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History of Newfoundland and Labrador - Commission Government and Rural Education

Report on the efforts of Commission Government on Rural Education in Newfoundland from 1934 to 1946.

In the United States, across Canada and in Newfoundland, the same word was employed to describe the amount of unemployment, poverty, disease, and hunger there was in each country: depression. But it was totally incongruous to describe widely different conditions in the three countries. In Newfoundland depression meant hunger, real hunger; hunger that left people hungry day after day, for months, for years (Smallwood, 1973, p.194).

The effects of the New York stock market crash were not immediately felt in Newfoundland. But when the blow of the depression fell, it was devastating. By early 1932, the government of Newfoundland was faced with the probability of defaulting on a loans repayment. Starvation was a real possibility for many. On April 4, 1932 violence erupted. An angry mob marched on the Colonial Building, smashing windows and doors. Prime Minister Squires barely managed to escape with his life before demonstrators stormed the building destroying everything in sight. A few days later the House of Assembly was dissolved and an election called. Squires' Liberal party was soundly defeated. Alderdice became the new prime minister.

Efforts to get Newfoundland out of the depression did not meet with success. Alderdice, then, turned to a solution he had suggested during the 1932 campaign. This solution was government by commission. In 1933, the government of Mr. Alderdice, along with the government of the United Kingdom and Canada set up a Royal Commission to look into the future of Newfoundland. The Commission, headed by Lord Amulree, recommended "the country should be given a rest from politics for a period of years" and that "government by commission" be established until the island became "self-supporting" again. Except for the weak opposition of Gordon Bradley and Roland Starkes, the scheme was endorsed unanimously by the members of the Newfoundland Assembly. On February 16, 1934, Alderdice signed the documents that suspended Newfoundland's dominion status. Newfoundland returned once again to rule by appointed non-responsible government officials.

The immediate objective of the new government was to "rescue the country from the peril of collapse which now threatens to overwhelm it, to check the process of deterioration, to instill new heart and confidence in the people and to bring about conditions in which, provided they do their part, they will be assured at least of earning a livelihood" (Royal Commission Report, 1933, p.221). The most important task the Commission set for itself was to improve "substantially the general level of education in this island" (Press Communique, 1935, p.2).

The focus of this report is the outline of the educational policies of the Commission of Government, with particular reference to those that impacted on rural schools in Newfoundland. I have chosen to review the time period of 1934 to 1946, because it was during this time that the Commission was exclusively responsible for government in Newfoundland. The election of the National Convention in 1946 signalled the beginning of the return of Newfoundland to self-government.

Official Commission Government Policies on Education

Royal Commission Report

The report of the Royal Commission of 1933 did not deal extensively with the subject of Education. In section 577 it said that arrangements had been made by the Government for an "educationalist of repute and experience to visit Newfoundland and advise upon the present training given in the schools" (Royal Commission, 1935, Sect. 577).

Richardson Report

On October 18, 1935, a report entitled "Educational Report by Mr. Richardson" was completed. Richardson's report stressed the importance of treating the child as an individual and modifying the curriculum to make the very best of each child's abilities. He expressed alarm at the great influence of public examinations on the entire system. Richardson concluded that the Newfoundland Curriculum was artificial and unrelated to either the child's experiences or needs. He noted that in "St. John's, as distinct from the outports, some attempt is being made to develop a certain amount of work on practical lines" (Richardson, 1933, p.8).

In section IV of his report, Richardson made suggestions for future changes in curriculum. In particular, he advocated an individualized method of instruction. This method he felt to be especially useful in the outport schools of Newfoundland which he described as "being in charge of a single teacher, isolated from one another, often at considerable distances from centres of population and with difficult communications" (Richardson, 1933, p.9).

Commission of Enquiry into the Present Curriculum

At the same time that the Richardson report was completed a Commission of Enquiry into the Present Curriculum of the colleges and schools was established. The report contained a number of major recommendations that were later implemented by the Commission Government. The report attempted to deal with the problem of one teacher schools by limiting the number of grades being taught, to eight, divided into three levels - primary, intermediate and advanced.

The Commission advocated the idea of primary education by correspondence. Australia had successfully implemented such a program to educate children in sparsely populated areas, much like those found in Newfoundland. Educational broadcasting by radio was considered another way of providing education to rural areas.

