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Egerton Ryerson
Chapter VIII - The Development of the School System


THE school system established on a firm foundation by the act of 1850, contemplated two main objects, comprehensiveness or universality and efficiency. While there were many obstacles which interfered with the attainment of the latter object, such as the lack of qualified teachers, the lack of proper school buildings and furniture, and the lack of proper text books, the great obstacle to the accomplishment of the first purpose was the matter of expense. Under the act of 1843 the expense of the school fell largely upon the parents of the children attending school, who paid by subscription or rate bill, seldom less than 7s., 0d. a quarter. The result of the system was that in 1815, when Dr. Ryerson began his work, the number of children in the province of school age was estimated by Mr. Hodgins at 198,434, of whom 110.002, or 55 per cent., attended school. This included all who were in attendance during any part of the year, and as the average time during which the school was kept open was 9½ months, when the usual allowance is made for absence it will be seen that the schools, such as they were, were not reaching at any time one half of the children of the country. Dr. Ryerson's first object was to give the advantages of a good school to every child in the land from five to sixteen years of age. This object attained "would certainly mean a high average of intelligence for the whole country. Even eight years of effective schooling out of the eleven years of school age would be a vast advance on the state of things with which he commenced.

Ilis practical knowledge of the country and of the people convinced him at the outset that the remedy lay in free schools and compulsory education. But these two means involved an exercise of executive authority for which the country was by no means prepared. The first school bill introduced by I)r. Ryerson contained provision for the option of free schools by a majority of the ratepayers of the school section. The provision was eliminated by the legislature. The act of 1850 restored this provision, and so opened the question in every school section of the province. Many can still remember the contention which arose through the country over this measure and the profound discussions by political philosophers over the rights of property and the responsibilities of parents. Dr. Ryerson was too wise to propose any arbitrary measure. He secured provision of law by which the people could all in their own time ordain that their own school should be free, and left that provision to work its own way through the influence of enlightened convictions and higher interests. But in 1U0 each annual report, as well as in his public addresses, he kept before the minds of the people such principles as these : a free country requires an intelligent people; a common school education is the right of every child in the land; the property which is accumulated by the help of the common industry and intelligence of the people, and protected as well as increased in value by the institutions of the land, is justly chargeable with that which is absolutely necessary for the general welfare of the country, and to enable every man born in the country to discharge the common duties of citizenship for the common good. Slowly, it is true, but still surely these principles made their Way J assisted by the fact that the majority of ratepayers, especially in the newer parts of the country, had children of their own to be educated. In 1858, 45 per cent, of the schools were wholly free, and 38 per cent, more partially so, i.e., they charged less than the legal maximum of school fees, while 74 per cent, of the children of school age were now found in the schools. In 1805, no less than 83 per cent, of the schools of the province were entirely free, and nearly 85 per cent, of the school population were in attendance at the schools. It easily and naturally followed that, in 1871 all the schools were made free by law. No better illustration could be given of the patient wisdom by which Dr. Ryerson pursued and attained his great ends.

The other aspect of the development of the school system in the quality and efficiency of the schools involved much more complicated problems and a much more varied history.

The first point in the efficiency of a school is the qualification of the teacher. We have no means of ascertaining the average or even the maximum qualification of the teachers of Upper Canada in 1845. The average salary paid, £29, or $116 a year, indicates a low standard. For the first few years the certificates were issued by the local superintendents, and while the total number of teachers possessing such certificates was nearly equal to that of the schools, no certain opinion can be formed as to the extent of qualification. There was no definite stand-aid of attainments; and the examination of the teacher was entirely personal.

