The Commission of Government and Education

When the Commission of Government took office in 1934, Newfoundland and Labrador's education system was in desperate need of improvement. Teachers were underpaid and poorly trained, the curriculum was out of date, and school enrollment was disconcertingly low. Most children who did attend class went to dilapidated and overcrowded buildings that rarely had access to heat or running water. Textbooks and other supplies were not widely available and dozens of communities did not even have a school within reasonable travelling distance.

Students in front of a school, n.d.
When the Commission of Government took office in 1934, the curriculum was out of date, school enrolment low, and buildings dilapidated.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 26.02.008), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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Students in front of unidentified school, n.d.

Although the Commission was able to make significant changes in the field of education, it encountered numerous obstacles. The country's poor financial situation, compounded by a worldwide depression, made it difficult to build new schools, upgrade existing ones, and implement other changes. The denominational education system also created much tension between the state and the various Churches, while the country's scattered population made it difficult to provide accessible education.

Education and the Great Depression

The 1930s were a time of great economic hardship for Newfoundland and Labrador. As the Great Depression deepened, prices for the country's exports fell dramatically. Shrinking revenues forced the government to cut spending on a variety of services, including education. The country's education budget was $1 million in 1932, but dropped to half that amount in the 1933-34 fiscal year. As a result, teachers’ salaries also decreased by more than 50 per cent over the same time period, forcing many educators into deep poverty.

That same year, the number of schools in Newfoundland and Labrador fell from 1,214 to 1,103. Those that remained open were in a general state of disrepair, but the government could not afford to make improvements; it also could not afford to supply most schoolchildren with adequate textbooks and writing materials.

Methodist school in the Gulch, ca. 1940 Methodist school in the Gulch, ca. 1940
Dozens of schools closed in Newfoundland and Labrador during the Great Depression.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-285.026), Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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When C.A. Richardson, a school inspector from England, surveyed Newfoundland and Labrador schools in 1933, he was shocked to find underfed teachers instructing children who in many cases had nothing to write on but brown paper bags. Two years later, a government-sponsored survey of the education system revealed that half of all schools lacked basic school equipment, while 85 per cent did not even have a single book on their shelves.

School attendance was another problem. According to the 1935 Census, about 25 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador children between the ages of six and 14 did not attend class regularly. Some lived too far away from schools; other left to work in the fishery or other occupations; still more remained home because their families could not afford to pay school fees. Although the fees were not compulsory, many parents were too embarrassed to send their children to class without paying.

The Commission of Government

When the Commission of Government assumed power in 1934, its immediate priorities included the restoration of teacher salaries, the improvement of teacher training and of school attendance, the upgrading of school buildings, and the development of a new curriculum. The country's limited funds made it difficult to quickly achieve many of these goals, but British grants-in-aid allowed the government to gradually increase its education expenditures.

During the 1934-5 fiscal year, the Commission spent $716,807 on education; that jumped to $956,168 the following year, and by 1937 had exceeded $1 million. Much of this went to teachers' salaries, which the government restored to their pre-Depression levels in 1939 – this totaled about $450 a year. Government officials recognized a need to further increase teachers' salaries because many experienced educators were leaving to work in other, better paying, fields. By 1945 teachers were earning an annual average of $992.

The government also recognized a need to provide better training for new teachers and in 1935 reopened a teachers' school at Memorial College that had closed in 1932 due to lack of funds. Although well-respected, the one-year program could only graduate 100 students a year, which was not enough to replace the number of teachers leaving the profession. The Commission established a five-week summer school to train additional recruits, but the truncated program could not offer the same level of training as the college and was instead better suited for refresher and specialty courses.

Although the Commission appointed 12 supervisors in 1935 to advise teachers and inspect school-room activities, most workers spent much of their time travelling to remote communities stretched along hundreds of kilometers of coastline. The government appointed an additional 10 supervisors in 1946, but the sheer volume of their workload continued to undermine their effectiveness – each worker was responsible for about 64 schools and 117 teachers.