The Commission also recommended that a committee be appointed to draw up curriculum for Grades I to VII and then for Grades IX to XII. In the interests of lower grades, the Commission recommended that one-teacher schools not be involved in the preparation of candidates for Grade XI examination.

Finally, the Commission recommended that a sufficient number of supervisors be employed and reside in areas outside St. John's.

Curriculum Committee

Richardson's report and the report of the curriculum Commission led to the formation of a curriculum committee. In addition to this, other committees were set up to look at special subjects. The membership of these committees were limited to educators from St. John's, Grand Falls, Corner Brook, and "other important places outside the city of St. John's" (Hickman, 1941, p.56). By 1937, all schools in Newfoundland were using the "new curriculum."

Council of Higher Education

At this time, the committee recommended a revision of the Council of Higher Education (CHE). Incorporated in 1893, the council had conducted examinations in Grade 6 to Grade XII. In 1937 the Council gave examinations in only two grades - Grade VIII and Grade XI. The papers for the Grade VIII exam were set and examined in Newfoundland. The Grade XI exams were conducted by the Common Examining Board of the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland.

The abolishing of the CHE exams in all but two grades did not go unchallenged. After only 46% of candidates who wrote Grade XI exams in 1940 passed, the Teachers Association petitioned the CHE to restore the Grade X examinations. Some educators saw this as a mistake. "The pupils work towards an immediate goal, whereas without the examination, they persevered to reach the goal. An immediate goal tends to make pupils 'short sighted,' and this is not desirable in Newfoundland today where all progress is based on a long term policy of reconstruction" (Hickman, 1941, p.53). The reform of the CHE also included the elimination of Grade XII.

Supervision

During the year 1935, the Commission appointed supervisors with an average salary of $2000. In the fall of that year, the supervisors carried out a general survey of educational conditions in Newfoundland. The function of the supervisor also included supervising schools and school-room activities; organizing Teachers' Study Groups and Reading Circles; and meeting with teachers, school boards and parents.

The job of the supervisors was, to say the least, difficult. Geography and demography dictated the conditions under which they worked. There was a great deal of hardship involved in travelling from one isolated community to another. Consider the case of Chesley Carter who served the area from Garnish to Channel. Since the coves and harbours were so small, he often used an open dory to do his visits. He wrote "one is more or less at the mercy of the skipper and crew. If they get in a port where they have friends and feel like spending the night there, nothing can be done about it however urgently one may need to get further" (cited in Smith, 1976). Carter was also hampered in his work by the extreme poverty he found in Newfoundland outports. He wrote to Shaw: "This section of the coast has a very low standard of living and at the present time over seventy-five percent of the people are supported by dole. On my last trip I was forced to subsist day after day on bread and tea along" (cited in Smith, 1967).

Another supervisor, Ralph Andrews, reported similar conditions in rural Newfoundland schools in 1935. One school at Upper Island Cove had 247 students in three classes.

Of these 148 were in Grade 1 and under. These were in an L-shaped room which was never meant to be used for school purposes. The teacher in the room was a man who had no knowledge of methods or child psychology and even if he had a Ph.D. in Education it is doubtful if he could have handled a situation which could be described as chaotic. The low attendance (average 81 daily) in this school was in part the result of a lack of suitable clothing, or any clothing. It was alleged that at the time, with the exception of the merchants (two) the clergyman, the policeman and the teachers every family in Upper Island Cove was in receipt of government assistance (on the dole) during the winter months. Furthermore coal was not supplied to be able-bodied and wood was unobtainable anywhere near the community (Andrews, 1985, p.215).

In January 1936 a Supervisors' Conference was held in St. John's. The purpose of the meeting was to consolidate the information collected by the supervisors. Between October 1 and December 15, the ten supervisors had visited 1153 classrooms staffed by 1209 teachers (Andrews, 1985, p.222). The survey did not include the schools on the Northern Peninsula or in the City of St. John's.

The situation in Newfoundland schools did indeed look bleak. Only fifty percent of students were adequately supplied with textbooks. Eight five percent of the schools visited did not have a single reference book. Very few settlements had a library. The physical conditions of most schools was also poor. Only 40 percent of the classrooms had desks that were satisfactory. The school grounds were for the most part rocky or boggy, with little space for games or outdoor exercises. One of the survey tables showed that of the 873 schools visited only 260 had toilets in reasonably satisfactory condition. This table also indicated that 25 community schools had no teacher and 65 communities had no school.