In 1847 the normal school was opened and a standard was prescribed for first and second class provincial certificates of qualification. This was shortly afterwards followed up by the act of 1850 establishing county boards of education with authority to issue first, second and third class certificates of qualification according to a specific programme of examination. In 1857 the results of these measures were apparent in the fact that of nearly 4,000 teachers, who possessed first class certificates, over 2,000 second class, and less than 1,000 were teaching on certificates of the lowest class. By this date 734 teachers had already graduated from the normal school in the first or the second class, constituting a considerable percentage of the teachers of that class throughout the province and extending the influence of their professional training throughout the schools of the entire system. County teachers' associations were now very generally established under the advice and influence of the county superintendents, and through the aid of these the influence of the normal school graduates was extended to all grades of teachers, as their methods of teaching were used as examples and illustrations. In the schools conducted by the normal graduates many of the county teachers received their training under what might be termed a Lancasterian system. By this date, through this improvement in the qualification of teachers, there might be found in almost every county in Ontario schools of a grade of efficiency of which any country might be proud. The people who ten years before had rebelled against the expensiveness of the new system and were willing to place the education of their children in the hands of cripples, worn out old men and stranded immigrants, were now becoming jealous of the reputation of their school and quite ambitious to have the very best in the county.

The furnishing of the schools was also rapidly improved. Bick and stone buildings of handsome architectural appearance replaced the old log and frame structures; proper means of heating and ventilation were supplied; maps, blackboards and other apparatus were secured; and above all. the old benches and high wall desks were superseded by comfortable seats and desks n which the pupils were ranged two and two, facing the teacher and the long platform from which his blackboards and maps were displayed. With these improvements new methods of order and systematic work were introduced, class instruction superseded the individualism of the early days, and an orderly programme, in itself an important element of education, became possible in every school.

At the very outset of lus work l)r. Ryerson recognized the possibility of a still higher standard of school work in the towns, cities and even incorporated villages. In 1847, his first bill, making special provision for these centres of population, was introduced. The object from the beginning of these special provisions was the construction of the schools of the city or town into an educational system. The first step in this direction was the appointment of a larger board of trustees who had charge of all the public schools of the municipality, maintained them from a common school fund, and appointed a local superintendent of the whole. From this the steps were easy to a graded school system for the city or town. Primary schools were established for the several sections or wards in which the junior pupils were taught by themselves in schools convenient to their homes, while the elder pupils were massed in a graded central school of more advanced forms, and this at a later period was sometimes combined with the grammar school, under the designation of a union school. Perhaps the most widely known example of the successful working of this system was to be found in the city of Hamilton under the direction of Mr. A. Maeallum, one of the first graduates of the normal school. It was no slight tribute to Dr. Ryerson that in the very district which was the centre of rebellion against his new system in 1847, there should be found the most successful illustration and the most enthusiastic working out of his most advanced ideas of high class public schools.

In the larger city of Toronto the graded school system was worked out on another model. The ward schools were each one a graded school covering the whole field of public school work from the most elementary to the highest form. Here the grammar school work was always kept distinct. In smaller towns and villages, the graded system •vas introduced as a single central school with several rooms and teachers covering the whole work as in the ward schools of Toronto.

Such were some of the steps by which the school system through the fifties and the sixties was gradually developed to higher perfection. In this process much was left to local enterprise and co-opera l ion. From time to time legislation was introduced which opened the way for improvement. Especially after the perfection of our municipal system, by the act of 1856, the whole school system was harmonized with the improved forms of municipal government. But the object of these new provisions of the school law was not to force a cast-iron form of schools upon the people, but to provide facilities by which they could themselves work out in their own way and according to local needs and ability the higher models which were thus placed before them. The municipal relations of education were thus very fully developed under Dr. Ryerson's direction. As the school law finally passed from his hands, all common or public schools, whether in townships, incorporated villages, towns or cities, were placed under the control of trustees elected directly by the people and forming a distinct body corporate for the purpose of the school alone. Education was in this way separated, not only from general politics, but also from municipal interests of other kinds. Constituting n itself an interest of the most permanent character, requiring continuity of policy and an income not subject to fluctuations, the independence of the educational work and of the board to which it is committed is a most important principle in the system.