School Attendance and Curriculum

Two major factors contributed to Newfoundland and Labrador's low school attendance in 1934 – there were not enough schools to adequately accommodate the country's children, and many parents did not have enough money to buy textbooks or pay school fees. To remedy this, the Commission established Book Bureaus to provide students with free texts and other school supplies, and developed a construction program to build new schools or improve existing ones. By 1949, the government had renovated 264 schools and built 555 new ones at a cost of $3.4 million.

Once these measures were in place, the Commission passed a School Attendance Act on 1 September 1942 requiring all children between the ages of seven and 14 to attend class regularly, provided they were within reasonable travelling distance of a school. Although attendance rose slightly as a result of the Act, it still rested at a disappointing 76 per cent by 1948. This was largely due to the extreme poverty afflicting much of the country's population; it was not until the Smallwood administration introduced family allowances after Confederation that the Act had any real effect in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A group of school and pre-schoolchildren at Haystack, 1942
About 25 per cent of all school-aged children in Newfoundland and Labrador did not attend class regularly.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-285.010), Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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A group of school and pre-schoolchildren at Haystack, 1942.

The Commission also did much to revise the country's curriculum during its tenure. Officials felt the current program was overly academic, placed too much emphasis on high grades, and stressed memorization rather than understanding. They also believed much of what students were learning would be of no relevance to their adult lives, which would likely revolve around the fishery, forestry, or similar industries. In 1936, the government reorganized the curriculum to include health, social education, and industrial training.

It also established a handful of common schools at Deer Lake, Buchans, Gander North West River, and elsewhere to accept students of all social classes and religions, and opened non-denominational folk schools at several government-sponsored land-settlement communities. The folk schools taught carpentry, gardening, natural history, civics, and a variety of other subjects. Although considered a success by many government officials, the schools closed when the Commission abandoned its land settlement scheme in the 1940s and students returned to the regular denominational school system.

Denominational Education System

Although the government tried to replace Newfoundland and Labrador's denominational school system with a secular model, it experienced little success and much opposition. When the Commission assumed power in 1934, the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Methodist Churches played a central role in the administration of education. They had the power to accept students on a denominational basis, hire or dismiss teachers, and influence what was taught inside their schools.

A Presbyterian school at St. John's, n.d. A Presbyterian school, St. John's, n.d.
When the Commission of Government assumed power in 1934, several denominations played a central role in the administration of education in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 02.03.005), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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The Commission tried to reorganize the school system along non-denominational lines in 1935, but encountered much resistance from the Churches. Fearing the change would be politically unpopular, the government eventually abandoned any attempt to create a secular school system. In 1937, it created a Council of Education to administer the country's educational policy, and the majority of council members were representatives from the main denominations.

Despite the Commission's attempts to improve the education system during its tenure – such as expanding the curriculum and passing the School Attendance Act – a lack of funds undermined many of its efforts. By 1949, many of Newfoundland and Labrador's schools still did not have running water or electricity; more than half were one-room schools; and most did not have libraries, laboratories, gymnasiums, or other facilities. Malnutrition and illiteracy rates were still disconcertingly high among schoolchildren, and only 57 of the country's 2,375 teachers had degrees.

Adult Education

The Commission of Government also tried to promote adult education during its tenure, particularly in the field of agriculture. Officials hoped they could offset the country's unemployment problem – and its accompanying unrest – by making its adult population more self-sufficient. They established a Demonstration Farm and Agricultural School to train future farmers, provided financial assistance for individuals wishing to attend Canadian agricultural colleges, and established several farming communities under its land settlement and small-holding schemes.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, hundreds of families on government relief moved to the new farming communities at Markland, Haricot, Brown's Arm, and elsewhere. Most residents had little prior agricultural experience, but quickly learned to cultivate vegetables, raise livestock, or work in dairies. Poor government planning, however, undermined the program's effectiveness, and it eventually ended in failure.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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