The survey also found that the teachers were unprepared for education. Only 89 of the 1209 teachers had any university training. While there were some teachers with normal school or summer school training 344 had no training at all.

The supervisors survey was without precedent in the history in Newfoundland. "Never before had information, collected on a current basis, been correlated and presented to Government in this form, and there is no doubt that it had a very considerable impact on the members of the Commission" (Andrews, 1985, p.224).

Book Bureau

Some projects were undertaken to alleviate the problems identified in the supervisors' survey of 1935. In 1936, the Department of Education established the Book Bureau. $55,000 was appropriated towards the expense of providing the textbooks required for the implementation of the New Curriculum. All elementary students received new readers. Sets of books for Health, English and Arithmetic were provided for the use of teachers.

Correspondence Courses and the School on Wheels

In 1939 the Department of Education organized a Correspondence Division to educate children living in small isolated communities without schools. The Courses, ranging from Grade I to Grave VIII, were designed by the Nova Scotia Technical College. Miss Chant, at the Department of Education, sent the lessons to the children who returned them by post for evaluation. "The lessons sent in by these little people, many of whom have never seen a school or a teacher are very commendable" (Annual Report, 1939). Approximately two hundred students enrolled in correspondence courses in 1940. The service was extended by supplying itinerant teachers who supervised the work of the children in several communities within travelling distances.

Borrowing an idea from Ontario, the Department of Education introduced in 1936 what was known as the "School Car." The Anglo Newfoundland Development Company donated a rail coach, and the Newfoundland Railway converted the car into a school. The railway was responsible for maintenance costs while the Department supplied a teacher, curriculum materials and equipment. The teacher, Mr. Moores, followed the course outlined for correspondence studies. As well, the care was supplied with books from the Travelling Library.

A description of the "School on Wheels" is given by B.L. Bishop (1941). "A very well fitted private care, owned at one time by one of the lumber companies, was converted into a school room similar to those in use in Northern Ontario. It will seat twenty pupils. In addition there are living quarters for the teacher. These quarters include a kitchenette, combined dining and sitting room and berth for sleeping." (Bishop, 19 ).

The rail car, named Shanawadithit, travelled along the railway from 1936 to 1942. From spring to fall, spending two or three weeks at a time, the car stopped in places such as Placentia Junction, Arnolds' Cove, Walsh's Camp, Cobb's Camp, Rushy Pond, Buchans Junction, Gaff Topsail, Spruce Book and Codroy Pond.

In the year 1939 the Travelling School serviced five communities and approximately 45 children. The 1939 annual report of the Commission noted:

the progress made by the children attending has, in many cases, been remarkable. A few who attended during the school year ending in June last have during the current year, moved with their parents to centres operating regular schools and are reported as having secured the necessary ground-work to enable them to carry on their present school work successfully (Annual Report, 1939, p.41).

In January 1940 a second teacher was appointed to the

"School on Wheels".

While the school met with some success, it was eventually discontinued in 1941. A.R. Penney (1990) gives an increased war effort as the reason for discontinuing the service. The 1943 annual report of the Department of Education cites somewhat different reasons. The establishment of regular schools in some of the serviced settlements coupled with a lack of understanding and appreciation on the part of the adults concerned, led to decreased enrolment in the school car. The number of students benefitting from the car was so low "it was deemed advisable to discontinue this particular branch of the Correspondence Work in 1941" (Dept. of Ed., 1943, p.22).

Adult Education

Efforts to improve adult education had begun in Newfoundland before the advent of Commission government. In 1929, the visit of Dr. Albert Mansbridge, President of the World Wide Association, led to the formation of the Newfoundland Adult Education Association. A memorandum to the Carnegie Corporation in 1926, outlining the "problem of supplying educational advantages to a small population distributed over such a large territory" resulted in a grant of $5000 that was used for Adult Education and a Travelling Library. In 1936, the Adult Education Association became a branch of the Department of Education, under the supervision of Vincent P. Burke. The work of the Association was continued during Commission Government but now in a systematized fashion.

