School Facilities

The Indigenous peoples who occupied what is now called Canada for millennia had well-developed formal and informal systems for educating community members.
The Indigenous peoples who occupied what is now called Canada for millennia had well-developed formal and informal systems for educating community members.

School Facilities

The Indigenous peoples who occupied what is now called Canada for millennia had well-developed formal and informal systems for educating community members. However, because of their largely migratory lifestyles, few remnants of what would be recognized as Indigenous school facilities have survived the passage of time. Permanent, dedicated school facilities have been an integral part of formal SCHOOL SYSTEMS since the beginning of European settlement in the early 17th century; and remain the most visible and recognizable symbols of mass public education in contemporary Canada. These school environments embody society’s attitude to youth and education; and physical changes in school structures can be read as a reflection of shifts in educational philosophies over time. School facilities are also significant community assets with the potential to provide settings for lifelong learning as well as other venues for community recreation and services. Because of their centrality to community wellbeing, the evolution, proliferation and disappearance of school facilities also provide insights into the shifting landscape of Canadian communal life, particularly accelerating urbanization and rural depopulation.

The first modern Canadian schools were established shortly after the French settled Québec in 1608. The few petites écoles organized by the Roman Catholic clergy and other missionaries in French Canada to teach reading, writing, arithmetic and religion appear to have been the first and, for many decades, the only schools in Canada.This marked the beginning of the one-room school as the symbol for education in frontier communities throughout North America for 300 years.

Because the parish priest was often the initial organizer and only teacher until a lay person or someone from a teaching order could be recruited from France, these early schools were typically located close to the local church. The earliest schools probably reflected notions about function and structure that the clergy and settlers had brought with them from medieval France. Glass and other fittings were not available in Canada at this time and during the winter months the poorly lit rooms could only be used a few hours each day. Only the larger centres, such as Québec and Trois-Rivières, had substantial buildings; most were one-room schools that were small in comparison to the one-room schools of later centuries, because population concentrations were small and the finished building materials required considerable manual labour. The only secondary education available was at the Collège de Québec, founded in 1635. As the culturally isolated French Canadian population increased in the 17th and 18th centuries, schools opened where there was a parish priest and a suitable building.

The First Schools

The first schools in English-speaking communities appeared in the Atlantic provinces early in the 18th century. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), a missionary organization of the Church of England, provided teachers, and local clergy organized their respective congregations to construct suitable facilities. Generally, but not invariably, these were one-room schools built by local fisherman using local materials. The first facility was constructed at Bonavista, Nfld, in 1726, and by 1728 SPG schools had been initiated in Nova Scotia.

The prerevolutionary PLANTERS and the postrevolutionary LOYALISTS who came first to Nova Scotia and later to Ontario from New England brought their own ideas about schools, including the notion of public sectarian schools financed from the sale of crown lands, an idea that was repeated later throughout the upper St Lawrence-Great Lakes region and even later in western Canada. The New Englanders also wanted to establish SECONDARY SCHOOLS, or grammar schools, as they had already done in Boston, Salem and other prosperous New England coastal towns. Among the first of such schools were King's College, the Halifax Grammar School, the College of New Brunswick and Prince of Wales College in PEI. Large-scale immigration from Ireland, site of one of the first national school systems in the world, precipitated a further proliferation of schools, including the development of a separate Roman Catholic school system in many of the British North American provinces.

The Architecture of School Buildings

The architecture of school buildings in the 19th century varied considerably. In Québec City, Trois-Rivières and Montréal, school buildings developed according to a "French Provincial" style. The SÉMINAIRE DE QUÉBEC and Collège de Montréal are well-known examples. In Halifax and Windsor, NS, they represented the "American Colonial" style, as evident in King's College and the Halifax Grammar School (see ARCHITECTURE). In contrast, the school facilities in the small, remote frontier settlements were the simplest buildings that would serve the purpose, and authorities used whatever local skills and materials were available at the time. In many cases these buildings were nothing more than log cabins or sheds.