It was a bold policy which ventured to place so much power in the hands of trustees, enabling them to apply to the municipal council for the levying of all monies required for the proper maintenance of the schools. Had such a provision been suggested in 1846, or even in 1850, it would in all probability have been at once rejected. But after the schools had advanced step by step both in efficiency and popularity, until by the voluntary act of an intelligent people they were made free to all. It was an easy matter to secure assent to a law, which required the municipal councils to collect with the other local taxes, the ways and means for the support of the schools. To transfer the management of the schools even now to the municipal bodies would doubtless result in their rapid deterioration. To give these bodies power to limit the expenditure of the school trustees would tend in the same direction. It is a peculiar feature under any government, that one body should be responsible for raising the funds and another for their expenditure. But the peculiar circumstances and the unusual importance of the interest involved we think fully justify the anomaly, and have commended it to the common sense of the people. The school under Dr. Ryerson's system is not a local but rather a national interest. The child is educated not merely as an inhabitant of a particular locality, but also as a future citizen. The whole country on that basis contributes to the support of every local school. The county school rate is an intermediate link in the same direction. The school trustees are thus not merely the representatives of the local interest. Theirs is like that of members of parliament, a wider responsibility* Their duty is not merely to furnish public services, sidewalks, street fights and so forth, to a locality for the coming year, but to furnish the country with an intelligent citizenship for a whole generation. Such wider and higher responsibility demands a centralization of power and an independence of action, passing beyond the ordinary limits of municipal government, and justifies the apparent anomaly. Occasionally attempts are made from the municipal side to create dissatisfaction by representing the school trustees as an irresponsible body who load the people with taxes. But the patriotic instinct of the people has protected them against such unworthy suggestions. They are well satisfied, provided they have really good schools, to provide the means for their support, and they do not forget that school trustees as well as municipal councils are directly and finally responsible to the people, and they have manifested no desire to make them, in addition to this, responsible to the municipal council. The collection of the school funds by the officers of the municipality is after all only a matter of economy and convenience. In the nature of the case it cannot imply that the municipal body is responsible either for the amount or for its proper expenditure. To attempt because of this common sense economical provision to bring the educational system completely under municipal control would prove fatal. Education, like the administration of justice to which Dr. Ryerson often compared it, is an interest of the nation, as well as of the locality and the individual. It is one of the glories of the Ontario system that it 198 has so well preserved the balance of controlling forces, keeping both these important interests so largely out of the field both of local and general politics* and combining both local and central supervision and support.

A second municipal duty in relation to public school education is provision for supervision by the appointment of public school inspectors. These officers constitute one of the most important elements in the system. When l)r. Ryerson began his work, inspection was provided for by township superintendents, but, as we have seen, these officers, except as clerks for the distribution of the school fund, were either in large part incompetent or perfunctory in the discharge of their duty. The superintendency of the schools was not their chief work. The first step was the appointment of county inspectors, whose whole time should be given to this work. A second step was provision for thorough qualification. Professional training, experience in practical teaching, and a high-grade teacher's certificate were successively demanded for this important work. The rapid improvement of the schools was doubtless largely due to this feature of the system. At an early day the best graduates of the normal school were rapidly passed into this commanding office, and through them the influence of the normal school reached every part of their district. In the cries and towns the inspector was appointed by the public school board directly, and became their executive officer and professional counsel. In no part of the system was the influence of the inspector as an efficient officer more evident than here. With the development of graded schools along the two lines which we have already described, under efficient and able inspectors the organization and perfection of the schools made very rapid and gratifying progress in all the cities, and the larger towns, where the system but slightly differed, by no means fell behind. We have before referred to the cities of Toronto and Hamilton as conspicuous examples of the two methods of grading schools, and as forming city systems, one adapted to a city covering a more extended area, the other to a city where all the older children were within reach of a central school. This latter system, slightly modified, became the type for the larger towns, and in a short time beautiful and commodious central schools, as well as neat, comfortable and conveniently located primary schools, became a prominent feature of our then rising towns, which are now numbered among our cities.

The material and visible improvement in school buildings and architecture w as, perhaps, the readiest measure of the improvement in the educational status of the schools. Dr. Ryerson served his province as chief superintendent thirty-three years, the life of a single generation. At the beginning of that time the public school buildings even of Toronto were an eyesore; at the end they were in almost every town of ambition or consequence the pride of the people and the chief ornament of the place, fitly representing the high character of the intellectual life within. It may be said that all this was the natural result of the growth of the people in wealth and intelligence. True, but it was the result of that growth under a system which called out their enterprise, enlisted their interest, wisely composed their differences and united their energies, and which directed their efforts by placing before them patiently and continuously the best models and methods.

