Public education in Newfoundland and Labrador, since its beginnings in the early nineteenth
century, has largely been shaped by two factors: religion and the economy. The economy was
based on a single industry, the fishery; the Protestant and Catholic churches, from 1843 onwards,
dominated the educational system.
From the early 19th century until the 1930s, the revenue of Newfoundland governments
consisted almost entirely of customs dues, which fluctuated with the state of the economy.
Educational expenditure, therefore, had no solid basis in taxation, but was largely derived from a
relatively limited and unstable source. This restricted the number and size of schools and
facilities, and kept teachers' salaries at a very low level.
Many of the independent schools of the decades before 1843, such as the St. John's Charity
School, the Orphan Asylum School, various classical academies and the schools of the
Newfoundland School Society, had been non-denominational. The schools of the public
education system inaugurated by the first Education Act in 1836 also opened their doors to the
children of parents of all creeds.
||Mosquito School House, 1998.
Built around 1820, this school house, located in Mosquito (now
Bristol's Hope), is an example of what wooden schools in outport
communities looked like in the 1800s.
©1998 Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and
Very soon after the passing of the 1836 Act, however, Protestant forces, inspired by the militant
Evangelical wing of the Church of England and drawing strength from the international
"No Popery" crusade of the period, attacked the provisions of the Act, claiming that it excluded the
Authorised Version of the Bible and gave too much influence to the Roman Catholics, who
formed half of the population. The anti-Catholic campaign flowed over into the political arena
and the British government, influenced by some highly-coloured stories of a possible Catholic
revolution, passed the Newfoundland Act in 1842.
This restricted the franchise and established an Amalgamated Assembly of elected and appointed
members in which the Catholics were in a minority. A Protestant-sponsored Education Act of
1843, in which the Catholics were forced to acquiesce, divided the education grant between
Protestants and Catholics. This inaugurated the denominational system of education which, with
additions and amendments, survived until nearly the end of the present century.
In the 1850s there was continuous activity on the education issue. The Church of England
bishop, Edward Feild, was campaigning for a division of the Protestant education grant between
the Church of England and the Methodists. Hugh Hoyles, a future Premier, put the case in
Parliament year after year, but a strong feeling against further division
frustrated his efforts.
The educational situation throughout the 1850s, '60s and early '70s was a continuing struggle to
maintain adequate schooling on limited resources. Reports showed that the majority of schools
were unsuitable, that teachers were undereducated and underpaid, that facilities and equipment
were sadly lacking and that many school boards were inefficient. In 1858 the government passed
a bill which increased the grant for education, instituted a system for the training of pupil-teachers in St. John's colleges and re-established the Inspectorship (dormant since 1845). These
changes, however, did not take full effect until later in the century.
Bishop Feild and his supporters continued their campaign to sub-divide the Protestant grant. The
Methodists opposed sub-division but in 1874, after complicated manoeuverings, Feild managed
to persuade them to support the policy, although there was no widespread grass-roots support for
it. In the preceding year a Select Committee had advocated radical reform of the educational
system, including the establishment of a central educational department and a Normal School.
The 1874 Act ignored these proposals and divided the Protestant grant between the Church of
England and the Methodists. The possibility of reform was thus swamped by waves of sectarian
A further Education Act in 1876 upgraded the post of Inspector to that of Superintendent. The
three denominational Superintendents were given wide powers over all aspects of the running of
the public elementary schools; in effect, government transferred most of what should have been
its educational responsibilities to the churches. The three denominations lost little time in
opening new schools (with the Methodists in the lead), often at the expense of teachers' salaries,
which declined in the following decades.
By 1900, however, fewer than five out of every ten children between the ages of five and fifteen
were attending elementary schools, and standards in the "Three Rs" were low. Expenditure on
public elementary education was only five per cent of total government expenditure, the lowest
since 1861. The curriculum in most schools consisted of reading, writing and arithmetic, plus
some history and geography. To make matters worse, many certificated teachers were leaving
the profession for more lucrative jobs.