The Travelling Library

The Travelling Library had despatched its first box of books in 1928. That year it delivered 154 boxes of books, representing 5000 volumes of literature. In the 1933 Royal Commission Report, the Commission expressed the desire to extend the service of the "travelling subscription libraries." The annual report of the Dept. of Education for 1945 showed that the Travelling Library was still receiving support. Furthermore, of the forty-four thousand four hundred and sixty volumes in circulation, seven thousand two hundred seventy four were children's books - 16% of the total number. The Department of Education also assisted in the distribution of the books. Each supervisor was responsible for distributing books to the neediest schools in his district.

Opportunity Schools

Another project enabled by the Carnegie Corporation was the establishment of Opportunity Schools in Newfoundland. These were continued during Commission Government, and extended to many areas in Newfoundland. Unlike night school, Opportunity Schools were not conducted along day-school lines. The setting and atmosphere had an adult orientation and employed teachers who had been trained in adult methods at Clemson College, South Carolina.

Requests for Adult Education services were numerous. In an effort to serve as many people as possible the year was divided into terms - one long term before Christmas, one long term and a shorter one after Christmas. "The teachers put in the term in one settlement and then move on to another" (Hickman, 1941, p.76).

The Adult Education movement expanded to include courses in Music, Navigation, Household Management, Cooking, Sewing and Knitting. A Summer School for adult education began in July 1938. At the first session there were 15 students enrolled including some from very isolated areas. They apparently took a great interest in weaving, and when they returned home taught the art in their settlements.

The 1939 Annual Report gave an indication of the progress that was made in Adult Education. From 1934 to 1939 the number of centres increased from 22 to 38. The total attendance at the Centres went from 1588 to 2762 during that time. The permanent field staff of six teachers in 1932 increased to seventeen in 1938. By 1942 "there had been adult schools in over 200 centres and they were attended by over 20,000 students in every district in the country" (Annual report, 1942, p. ).

Education through Radio and Film

The Newfoundland Adult Education Association promoted the use of educational broadcasts as part of its program. Station VOGY, a station of the Dominion Broadcasting Company of Newfoundland, broadcast courses in such topics as Newfoundland history.

Leaders of the various denominations as well as teachers gave series of lectures. The lectures included such subjects as "Citizenship", "The Royal Commission Report," "The Mobility of Motherhood," "The Art of Knowing Oneself," etc. These adult broadcasts were received enthusiastically all over Newfoundland. In several places the only radio was in the village store. People gathered there to listen. It was generally understood that anyone with a radio would listen to the broadcast. Consideration was even given to the idea of providing radios to the communities.

The Department of Education was eager to offer the benefits of radio broadcasts to the schools. Educational radio programmes were common in many countries and had met with great success. The 1940 Annual Report advanced the idea of using radio broadcasts in isolated communities. At the same time, there was some discussion using films.

The influence of the film in the field of Education will in time become very great. It will fit into a system which opens the doors of the classroom to the world of actuality outside. There will come a time when teachers will become primarily intermediaries between their pupils and the world outside (Annual Report, 1940, p.25).

Efforts to introduce radio and film to schools was not successful as a result of lack of equipment such as "receiving apparatus" and a somewhat rigid curriculum. However, the Department did continue to give evening broadcasts to teachers. Thirty programmes for teachers were broadcast in 1940 through the cooperation of the Department of Education, Memorial University College and the Newfoundland Teachers Association.

Cooperation with the Department of Health

In 1938 the Statistical Report of the Department of Education outlined the development of healthy citizens as one of the primary concerns of the school. To achieve this goal, the Departments of Education and Public Health and Welfare cooperated closely. One of the first duties of the Health Department was the examination of students in the Teacher Training Classes, both in College Courses and Summer School. This was followed up with advice and suggestions to the teachers.

The Departments provided nourishment to the schools in the form of cocoa and cocoamalt. The expenditure for this service appeared justifiable. "Improved health, efficiency and happiness, larger enrolments, more regular attendance, and greater interests on the part of parents are quickly noticeable whenever this fine service is being rendered" (Annual Report, 1939, p.22). Physical education was promoted as part of the regular health curriculum, in the schools as well as through the Teacher Training Classes and Summer school.

