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Canada - Preprimary & Primary Education

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceCanada - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


Unlike some other countries such as France, which has a high preschool enrollment by age three, Canadian children generally wait until age four to enter preschool. According to 1992 figures, 46 percent of all 4 year olds and 69 percent of all 5 year olds attended public or primary schools of education. Canada's children average 1.2 years in preschool as of 1992, far below France (3.4 years) and the United States (1.8 years).

According to 1995-1996 figures, enrollment in Canadian preprimary schools had risen to 509,589 students. Of that total, 248,071 students were gender classified as female. While many 5 year olds in the United States enroll in kindergarten, Canada enrolls 30 percent of its 5 year olds in primary schools of education, according to 1992 statistics.

The first primary schools were French and related to the Catholic Church. Each parish priest was responsible for starting and maintaining a school where reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught. These most often were broken into separate schools for boys and girls by 1750. The most widely known school for French and Indian girls before 1750 was run by the Ursuline Order of nuns; it was opened in Quebec on a spacious campus in 1642. The Congregation of Notre Dame founded other schools in Montreal and other communities. Some convent schools founded by the latter order still exist. British forces destroyed one convent school in 1758, however. Marguerite Bourgeoys, one of Canada's earliest and best known pioneering female personages in education, began the Congregation of Notre Dame. The Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal was one of the first boarding schools in North America for girls. The reputation of the school and its foundress Bourgeoys led citizens in the American colonies to request similar missions. Additional missions were built in diverse Canadian locations such as Cape Breton Island and Trois Rivières, Quebec. The Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal was literally built in a forest cleared by local supporters and farmers. In the territories, the Hudson's Bay Company encouraged the education of the Indians and the sons and daughters of settlers.

The seventeenth century also saw the establishment of Anglican and other Protestant schools in Canada, particularly where English was the primary tongue. However, other Protestant sects rebuffed Anglican leaders in their attempts to establish their church elementary and grammar schools to the extent that such schools found recognized acceptance in other British possessions such as Northern Ireland. Catholic church leaders in 1789-1790 also successfully objected to a proposal in lower Canada that would begin a system of free parish schools, but contained a proposal for the building of a college in which theology was noticeably absent from the curriculum. After the departure of France, the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning was instrumental in setting up nondenominational schools, not an easy or controversy-free task in many parts of Canada where French-Catholic settlers were in the majority.

One of the more progressive educational decisions was the 1790 publication of the Means for Promoting Education, which was the work of a special legislative council committee headed by Chief Justice William Smith. The committee recommended the establishment of free elementary schools in all parishes and villages, as well as schools for older, more advanced students roughly equivalent to secondary schools.

Primary education was conducted on a haphazard basis throughout Canada around 1800. That is, while all or nearly all cities and most towns of any size possessed such schools, their quality varied greatly, and neither provincial nor territory governments established standards. Under such conditions, the way was open for charlatans posing as itinerant scholars to set up shop in smaller schools and one-room schoolhouses; the situation was quite like the situation with frauds posing as dentists or preachers in North America in the nineteenth century. Finally, according to historian Edgar McInnis, legislatures in Upper Canada and Nova Scotia established schools in 1807 and 1811 respectively, but public funding of the schools lagged by a few years. The most important single piece of legislation for elementary schools in the nineteenth century was the Common School Act of 1816.

Not until the nineteenth century and in many provinces not until near mid-century did educational reformers obtain political support for nonsectarian primary, grammar, and secondary schools. Sociologists Wilfrid B.W. Martin and Allan J. Macdonell note that, until the nineteenth century, education was a right of the privileged and wealthy that was too often denied the common citizen. Local school boards under the watchful eyes of government education departments administered these early schools, depending upon the locale. Such schools grew rapidly in number and acceptance. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nondenominational schools supported by public moneys were the norm in many parts of Canada such as Ontario. Nonetheless, Catholic, Anglican, and miscellaneous Protestant denominations fought for the recognition of tax-supported church-related schools, particularly in fiercely Catholic areas of Quebec. The influence of the church schools cannot be overestimated in contributing to high literacy rates in many Catholic and Christian strongholds in Canada prior to the departure of France.

By 1850, the Canadian West was a stirred pot with reformers clamoring to reduce the influence of churches on schools and political issues. The need for more diverse schools became clear between 1897 and 1912 when great numbers of immigrants from the United States and parts of Europe, neither British nor French, streamed into the country at the invitation of Canada, which then favored a policy of so-called "national expansion" (McInnis 1969). While standardized school systems and a common curriculum had elevated educational standards in Ontario and other settled provinces, the Northwest and Western provinces battled over such issues as restrictions on Catholic schools and parochial school instruction, administrative structure of schools, and unifying scattered schools into comprehensive school systems. In short, these squabbles focused on ways to serve the majority of citizens while taking into the account the needs of a minority of citizens, some of whom had established roots long before the newcomers built homes.

In modern Canada, elementary schools are overseen by locally elected school boards, which are sometimes known as school commissions. These boards are responsible for fiscal matters, the employment of teaching professionals, and the carrying out of the curriculums provided by the province's department of education.

In terms of enrollment, according to 1990-1991 government figures, 2,375,704 students were enrolled in Canada's primary grades. Of that total, 1,147,503 students were female. The student to teacher ratio was 15 to 1. During the 1995 to 1996 school year, according to government records, the total enrollment in primary grades rose slightly to 2,448,144. Of that total, 1,185,025 were female. The student to teacher ratio had changed slightly to a 16 to 1 ratio.

An attempt to begin elitist schools reminiscent of British schools in Eton and other grammar schools was doomed to failure in egalitarian Canada. A public corporation that administered many common schools in the nineteenth century, the aforementioned Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, in 1816 founded two such classical schools supervised by headmasters. These Royal Grammar Schools struggled for three decades, closing in 1846, according to educational scholar John Calam.

The early grammar schools were important for two reasons. They were created by legislation, the District Public Schools Act of 1807, and they showed the government's willingness to support the costs of education and even the salary of a schoolmaster. Second, the law involved the state in education, an important first step in the creation of nondenominational schools. These schools were much like today's private schools in that tuition and fees were required. The schools themselves proved highly unpopular. Canadians thought them too elite and too close to the class-conscious schools of England such as Eton.

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