There were, on the other hand, two significant advances in the period between 1890 and 1920
which did much to improve the situation. In 1893 the Council of Higher Education, an
inter-denominational body, was formed with the primary purpose of setting examinations and devising
appropriate curricula. In 1920 a Department of Education with a Minister was established.
Although the 1920s saw the creation not only of an Education Department, a Normal School and
Memorial University College, the first third of the twentieth century was a period of stagnation as
far as public schooling was concerned. The onset of the world economic crisis of 1929 had a
devastating effect on Newfoundland education. In 1932-33 the education grant was cut by half to
$500,000, effectively reducing teachers' salaries by the same proportion, and closing many
schools. Shortly afterward, with the Dominion government nearly bankrupt, the institutions of
responsible government were suspended and replaced by a London- appointed Commission in
|Memorial University College, Parade Street, St. John's, 1923.
Memorial University College was officially opened on September 15,
1925. It was built as a memorial to honour Newfoundlanders who were
killed in the Great War.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland
and Labrador (PANL NA-39-97), St. John's, Newfoundland.
The Commission of Government, aided by subsidies from Britain, in its fifteen-year period of
office, re-established the status quo of 1932-33, and went some way beyond it, increasing
expenditure on education and the number of schools. It was unable, however, to accomplish its
declared aim of instituting a state system of non-denominational schools because of the
determined opposition of the churches.
The educational system which the Commission handed over to the newly-elected Liberal
government after Confederation in 1949 was, despite some improvements, little different from
that of the early part of the twentieth century. The great majority of the schools were small,
wooden one-room, one-teacher institutions, and the hold of the churches on education was as
strong as ever. The denominational system was entrenched in the Terms of Union under which
Newfoundland joined Canada.
The first Liberal governments under Joseph Smallwood were, however, able to effect a veritable
educational revolution. Aided by transfer payments and social security benefits from the Federal
government, education at all levels was extended and upgraded. Improved communications, the
construction of large central high schools, and a widespread bursary program, led to a flood of
students entering the newly-founded Memorial University, whose Faculty of Education educated
the teachers to staff the expanding number of schools. A network of Vocational Schools was
In 1967-68 a Royal Commission on Education suggested improvements in the curriculum and the
streamlining and rationalization of the denominational system. In 1968, the Pentecostal
Assemblies were granted the same educational rights guaranteed under the Constitution as the
Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church of Canada and the
Salvation Army. The formation of a single Consolidated Board by the major Protestant
denominations followed shortly afterwards. By the mid-1970s the educational system had in
most respects been brought up to national standards, although some weaknesses
If the quarter-century from 1949 was the golden age of Newfoundland education, the following
period was one of relative decline. The economic situation worsened, transfer payments were
reduced, educational expenditure decreased, and there was a significant change in the ideological
The aims of education had traditionally fostered the development of the individual on the basis of
the humanistic curriculum inherited from the Renaissance. However, the publication of two
Royal Commission documents, Building On Our Strengths and Education for Self-Reliance in
1986 presented a radically different ideology. Newfoundland and Labrador was to go forward
into a "post-industrial society", characterised by computerization, modern transport, high-technology and communication systems and a vibrant service sector. Education would upgrade
"human capital", and training would be scientific, entrepreneurial, generic and
This adaptation of education to the needs of the economy, influenced by neo-liberal ideology of
the American New Right, found full expression in Change and Challenge (1992), a document of
the Liberal government of Clyde Wells. Education was seen as "the key to economic development"; the new aim of education was to produce a flexible workforce with an
entrepreneurial outlook suitable to the new global economy. A Royal Commission on Education
of the same year also embodied some of these ideas. Plans for the reform of the curriculum in
line with these conceptions followed in 1994.
One other aspect of educational reform was on the agenda: to reduce or eliminate the power of
the churches to control many aspects of education - in effect, to end the traditional
denominational system. After protracted negotiations with, in particular, the Roman Catholic
and Pentecostal Churches, who strongly opposed reform, and after two referenda in favour of
change, the Liberal government of Brian Tobin finally passed the necessary legislation to form a
non-denominational system, 155 years after the first denominational Education
©1998, Phil McCann
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