1968 Royal Commission on Education and Youth

The education system in Newfoundland and in Labrador experienced many improvements during the first 15 years of Confederation, but still fell below Canadian standards. Drop-out and illiteracy rates remained high, teachers were among the least trained in the country, and many rural students attended single-room schools that had no libraries, gymnasiums, and other facilities common in larger Canadian schools.

In an effort to remedy the situation, the provincial government created a Royal Commission on Education and Youth in December 1964. It asked Dr. Philip J. Warren, an Education professor at Memorial University, to lead the Commission and appointed 11 other members, all of whom had backgrounds in either education or business. The Commission’s mandate was to study all aspects of education in the province and recommend ways to improve it.

During the next two years, the Commission visited schools in 41 communities and held public and private hearings across the province. It accepted 147 written submissions from school boards, church authorities, businesses, organizations, and private individuals, and distributed questionnaires to education officials. The Commission also initiated research projects into various aspects of the school system, including teacher supply, student achievement, and financing education, and it examined how other provinces and countries managed their school systems.

The Commission presented the first volume of its report to the government in January 1967 and the second in October of that year. Chief among its 340 recommendations were the need to secularize the Department of Education, consolidate schools and school districts, broaden the curriculum, improve teacher qualifications, and build bigger and better-equipped schools. Its recommendation to change the denominational nature of the Department of Education sparked public debate and created divisions within the Commission, prompting three of its members to append a minority report.

Findings of the Royal Commission

The Commission found that social changes since Confederation had made education more important than ever before. It wrote that mechanization and technological advances were eliminating jobs in the fishery and forestry, while new opportunities were emerging for scientists, engineers, technicians, teachers, and other educated professionals. “In fact,” wrote the Commission, “the demand for such personnel is likely to exceed the supply; and the result will be many vacancies that cannot be filled from the ranks of the unemployed.” (Vol.1 p.4)

However, the Commission also reported that the province’s standards of education were inadequate to meet its demands for a better-trained workforce. It found that the province had the highest drop-out rate in Canada, excluding Roman Catholic schools in Quebec. On average, students who did remain in school performed below national standards in reading and math. Those living in rural areas tended to score lower than students from larger centres, where better-equipped schools employed some of the highest qualified teachers in the province.

The Commission attributed poor student achievement to a variety of factors: a narrow and outdated curriculum, a scarcity of properly trained teachers, and the large number of small and poorly equipped schools that existed across the province. It found that maintaining numerous schools and school boards absorbed much of the province’s education budget and made it difficult to pay for adequate teacher salaries, academic equipment, school upgrades, and other requirements. The Commission reported the province had 1,266 schools in 1965, of which 845 (67 per cent) had fewer than four classrooms. It found that small schools suffered many disadvantages: heavy teacher workloads, narrow programs of study, inadequate washrooms and health facilities, and a lack of laboratory space, libraries, gymnasiums, and sports equipment.

The Commission argued that the denominational nature of the education system exacerbated the problem by forcing the province to pay for an unnecessarily large number of schools. Under the Terms of Union, Christian denominations had the right to operate their own schools and school boards using taxpayers’ money. By 1960, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Salvation Army, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, and Pentecostal churches all operated their own schools. In some communities the government had to maintain several schools where one would have been sufficient.

Recommendation to Secularize the Department of Education

The Commission’s first and most controversial recommendation was that the Department of Education should be reorganized on a functional rather than a denominational basis: he churches’ influence on policy-making would be reduced by making the department a secular entity, like all other in the provincial government departments.

At the time of the report, five Denominational Superintendents sat on the department’s Council of Education, representing the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and United churches, the Salvation Army and the Pentecostal Assemblies. Each superintendent had the power to veto any new policy dealing with school boards, schools, and teachers, giving the five denominations tremendous power over education in the province.

The Commission thought that the churches “should place less emphasis on controlling the educational enterprise, and more emphasis on developing and implementing programmes of Religious Education for the schools.” (Vol.1 p.69) It recommended that the Council of Education should be abolished and replaced with a network of committees which would give advice to the Minister of Education, and include representatives from appropriate public groups and organizations, as well as from the churches.

Three Commissioners objected to this recommendation and outlined their arguments in a Minority Report. They agreed that defects inherent to the denominational system had created too many sub-standard schools, and made it particularly difficult for rural students to obtain an adequate education; but they argued that the churches should not be removed from their traditional role as policy makers in the Department of Education. To do so, they wrote, would “open the door for complete secular education” (Vol.1 p.195) and contravene Section 17 of the Terms of Unions with Canada, which safeguarded the rights and privileges of denominational schools. In the end, however, all five denominations agreed to the secularization of the department.

Other Recommendations

The Commission made other recommendations concerning the administration of education. Foremost was the recommendation to reduce the number of school districts from 230 to approximately 35. The Commission argued that small school boards lacked the financial resources needed to provide quality education. Consolidation would create larger boards, which would have more money to build better schools and provide specialized services such as health programs, library facilities, audio-visual aids, and instruction in music, physical education, home economics, and industrial arts.

The Commission also recommended that extensive consolidation of schools take place to reduce the number of small and ill-equipped buildings operating across the province. It concluded that the minimum enrolment should be 500 students for five-year high schools and 300 for three-year high schools. Elementary schools should have an enrolment large enough to require a separate teacher for each grade. “In particular,” wrote the Commission, “there can be no justification for the existence of two or more schools in a small community.” (Vol.1 p.102)

Other recommendations affected instruction. The Commission recommended that the province increase standards for teacher qualifications, so that by 1980 all elementary teachers would have completed a four-year university program and all high-school teachers a five-year program. In 1964-65, only 13.4 per cent of teachers had a university degree. The Commission also recommended diversifying the school curriculum to allow students a greater choice of subject areas, and it advocated the incorporation of educational television, audio-visual equipment, and other technological aids in instruction at all grade levels.

Reaction

The Commission’s Report sparked important and far-reaching changes to the administration and delivery of education in Newfoundland and in Labrador. The Department of Education Act, 1968, reorganized the department on a functional instead of a denominational basis. The legislation abolished the position of Denominational Superintendent, but created Denominational Education Councils (DECs), which were not recommended in the Commission’s Report. The DECs operated outside the department, but through them the churches retained their power to advise government on school district boundaries, the training, selection, and certification of teachers, the appointment of school board members, and the delivery of religious education.

Additional legislation gave consolidated school boards the same rights and privileges as denominational boards. Within a year of the report’s publication, the Anglican, Salvation Army, Presbyterian, and United Church school systems amalgamated to form an Integrated Protestant system. The move greatly decreased the number of schools and school boards operating in the province and reduced the number of distinct denominational systems to three: Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Integrated Protestant. Warren wrote in 1970 that the 1968 legislation “may, in the long run, be one of the most significant decisions ever taken in education in the Province.” (Warren 4)

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.


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