During the early 19th century, tiny wooden schools were still being built in frontier settlements, such as those begun by the HUDSON’S BAY COMPANY on the North Saskatchewan River in 1808 for the children of company employees, but in the older and larger communities more substantial schools, including some secondary schools, were being constructed. Generally, these buildings facilitated learning only in the sense that they provided relatively comfortable shelter, and the larger of them organized students into groups of manageable size and levels of achievement that were eventually called grades; the individual classrooms of the larger schools were often called departments.

The simple buildings of earlier times began to disappear in the second half of the century as architects imitated American or British schools, with their impressive neoclassical entrances. Brick and stone were widely used. Furnishings, equipment and books were distributed from rapidly growing commercial centres such as Montréal and Toronto; some were imported. School sites, or school grounds as they were usually called, were cleared and levelled so that school gardens could be planted and playgrounds could be reserved. Unfortunately, inside these massive buildings the plan was often the same. The larger schools generally had a corridor running down the centre of each of the two- or even three-storey buildings with identical classrooms on both sides, a design pejoratively referred to as an "egg carton." The typical classroom was a large squarish compartment with a high ceiling and a raised platform at one end for the teacher's desk. The intention was no doubt to awe the students by the sheer scale of their surroundings and by the importance attached to education.

The Ubiquitous Public Building

In the first quarter of the 20th century, the number of schools increased at a phenomenal rate as the population of Canada mushroomed from 5.3 million in 1901 to approximately 9 million in 1926. During this period, compulsory attendance legislation was stringently enforced wherever possible and recalcitrant families were obliged to send their children to school. As an example of the increase in school building activity, the number of school districts in the new Province of Saskatchewan increased from 896 to 3702 from 1905 to 1915, a large proportion of which operated only a one-room rural elementary school. Such a demand for one-room schools developed that the T. EATON COMPANY advertised what amounted to school building kits in the Winnipeg edition of its 1917-18 catalogue. These kits contained school building plans together with the necessary lumber, nails, fittings and other materials. The school became the ubiquitous public building on the Canadian landscape.

Most schools of the first quarter of this century consisted largely of classrooms, corridors and cloakrooms. However, attempts were made to improve their appearances, especially in rural Ontario. The Ontario Department of Education's Plans document entitled for Rural School Building included the comment that "everyone connected with school work should endeavour to improve school architecture so that the present buildings, which are devoid of architectural beauty, should be replaced within the next generation by modern structures."

Little improvement was made during the GREAT DEPRESSION or the Second World War, though as a result of the emerging "human relations" approach in various disciplines, the heavy wood and iron desks that had been bolted to the floor were replaced by lighter furnishings so that children no longer had to be seated in rows but could be arranged in circles, blocks and other patterns to facilitate various instructional techniques.

Some of the school buildings in use through the Second World War were either physically or functionally obsolete, or both, by 1951. Many of the older buildings needed substantial repair or replacement. Furthermore, because of farm consolidation and mechanization, and in some cases farm abandonment, population drifted from rural to urban areas, leaving many small schools virtually empty while tending to overcrowd schools in the larger towns and cities. Simultaneously, the consolidation of small school districts and the accompanying school busing and other school services required that larger, more centralized buildings be provided. A special feature of this period was the separation of elementary and high-school students in small towns, villages and farming areas, for it created a need for large central or regional high schools.

Different approaches to instruction and new approaches to the planning of educational facilities originating in the United States and western Europe also helped render the old "egg carton" schools obsolete. A large study of educational facilities undertaken by the Toronto Metropolitan Board of Education was used in school planning across Canada.

