Secondary Education

Originally established as schools offering a narrow, classical curriculum to the sons of gentlemen, SECONDARY SCHOOLS (also known as high schools) became coeducational, offering a widened variety of programs and courses to all children who had completed the elementary school program.

Secondary Education

Early Developments

Originally established as schools offering a narrow, classical curriculum to the sons of gentlemen, SECONDARY SCHOOLS (also known as high schools) became coeducational, offering a widened variety of programs and courses to all children who had completed the elementary school program. In English-speaking Canada the first secondary schools, modelled after the English grammar schools, were usually operated by comparatively well-educated Church of England clergy. The ruling group considered these training schools for future leaders to be of greater importance to the colony than schools for the children of the common people, an "official" view reflected in the earlier provision for the establishment and generous public support of secondary schools for the few. These schools, however, were forced to offer elementary instruction as well because many of their students were not prepared to undertake secondary-school work. When publicly supported elementary schools were established, there were then 2 types of schools offering elementary instruction, a "necessary" duplication at a time when few aristocrats were prepared to send their children to the common schools.

Despite the financial advantage enjoyed by the grammar schools, they did not prosper, largely because they were looked upon as elitist and were unsuited to a sparsely populated region. Proving more acceptable to a growing number of people were the later academies, coeducational institutions offering a more varied program to a wider segment of society. These academies flourished because they offered what an increasing number of parents demanded for their children, namely less emphasis on the classics and more emphasis on commercial and work-related studies.

The 19th Century

Towards a Centralized School System
In Ontario, Egerton RYERSON, superintendent of public instruction during an important period (1844-76) in Canada's development, concentrated his attention on setting up a system of common (elementary) schools before turning to the problems of the secondary schools. Noting that the grammar-school enrolment had remained low and that many of the smaller grammar schools were concerned more about ways of obtaining increased government grants than on ways of improving instruction, Ryerson introduced central control of these schools (1853). As a part of this centralization, he established a system of regular inspection (1855) and a short-lived system of "payment by results" (in effect 1875-82), under which the government grant was, in part, based on the examination results obtained by students. Through the introduction of an entrance examination to secondary schools (1853), Ryerson removed the problem of duplication of programs in common (elementary) and secondary schools, the elementary school becoming the first division of the school system extending from the earliest grade to university.

A University-Oriented Curriculum
Even after the elementary and secondary schools were made into a single public system within each province, there was much controversy about the role of secondary schools. To those who considered it an upward extension of the elementary school, it was obvious that the secondary schools program should not be primarily university-oriented. As the compulsory school attendance age was raised over the years (for Ontario, eg, from age 12 in 1871 to age 16 in 1919), the need to offer a variety of programs in addition to the academic, university-oriented program became evident, especially when it was noted that a high proportion of the students entering high school were not completing their program or moving on to university studies.

The curriculum of the secondary school and the methods of instruction used therein have tended to reflect the university orientation. For example, when provincial secondary-school graduation examinations were in general use, they were prepared by subject committees usually dominated by university professors. The great importance attached to these examinations by both the educational authorities and the public helped to increase the universities' role in determining the secondary-school curriculum, largely as a result of the schools' "teaching to the exams," a widespread practice that decreased in importance once the provincial exams required for graduation were eliminated. Another result of this close association of secondary schools with the universities has been the long-delayed provision for the professional training of secondary-school teachers. Because university instructors were ready to support the widely held view that the secondary-school teacher did not need training in methods of teaching but only intensive preparation in his specific subject area, provision for the training of secondary-school teacher candidates tended to come much later than that for elementary teachers. Ontario's Provincial School of Pedagogy for the training of secondary school teachers was established in 1890; its first NORMAL SCHOOL for the training of elementary teachers was opened in 1847.

As a result of the higher academic qualifications required of secondary teachers, salary scales for secondary teachers have generally been considerably higher than those for elementary teachers, thereby tending to create barriers between the 2 groups.

The 20th Century

Among the recent developments that have affected secondary schools in Canada has been the attempt by provincial authorities to tear down the long-standing wall between elementary and secondary schools. Significant progress toward this objective has been made by placing within university faculties of education the teacher education programs for all teachers, a noteworthy change from the earlier arrangement whereby elementary teachers were trained in normal schools (or teachers' colleges) while secondary teachers were enrolled in university faculties of education.

This change, together with the move requiring all teachers to hold a university degree, led to a lessening of the old distinctions, academic and financial.

Secondary Education in Rural Areas
One of the most serious problems in secondary education in Canada has been that of providing equal educational opportunities in rural and urban areas. Because the cost of providing the academic program is less than the cost of programs requiring expensive shop equipment, the smaller rural secondary schools found themselves unable to offer the more expensive work-related programs and, as a result, tended to offer academic programs to be taken by a relatively small proportion of students. This problem has usually been dealt with by enlarging the secondary-school unit of administration to permit the offering of a variety of programs and courses to a larger pool of secondary students.

