, general, basic, and modified.

A scant four years later, Secondary School Diploma Requirements H.S.1 1974-75 stipulated that there would be more compulsory credits (nine) and fewer student choices.

A paper by several researchers, looking back at Ontario education in the mid-1970s, points out that central control [had been] reasserted. The age of expansion was over. Issues of declining enrolment, reduction in the funding available for education, and an oversupply of teachers led to a mood of pessimism (Hargreaves, 1993).

That pessimism brought with it renewed criticism of secondary education and, in response, in April 1980 Minister of Education Bette Stephenson established the Secondary Education Review Project (SERP).

Based on the SERP report and on reaction to a Ministry response, The Renewal of Secondary Education (ROSE), in 1982 the Ministry released Ontario Schools: Intermediate and Senior Divisions (OSIS), to be implemented in 1984. It emphasized the need to improve the transition between elementary and secondary schools, and to encourage students to stay in school. It suggested that courses be offered at three (instead of four) levels of difficulty - basic, general, and advanced - and that they be designed specifically to meet the needs of students in basic and general classes, rather than offering watered-down versions of advanced-level courses.

In the mid-1980s, Premier David Peterson was concerned about what he considered an unacceptably high drop-out rate for Ontario students. He commissioned George Radwanski, then an editor of the Toronto Star, to review the problem. Radwanski's report, the Ontario Study of the Relevance of Education and the Issue of Dropouts, published in 1987, concluded that the education system had become irrelevant in an economy where the emphasis was shifting from manufacturing to services; moreover, many students were uninterested in what they were being taught at school, and they lacked appropriate skills and knowledge (Ontario Ministry of Education, 1987).

He developed a series of recommendations designed to increase the percentage of students completing high school: early childhood education; province-wide standardized testing to identify learning needs; a shift to outcomes-based education; "destreaming" of high schools; and the abolition of the credit system in favour of a common core curriculum.


Hargreaves, Andy et al. (1993). Context and summary, Volume 1. Years of Transition: Times for Change. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, p. 12.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (1987). Ontario Study of the Relevance of Education and the Issue of Dropouts. (Prepared by George Radwanski.)

Secondary School Policy Reform

In preparation for your seminar this week, write out an answer to the following question. Your TA may call on you to share your answer in the seminar:
Q8.5: Imagine that you have been hired to write the next elementary OR secondary school policy reform report for Ontario (or the juristiction you were educated in). What three topics and/or issues would your report focus on? (Answer Length: 100 - 150 words | Format: Point Form)
Potential Seminar Question