Democritization of Architecture

Fresh ideas about organizing students for instruction, including small and large group instruction, team teaching, differentiated staffing, individualized instruction and continuous progress required flexible space and sophisticated support functions. This period also marked the beginning of the democratization of architecture: buildings were designed for public use and with public advice. The use of educational specifications ("Ed Specs"), prepared after consultations with teachers and others who might be affected by the new facilities, resulted in flexible but complex school buildings with specialized learning spaces for sciences, languages, home economics, industrial arts and occasionally others. A new and radical type of building, the "open-area" or "open-plan school," was the most controversial innovation through the 1970s and beyond. These schools had few enclosed spaces and the floor plan was organized around a learning resource centre, or library, with teaching stations and services areas surrounding it. Soon there were complaints by teachers about noise, confusion and inadequate wall space for display purposes; consequently, second- and third-generation open-area schools were modified to include more closed spaces, including a few traditional classrooms. Some of the older open-area schools have had their teaching stations enclosed, but the centralized learning resource centre and some other support features have been retained.

Many of the new high-school facilities of this era still contained the traditional classrooms and science laboratories but also included new features. Larger more diversified instructional resource centres replaced the small school libraries. Gymnasiums were expanded to meet official standards and to accommodate more activities. In some instances swimming pools and drama facilities were added. Specialized facilities such as language laboratories, cafeterias and guidance centres became regular features. Consequently the new high school became a very complex and very costly public facility that attracted more use by the general public. Recently some of these facilities have become venues for the delivery of post-secondary education programs.

During this period of economic and population growth, Canadian architects produced some notable examples of modern architecture, including some distinctive school facilities. Most of these showpieces were buildings at post-secondary institutions, particularly some of the newer universities such as SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY, the UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE and TRENT UNIVERSITY, but a few exemplary school buildings were also designed - for example, the Mayland Heights Elementary School in Calgary designed by architect Gordon ATKINS, and Douglas CARDINAL's Cumberland Elementary School at La Ronge, Saskatchewan. The floor plan of the latter is shaped like an First Nation chief's ceremonial headdress and has a kindergarten room with one-way glass so that parents may monitor the initial adjustment of their children to the classroom. Decentralized washroom facilities also proved to be a welcome design feature.

During this period school sites began to attract attention again. The old school garden virtually disappeared, but playgrounds were retained and recreational facilities and landscaping were added. While provincial governments and boards of education might have suggested or even imposed limits on the size of all school sites, some of the high schools built during this period had campus settings, including improved facilities for football, soccer, and track and field.

Some of the schools built during the 1970s and 1980s reflect the same trends as other buildings being designed for the workplace: post-modern architecture, concern for personal environments and accommodation of high-tech equipment, particularly computers.


As a result of spending restraints and school consolidation, fewer new schools were built in the 1980s and 1990s. Provincial departments and school boards have settled for a "no-frills" approach. Furthermore, with so many comparatively new schools being closed because of decreasing enrolments, boards of education are reluctant to build new facilities except where long-term need can be clearly demonstrated. By the 1990s the commitment of public funds for educational facilities had begun to change. At one extreme the Province of Alberta started to pay all the costs of construction because the collection of property taxes was centralized. At the other extreme the Province of Nova Scotia began to lease school facilities, a practice similar to leasing office buildings, but the facilities offered have to meet educational requirements. All variations appeared to be driven by financial constraints facing publicly elected officials instead of educational criteria.

Recent Developments

The new millennium has brought significant innovations in the design of school facilities in response to a number of compelling new imperatives. These include heightened awareness of the need to make all public infrastructure as accessible as possible to accommodate students and family members with disabilities; a growing commitment to ecological sustainability in the design and construction of public buildings; a growing understanding of the impact of school design on the ability of teachers to teach and the learners to learn; a shift in the conceptualization of schools away from classrooms towards ‘learning and information environments’ resulting from the transformative impact of cyber technology on the delivery of education; and the proliferation of ‘joint use’ or ‘integrated’ facilities, where schools (including Public and Roman Catholic) share space or are connected to other community facilities such as hospitals, care homes, Seniors’ centres, recreational and sport complexes, libraries, art galleries and museums. This last development reflects greater cooperation between school boards, municipalities and other agencies stemming from more holistic approaches to urban planning and a need to rationalize resources in the face of shrinking revenues for publicly-funded institutions.