In the first two years of secondary school, students are enrolled in mostly compulsory courses. The senior years allow for a wide range of options that directly link to requirements for post-secondary institutions. Students receive their secondary school diplomas based on the completion of both the requisite number of compulsory and optional courses required to graduate.

In western Canada, for example, the high schools established in rural areas before the advent of large school units in the 1940s were often one-room, one-teacher schools, offering a limited curriculum, largely academic. The creation of large units of school administration, however, made possible the establishment of large regional secondary schools offering programs to accommodate students who wished to enter university as well as those with vocational interests.

Another means of making secondary education more readily available to students in smaller communities was legislation that enabled common (or elementary) schools to add secondary grades in a combination known in some provinces (eg, Ontario) as a continuation school. In certain regions, especially in the Atlantic Provinces, one-room rural schools often conducted classes from grades 1 to 10, with larger communities adding grades 11 and 12 to their offerings.

The post-war years created a new interest and demand for education in Canada and increased enrollment, the product of the baby boom, resulted in significant school construction throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The arts, heavily supported by the federal government during this period, also allowed for the development of expanded school facilities, largely for music, drama and fine-arts programs.

Federal Involvement
Although education is constitutionally a provincial responsibility (there are exceptions; see NATIVE PEOPLE, EDUCATION), there have been periods in Canada's history when the federal government has poured large amounts of money into education, especially in areas considered to be of national importance (eg, agricultural education, vocational and technical training, arts). At times, these infusions have tended to occur during national crises, eg, in 1960 when the federal government, responding to the urgent need for trained workers in Canada's labour force, introduced a program which provided many millions of dollars to the provinces for the building and equipping of secondary vocational and technical schools.

Secondary Education in Québec
Marked differences characterize secondary education in Québec, notably in the early establishment of COLLÈGES CLASSIQUES, which combined secondary and college education in an 8-year program. Affiliated with the French-language universities, these institutions were for males only during the greater part of their existence. Unlike the English-style grammar schools, the classical colleges admitted boys from all social levels and had a notable impact on all sectors of French Canadian society.

During Québec's QUIET REVOLUTION the reform of secondary education moved that province from the position of having one of the lowest secondary-school retention rates in Canada to having one of the highest. This great leap forward resulted from the introduction, in 1967, of a new type of post-secondary general and vocational community college (collège d'enseignement général et professionel [CEGEP]). A most important part of the planned democratization of education in Québec, the CEGEPs made post-secondary education more easily available to more people, thereby increasing the student retention rate of the secondary schools. CEGEPS offered pre-university and pre-vocational courses in a system intermediate between the secondary schools and the universities.

At the same time, the role of the Church in the control of education at all levels was reduced, as evidenced by the fact that the classical college was no longer practically the only avenue leading to the French-language universities.

Canadian Studies in Secondary Schools
Because the teaching of citizenship has long been one of the objectives of Canadian secondary schools, A.B. Hodgetts's widely discussed analysis of the shortcomings of the civic-education programs in Canada received careful attention from curriculum planners, administrators and teachers at the elementary- and secondary-school levels. Among the shortcomings noted by Hodgetts were the lack of any contemporary meaning in the courses of study in Canadian history, the narrowness of the program ("confined to constitutional and political history"), the lack of controversy ("a bland, unrealistic consensus version of our past") and the use of uninspiring teaching methods. The report of this inquiry, "What Culture? What Heritage?" (1968), caused nationwide soul-searching that led to the creation in 1970 of the Canada Studies Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization designed to find ways of improving the quality of Canadian studies in both elementary and secondary schools. Teachers across Canada participated in regional and national conferences and workshops. By the 1980s, new provincial programs were established in the form of cultural initiatives.

Alternative Education
For a variety of reasons, a number of students have found the traditional secondary-school program unsuited to their interests. In some instances, this has led to the "dropout problem" which received much public attention at various periods, particularly during the late 1950s and 1960s. Largely in response to this problem, certain kinds of alternative education were established, usually for secondary-school students in urban areas who were seeking an approach to teaching and learning different from that normally found in the larger, more traditional, schools. The fact that these alternative schools have been publicly supported for several years indicates that they have been accepted as filling an important need in Canadian education.

The Last Decades
By the 1990s, secondary schools in Canada offered a wide variety of programs designed to meet different student needs. Global world trade increased competition between countries, which has resulted in the expansion of vocational, technical and academic secondary schools in Canada.

The last few decades of the 20th century saw a greater focus on professional and management occupations in Canada that resulted in an increase in university enrolment. There are almost 1.2 million students in degree programs on Canadian campuses. This increase was the product of wider course offerings in secondary schools that led to university entrance. In some school boards, credit was given to online courses and some provinces offered fully accredited online secondary schools where instruction was available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.


Further Reading

  • George S. Tomkins, Common Countenance: Stability and Change in the Canadian Curriculum (2008); R. D. Gidney, Inventing Secondary Education: The Rise of the High School in 19th century Ontario (1990).