To facilitate the work of the Departments of Education and Health in their health programme, officials organized a Newfoundland Branch of the Junior Red Cross. The government secured the services of a successful organizer Miss Herbert from Canada to visit the schools during the fall of 1936. By 1940 there were 1167 branches of the Junior Red Cross in Newfoundland.

Compulsory Education

One of the greatest problems in education facing the Commission government was the fact that a large percentage of children in the country did not attend school. The Commission of Enquiry into the Curriculum (1935, p.17) recommended that school boards be responsible for by-laws making school attendance compulsory in their own districts. In the Statistical Report of the Bureau of Education the call was again for free, compulsory education. "The idea underlying free education is not charity, paternalism nor socialism but rather that Government, the state, general welfare will suffer if the child is not educated." (Statistical Report, 1935, p.8).

Compulsory education was opposed largely on the grounds that enforcement of it would have been expensive. Curtis, a Methodist minister, wrote in 1903: "The difficulty is that to do it thoroughly and effectively, the machinery must be expensive, on account of the large extent of coastline to be covered for so few people." (cited in Rowe, 1952).

The difficulties noted by Curtis still remained in 1941, but at a meeting of the Commission of Government on December 29, 1941 it was agreed to accept a policy of free and compulsory education in Newfoundland. The necessary legislation was passed and became effective on September 1, 1942. Furthermore a grant of $125,000 was given to Boards of Education in lieu of fees, and as assistance to sparsely populated areas. "While no one pretended that the Act was fully observed in the years following, yet the statistics show that it did have an immediate effect all over the country." (Rowe, 1952, p.70).

Teacher Training

The Commission of Enquiry into the Curriculum (1934) stressed the importance of well trained and efficient teachers in any system of education. Until its closure in 1932 a Normal School provided training for most teachers in Newfoundland. With Commission of Government, a teacher-training department was added to Memorial University. Admission standards were raised to equal those of the university. Lower grade teachers attended summer schools. As well, study groups and reading circles, organized by the supervisors, assisted teachers especially those in remote areas. And as mentioned before, weekly radio broadcasts provided a means for teacher training.

Denominational Education

On August 10,1934 Thomas Lodge was appointed acting Commissioner for education in place of Alderdice who was ill. Lodge was eager to effect some changes in the education system. In a memo to his colleagues, Lodge indicated that education was the most important question facing the Commission. He was appalled at the low cultural level and complete ignorance of the Newfoundland people. He admitted there were problems associated with educating people who lived isolated on an enormous coastline. However, these difficulties had been overcome in Norway where the physical and economic conditions were just as difficult. To remove the barriers to education in Newfoundland meant both compulsory education and a departure from the denominational system.

The denominational system had been largely ignored in the Amulree Report. However, as noted by Fenwick (1984), the subject had been raised by those interviewed. A minister from Moreton's Harbour pointed to three school boards in his community. The denominational system was attacked for duplication. In one case, there were 14 schools in an area that served 4000 people.(p.)

Lodge made plans to amend the Education Act of 1927. He soon clashed with Archbishop Roche of the Catholic Church and Bishop White of the Church of England. The more formidable opponent was Bishop Roche, who threatened to have the proposed legislation denounced from the pulpit and to prevent Newfoundland Catholics from taking part in the King's Silver Jubilee Celebrations of 1935. The legislation passed in 1935 amending the Education Act was a compromise between Church and State. Up to this time, the Board of Education had functioned through superintendents representing three denominations. The Commission now appointed, instead, an Advisory Committee that had a Chairman and six members, two each from the Roman Catholic, Church of England and United Churches. The Advisory Committee was a channel of communication between the Commissioner of Education and the heads of the religious denominations. "This acknowledged the denominational principle while permitting greater administrative efficiency and more government control"

(Neary, 1988, p.57).

The issue of denominationalism was still not over. Another attempt in 1937 to amend the Education Act met with further resistance. Bishop Roche questioned the representation of the Catholic Church in the Department of Education. He felt that there should be a Catholic official at the Administrative level. It was clear that the Advisory Committee had very little authority. Bishop Roche also expressed concern with the appointment of teachers to Catholic schools. Several religious denominations tabled letters before the Commission. Bishop Roche again attacked the amendments to the Education Act in 1935. He felt the policies were vague, contradictory and indefinite. He was willing to work with the Commission to provide for more efficient educational services but only within the framework of the Education Act of 1927. Letters from the Bishop of Newfoundland and President of the United Church reiterated the sentiments of Bishop Roche. The Bishop of Newfoundland wrote: "The question we have to consider is whether we should be justified in becoming a party to the abandonment of the present Education Act in favour of new legislation..." (cited in Andrews, 1968, p.243).