It is not easy to form a true estimate of the personal influence of I)r. Ryerson in this remarkable process of the development of our public school system. We have already noted that at its very foundation he wisely utilized the common forces which move human society in such a way as to make the work grow by its own inner vitality. His work was not so much to force a system upon an unwilling people, as to construct a system so accommodated to the needs, the interests, the habits, and even the selfish motives of the people, that they would readily and naturally adopt it as their own. In a few years its success became to them a matter of honest pride. The intelligence and enterprise of trustees, the ambition of teachers to excel, the patriotic liberality of municipal bodies, the fidelity and ability of inspectors, even the emulation of the school children and the sympathetic cooperation of the whole people became powerfully enlisted in this work. The schools seemed to grow of themselves. Rut behind all this there was a wise, sympathetic, unostentatious, but powerful mind at the helm. One secret of his success, as we have already seen, lay in the choice of the ablest young men as his helpers in various departments of the work. Another lay in his unusual skill in avoiding or overcoming difficulties. His interpretation and administration of school law was remarkable in its success, and in this Dr. Hodgins was his right-hand man. But these were a part of the progressive movement of the system; his most important work was always in advance of that movement, the discovery and the devising of new and more perfect things as the country was prepared for them. For this purpose he kept in constant touch with the school work and the men most intelligently interested in it throughout the entire province. He made a special study of the county superintendents' reports. He made periodical tours through the province, calling conventions of trustees, superintendents, municipal officers, teachers, and all persons interested in education, and discussing at length with them the questions which seemed to require advanced legislation. He was at the same time a diligent student of the progress of education in other countries* and for this purpose made extended and repeated visits abroad, to become personally acquainted with the working of new methods and educational theories. And yet he was least of all things a theorist, His mind was peculiarly practical and conservative, and adopted nothing except under conviction of its utility, and with most intimate knowledge of the conditions of his own people, he moulded all new things to their needs and capacity.

The results of this constant mental activity appear in his annual reports which are admirable digests not only of the progress of the work but also of suggested improvements, which were frequently the precursors of new legislation. As we have already seen, the School Act of 1850 was the broad and fairly complete basis of the whole educational system. Dr. Ryerson was too wise a legislator to render his work nugatory by too frequent or too radical changes. When the act of 1850 was followed up by the supplementary act of 1855 it was merely a step forward. The powers of trustees were more clearly defined and extended, so that the efficiency of the school could not be prevented by legal quibbles or individual obstinacy. The danger that separate schools might be made to destroy the unity and comprehensiveness of the system was guarded against, and provision was made for the extended usefulness of the Journal of Education, for the establishment of the Museum of Art. and for larger legislative aid to the schools. In like manner the amendment act of 1800 secured more perfectly the discharge of the duties of trustees by enforcing reports, providing for proper audit, insisting that trustees should be properly qualified n the section for which they were elected, and by demanding proper notice of all legal meetings of school trustees. It prohibited trustees from any interest in contracts for school supplies or buildings, gave them power to sell school property, called for definite written agreement between trustees and teacher. It provided a more definite programme for the examination and classification of teachers by the county boards. From these examples it will be seen that the successive acts of legislation proposed by Dr. Ryerson for twenty years after the full establishment of the new system in 1850, involved no important change of the system. They aimed rather at growth and perfection, and at remedy of practical defects, which the working out of the system had revealed.

The second most important period in the history of our common school legislation was ushered in by the act of 1870-71. The subject of education had at confederation been placed in the hands of the provincial legislature, and in this act it for the first time grappled with the problems presented by the common schools, which were now named public schools. The act of 1870-71 was supplemented by that of 1874, and the two together represent Dr. Ryerson's last legislative work on behalf of the schools of Ontario.

Preceding this legislation Dr. Ryerson made his fourth and final educational tour in Europe and America, and also held his fifth and last series of conventions through the province, discussing the most important features of the new legislation. The legislation itself was also shaped on the basis of our new federal and provincial constitution, and thus may be considered as the beginning of what may be regarded as a reconstruction of the school system. It is a fact noted by Dr. Hodgins that a principal objection to this proposed legislation was the fear of the people that tin; system of 1850 would be materially changed. The system which in 1848-9 had excited such violent opposition as an introduction of Prussian despotism was in 1870 so prized and had so completely commended itself to the judgment and affections of the people, that they looked with jealousy upon any proposal for change. Commended abroad as one of the best, if not the best in the world, and the ground of honest pride at home, it was now being carefully shielded by the very people who once regarded it as a foreign intrusion.

