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First Days of School

Why Have Schools?

There came a time when people began to think that it was important to have schools for their children. The idea that educated and skilled workers would benefit the country was widely supported by Canadians. Canada's economy would improve and be more competitive internationally.

The main reason for the development of schools, however, was the desire to improve Canadian society. In the 1800s, many social movements sprang up to better the lives of people, such as the poor. It was thought that the easiest way to improve lives was by educating the young. The only way to do that well was to make education available to everyone.

To see what it was like to be a student in these early schools, check out What Was It Like to Be a Student?

Moral Education

Black and white photograph of a street scene with people and a large neo-Gothic church flanked by a smaller church school and a day school

English Church, Sabbath School, and day school, Port Hope, Ont., ca. 1879-1880.

It was believed that giving children an education would produce more rational and moral adults. People felt that with improved adults, social problems such as poverty and crime would disappear or at least decrease. And so began one of the main concerns of early public education: the moral instruction of young people.

At this time, schooling and religion were deeply linked. This seemed normal because most people were members of various religious denominations. These denominations played a role in shaping public education in Canada.

Black and white photograph of nuns in habits with young girls in front of a large grey stone building

Nuns and female students, Roman Catholic Convent and school, c.1880-1900

In Quebec, public education was the responsibility of the Catholic Church until well into the 20th century. However, there were also schools in the province for non-Catholics. Some provinces still have a Catholic school system that is run separately from the public system. Religion and morality were common themes in early schoolbooks used in Canada.

To take a look at some of these early schoolbooks, check out What Were the Schoolbooks Like?

Early Schools

In the early 19th century, publicly funded grammar schools and common schools were becoming more widespread.

Black and white posed photograph of a large class of more than 30 students, seated at their desks and well dressed

Teachers and students in a classroom, Lisgar Collegiate, Ottawa, 1903

Grammar schools, although partially supported by public funds, were intended for the children of elite society, or for the very intelligent. In later years, grammar schools became what we now call high schools. There were also private schools. Some private school students would go on to higher education and then enter a profession. In those days, careers in law and engineering could be pursued without a university degree.

Common schools were created when it was realized that grammar schools could not educate everyone. Common schools were more like today's elementary schools. In the early 19th century, government acts were created for the establishment of common schools (New Brunswick in 1802, Ontario in 1816, and Prince Edward Island in 1825). Still, schools could only be built when there were enough children in a community and when the local taxpayers agreed to pay their share of the cost. Before the 1830s, there were few permanent school buildings or professional teachers, and children attended school only in certain seasons and often irregularly.

By the end of the 19th century, schools were common throughout Canada. Most of these early schools were small, with all the different grades in one room. They became known as "one-room schoolhouses." In the cities, schools were more likely to be large brick buildings with rooms for each grade. By this time, a provincial Department or Ministry of Education was responsible for public education in general, while local school boards administered individual schools. The school year was becoming a set period of time and attendance was compulsory.

Black and white photograph of a large group of children and adults posing in front of large schoolhouse with a bell and cross on the roof. Rail farm fencing visible in background

Schoolhouse, staff and students, Fogo, Newfoundland, ca. 1877-1885

Black and white photograph of a two-storey brick public school. Staff are watching children playing in a fenced-off yard in front. The sidewalk is wooden and the streets are unpaved

Staff and students in front of a brick school, Canora, Saskatchewan, 1913

Black and white photograph of students, many of them barefoot, posing in front of a one-room clapboard schoolhouse with a rail fence in the background

This schoolhouse was built in 1896 in Renfrew County, Ontario.

While schools today are very different from the earliest one-room schoolhouses, one of the favourite aspects of school remains the same: summer vacation! Although some students at that time were likely to spend their vacation helping on the family farm rather than relaxing at the beach, cottage or summer camp, they still enjoyed the break from school.