Amidst rumours of inefficiency in the Department of Education, the Dominion Office advised the Commission not to proceed with the proposed changes.

A year later, on February 18, 1939, the Commissioner of Home Affairs submitted a draft of the Education Act of 1939. The legislation had two main effects. Three Executive Officers represented the denominations at the department level. A Council of Education was the authority for all educational policies. The Three Executive Officers were members of the Council of Education. In effect, this made the position of the Churches in education stronger than at any other time in Newfoundland history.

Conclusion

When the Commission Government assumed power in Newfoundland in 1934, it immediately recognized the need for improvement in education. The Commission also recognized the "physical difficulties in educating a people living in isolation on an enormous coastline" (Press Communique, 1935, p.2). Inspired by the educational achievements of other countries, the Commission was optimistic that it could improve the level of education in Newfoundland. A press release of 1935 stated : "Whatever the difficulties Commission of Government will fail its task, and will deserve to fail, if it cannot raise very substantially the general level of education" (Press Communique, 1935, p.2).

As prosperity returned to Newfoundland the Commission was able to carry out some of the educational reforms envisaged in 1935. It changed the curriculum, and made textbooks and school supplies available. Schools received cocoa in an attempt to improve the health of students. The government increased grants to school boards, as well as teacher salaries. It created a Teacher Training Department at Memorial College, and offered a summer school programme to teachers who could not attend during the year. Correspondence courses, the Travelling Library, the School Car and radio broadcasts increased educational opportunities for teachers and students in remote areas.

The Report of the Committee on Education, presented at the National Convention in 1946, expressed satisfaction with the efforts of the Commission Government. It stated: "We feel that the Department of Education has done and is doing a remarkably good job. We are deeply impressed by their sincerity and devotion to the cause of education in Newfoundland... It is apparent that education has made and is making very real progress in Newfoundland" (Report to the National Convention, 1946, p. R100).

It appears, though, that much of the improvement in education was visible only in the larger centres of Newfoundland. Not much had changed in rural education. The Book of Newfoundland gives a rather scathing account of the Commission's efforts. Smallwood writes:

"...apart from St. John's, Grand Falls, Corner Brook and perhaps a dozen other larger centres of population, there was no essential difference between the type of education enjoyed by children at all levels and that which had been available seventy years before. The schools were small, ranging from one up to six or seven classrooms. They were wooden buildings, primitive in construction and appearance, heated by wood or coal stoves, improperly ventilated, lacking auditorium, gymnasium, library and laboratory facilities. Most of them lacked running water either for drinking or sanitation, the only concession to the latter being decrepit and obnoxious outhouses. Vast stretches of the Province lacked electricity and where lighting was provided kerosene was the medium. In the smaller of the schools teachers generally lacked training, apart perhaps from what training they might have got in one or two summer sessions at St. John's. Even in the larger schools the majority of the teachers had not spent more than one year at University. Out of the 2,375 teachers in 1949 only fifty-seven had degrees and these, of course, were for the most part in St. John's and the larger centres. School transportation as such was non-existent. Out of 1187 schools 778 were "sole-charge," that is, one-room schools, and of these 778 teachers over 700 had not spent even one year at University. The median salary to teachers in 1948 was $981" (Smallwood, 1967, p.114).

It appears that Commission Government made a concerted effort to improve education in Newfoundland. Maybe the challenge was too immense. Fred Rowe aptly summarizes the obstacles that probably defeated the good intentions of the Commission Government. He wrote:

The real enemies to an efficient education system in Newfoundland appear to be the same as existed a century ago-isolation, small villages and hamlets, dependence on a precarious occupation, and the general poverty of the Province.... Changes, to be really effective among a people whose philosophy and outlook have been so peculiarly nurtured and moulded by centuries of history, economics, and geography, must be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, especially where such changes are likely to impinge upon religious scruples or prejudices (Rowe, 1951, p.140).

(References for this Article are Available Upon Request)

The School Car - An Initiative of Commission Government

School in a One Room Schoolhouse

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