But when we come to examine m detail the changes of 1870-71 we find that they were not radical. They did not in any way disturb the established method of working with which the people had now become familiar and which had been productive of such excellent results. They perfected the free school system, and introduced a carefully guarded and most moderate form of compulsion.

To the schools under this new extension of public interest was given the designation, not of "common" schools, as open to all, but of "public" schools, as belonging to and used by all the people.

The principle of compulsory attendance at school for at least four months in each year was the most radical change introduced. This Ryerson had made the subject of most careful study both in Europe and America, and it was only when fully convinced of its necessity by such study, and with the example before him of its success in several states of the Union, as well as in several countries of Europe, that he ventured upon its introduction. Even then he guarded scrupulously against any undue pressure upon the poor. The trustees and magistrates by whom the law was to be enforced were given wide power of discretion, and the term made compulsory was but four months in the year, as against six months required in Massachusetts.

A very important part of the legislation of 1870-71 was the effort to render uniform and to improve the standard of qualification of teachers. For this purpose the examination for teachers seeking first class certificates was placed in the hands of the council of public instruction, and such certificates became provincial. The county boards were also improved, being composed with the inspector of two persons who themselves held certificates of qualification for that purpose from the council of public instruction. Provision was also made that 'certificates should be given to inspectors, the condition being a university degree or the highest grade of provincial certificate, experience in teaching, and proof by written thesis of mastery of the fundamental principles of the science of education.

In this effort to elevate the standard of qualification in the interest of the schools, the interests of the teachers were never forgotten. It is true their ranks were thinned by the elimination of incompetent or unqualified persons, but at the same time every effort was made to render their position and work such as might be desired as a permanent calling or profession in life. The period of service of even one third of the early normal school graduates was three and a half years on the average. Every year scores of the best teachers after a short term of service entered the Christian ministry, or law or medicine, often attaining the highest eminence in these professions. But others left the teaching profession, not for a wider or more ambitious sphere of usefulness, but from pecuniary and family considerations alone. As teachers they were not secure of a permanent position, and a home and status in the community. Teachers were still frequently changed at the end of a year, and the average length of service was scarcely three years. Few schools made provision for a residence for the teacher, and in a large number of the country schools the teacher must of necessity be an unmarried man or woman. Many of these final provisions devised by Dr. Ryerson aimed at the remedy or at least alleviation of these evils, by making the work of the teacher a profession, by providing him a home n connection with the school, by improving the scale of remuneration, and by making provision for a retiring allowance for teachers who had given their life to the service. The evil of frequent change of teachers and of the employment of young and inexperienced teachers was easily seen; but the causes lay deeper perhaps than the reach of any legislative enactment. In any case they could be removed only by a long and patient policy in which the government and the people would unite in continuous effort to make the position and work of the teacher as desirable as those of any other profession. Dr. Ryerson's work w as now too near its close to permit of his accomplishing so desirable a result.

The introduction of compulsory education brought to the front the problem of the neglected and unfortunate classes of our population. The recognition of the principle that the education of all the children was the duty of the state, made more prominent the condition of the street arabs of our cities, of the children of criminal and inebriate parents, and of those who come into the world deprived of sight, or speech, or ordinary mental powers. These problems were also the subject of Dr. Ryerson's latest studies and reports and were matters left, as he retired from his life work in the seventy-fourth year of his age, to be Wrought out by his successors. But before he passed from his office at least legislative provision was made for the better care of all these classes of the population.

