Prior to 1815, the education of the children was left to the parents. If the family was of the Upper Class, then the children often got a very good education with many of them being sent back to England to live with relatives while they were polished off with a study of the "classics"; then, usually, to return to Nova Scotia to assume a comfortable position with government or the church.
With the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and with the vision of the terror of The French Revolution still freshly in their heads, the well-to-do, everywhere, were alarmed that their privileges and possessions would be reduced; indeed, maybe eliminated. Religion, however, could be made to come to their rescue. It was best for the existing social order to keep a lively Sense of Religion upon the minds of those to be controlled or governed.1 The goal thus became to educate the masses and fit them to a religious way of life.2 And so it was, that the job of education in these early days fell to the Anglican Church being the only tolerable religion in Nova Scotia during the early part of the 19th century.
We might now give a general synopsis of the development of the public school system, at least in Halifax, as was set out in an article by Robin H. Wyllie:
"In Halifax, Captain Walter Henry Bromley, who followed the Lancaster monitorial system, first established his Royal Acadian School for poor children in the old Theatre Royal in 1813. By 1820, he had new premises on Argyle Street, with a huge 30 X 75 foot schoolroom for his 150 pupils. The Church of England, which favoured the Madras System, built its three-and-a-half-story National School opposite the Grand Parade in 1816. In 1824, it housed 280 pupils in two large schoolrooms on the second and third levels. The Catholic school, built in 1820, housed 270 pupils. All of these schools received provincial grants towards the cost of their construction, as well as more-or-less regular annual grants of £100 towards current expenses."3We see where in 1817 there was a Mr. Thomas Crosskill who kept
"a good school for young men in rear of the Acadian School, entrance from Barrington Street; his classes were more advanced than those of Mr. Bromley. Mr. Addison kept his classical academy in Marchington's Lane. There were several schools for young girls. Miss Wenman kept a school for small children in Granville Street ... Mrs. Henry in Barrington Street and Mrs. McCage, for young ladies, also in Barrington Street, in the brick house lately the property of Mrs. Doctor Slayter."4In the early days there would be a public examination, such as was carried out at the Halifax grammar school on Friday, June 24th, 1794: "The governor, general Ogilvie, the bishop, chief justice, trustees of the school, and many other gentlemen, attended. Greek, Latin, rhetoric, geography, &c., are named, and delivery of orations, &c."5
Captain Moorsom observed in 1829:
"Halifax possesses a grammar-school, which is assisted by a yearly allowance from the public revenue; a large school on the National, and one on the Lancastrian system; a school for the children of Roman Catholics, and several smaller private schools."6The educational system, such as was observed by Captain Moorsom, continued to run along as a charitable and private matter; the results of it were dismal. The census7 of 1861 showed, as follows:
"Within a population of 300,000 over the age of five years, there were 81,000 who could not read, this being more than one-quarter of the entire population of the province. Of 83,000 children between the ages of five and fifteen, there were more than 36,000 who could not read. The number of children attending school was only 31,000, so that there were in the province in that year 52,000 children growing up without any educational training whatever.8By the Free School Act of 1864 there was a guarantee that "all common schools shall be free to all children residing in the section in which they are established."9 Thus the principle was established in 1864 that the state owes to its children such an education as may enable them to read, if nothing else, the laws which they are to obey. It is represented that it was in 1864, of all the Canadian provinces, that the first public education system came into being in Nova Scotia.9
The costs established by the passing of the 1864 act in respect to education was to be covered by a general assessment.
"Thenceforth ... the amount required for the salaries of teachers was to be procured from the people by voluntary subscription or assessment, and not by fees per pupil. This free school legislation was the first great public achievement of Dr Charles Tupper."10There could not have been any serious objection that children should be educated, the problem was that certain people were statutorily obliged to pay for the education of other peoples' children. "Direct taxation was a term thoroughly detested by many Nova Scotians. [So too,] it was a matter of common knowledge that the Roman Catholics preferred separate schools. This was the formidable objection to any free school system based on taxation."11 In certain areas the objection was so serious that school houses were burnt down in protest.12
After the fracas died down the most worthwhile aspects of the new Education Act was that there was a large increase in school attendance and a tremendous increase in building activity. "Between 1864 and 1868, school attendance in the province doubled and by 1869, some 760 schoolhouses were reported to have been built under the Education Act."13
The provincial authority, incidentally, provided to the school districts a standard set of schoolhouse plans. The plans called for a single-story structure, this style being "an advantage in heating, ventilation, and in keeping discipline." Each school district, however, was still free to provide its own style of building, but the plans provided by the central authority laid down the minimal requirements.14
It is important to note that the Free School Act of 1864 did not introduce local taxation; it guaranteed financial support from the government of Nova Scotia to school districts which instituted compulsory assessment. The concerns of the Catholics were addressed in 1865 by allowing provincial support would be given to separate schools (Catholic schools), so long as these schools followed the prescribed course of study. There was to be no objection by government if the Catholic-run schools offered religious instruction after hours. This approach helped to promote religious harmony.