The later years of Dr. Ryerson's work were not without their prophecy of several minor though still important changes n his school system. The date was the time of the high tide of the laisez faire system both in England and Canada. The doctrine that the needs of the country should be supplied by private enterprise as far as possible without legislative interference was just then popular. The government ownership and control of all public franchises, or the communistic supply of common needs was then looked upon as a dream of wild theorists. And yet the very idea of an educational system is paternal; and the system built up by Dr. Ryerson was certainly such. It was in its very nature the undertaking by the government, whether provincial, municipal or local, of the supply of one of the most universal needs of the people. To-day we think it quite reasonable to consider and even vote upon the public supply of light, of transportation, and of telegraphic as well as postal communication. The justification ol' all these projects is the well-being of the whole people. This certainly was the justification of the paternalism involved in Dr. Ryerson's system. It had worked well for the people. The children were being educated as never before. Illiteracy was disappearing from the land, and the standard of intelligence was being advanced beyond all precedent in all classes of society. No one could venture to criticize a system marked by such success as a whole.

The cry of Prussian despotism had quite disappeared, but against some of ;ts features the cry was raised of interference with the interests of trade. The educational depository was the ground of objection. It had in its day accomplished a most important and excellent work, It had placed nearly two hundred thousand volumes, not of inferior fiction, but of high class science, history, travel and literature in public libraries throughout the country, and it. had furnished the schools of the country with an equipment of school apparatus which would have been beyond their reach otherwise for years to come. It had accomplished this work without other expense to the country than the legislative grants in aid which were wholly employed !n supplementing the money raised by the schools and tn thus furnishing them with apparatus at one half the cost price. The depository had thus served the three-fold purpose of bringing into the country the best school apparatus, of furnishing it at cost price, and of distributing the grant in aid of the purchase of such outfit on the basis of local contribution. The attack on this section of the education department, and the personal form which it assumed, was a matter upon which one can now look back only with pain and shame. It was poor requital to the man who had done so much for his country, and the so-called principles upon which it was grounded will scarcely bear critical examination in the light of history. But at the time it. carried with it a large section of the public, and under its influence the depository came to an end. It can be said now, with no little confidence, that the depository was in its day at least, one of the most important contributory means to the success of Dr. Ryerson's work. Fortunately lor the country it was not destroyed until the need which it supplied was so manifest that other means could be used to do its work. Private enterprise would have failed completely in that work at an earlier date, and even now it succeeds in some measure only by the help of legislative enactment. What Dr. Ryerson tempted the schools to do as a benefit to their children, we now command them to do under pain of loss of the legislative grant.

Another and much more important change in the central education department Dr. Ryerson himself anticipated, and proposed almost immediately after the introduction of the federal system of government into Canada. This was the creation for the province of a minister of education as a member of the executive council of the province, placing the department on the same footing as then were the public works, the crown lands, and the executive administration of law. There was no little hesitation on this point on the part of leading statesmen. Dr. Ryerson urged the supreme importance of the work involved, the need of direct and authoritative representation of that work on the floor of the legislature, and in the executive council, lie proposed that the educational system should be unified from the provincial university to the elementary school under the control of a minister of the crown, as a most important department of the provincial government. For this purpose he voluntarily placed his resignation in the hands of the lieutenant-governor.

The hesitancy of the government and of the public mind to accede to this change arose from a consideration of the danger of the intervention of party politics in so important and national an interest. Here, if anywhere, the interests of the public service should not be subordinated to, or even for a moment endangered by the unfortunate tendency to reward political adherents by appointments in the public service. Dr. Ryerson himself acknowledged the difficulty and continued in office for several years after making this proposition. Immediately on his retirement in 1876, the proposal was carried into effect, and has powerfully influenced the history of education in Ontario for the last twenty-five years. During that time the political danger has not appeared to be so important. The appointing power is so diffused among municipal and local bodies that there has scarcely been room for criticism, even by the most suspicious; and the few appointments at the central office have been very judiciously made. Dr. Ryerson's idea of greater facility and effectiveness in the presentation of educational interests to the legislature has been fully sustained by the results in the hands of able ministers of education. Perhaps the one weakness of the new system was scarcely anticipated at the time. The minister of education, under the pressure of the general work of government, and of the demands made upon a political leader, must depend to no small degree upon subordinates, and he himself is liable at any time to step out of office. There can scarcely be thus the same conservative unity and continuity of policy and the same careful development of great principles which were such conspicuous features of Dr. Ryerson's administration. Perhaps we could not have secured them under any other man as chief superintendent.


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