During the 1840s and 50s, a series of school acts were passed in Canada West creating a province-wide framework within which a system of common school education could develop. The driving force behind the progress in the three decades before Confederation was the Rev. Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist divine who believed in a government-run system that provided a basic education for all young people, without tuition fees. As the Superintendent of Education in the province, he set up school sections at the local level, with trustees elected to put up buildings and hire teachers, and to collect the necessary local taxes to supplement government grants from the province. A local Superintendent, hired by the Trustees, supervised and reported on the teacher's efficiency, adherence to curriculum and use of approved texts.
Most young people attended for at least six or more years and left after completing a basic education in literacy, mathematics, some rudimentary science and history, as well the most important Christian principles of morality and proper behaviour. Bright children whose parents could afford it could, at some point, proceed to Grammar schools who prepared young men for further education or for training in the professions of law, medicine and the church. Young ladies from affluent families often attended private schools for young women that specialized in the arts and social graces.
In the local Common schools, however, the emphasis was on rote-learning of a set body of knowledge which had to be mastered or memorized to pass the oral examinations conducted by the local Superintendent. Discipline was reinforced by the threat of physical punishment or the use of guilt or public humiliation.
Schools were generally uncomfortable places, heated by wood stoves, poorly lighted, with few books or supplies. Much of the daily work was done on slates. Permanent notes were re-copied into "copy books" (notebooks) provided by the students, as were all other personal school supplies.
The quality of the Common school education varied as greatly as the competence of the teachers involved, but, in the decades before Confederation, there were steady improvements in the teaching profession, in the range and number of texts available - standardized texts were introduced mid-century - and in the curricula offered to the students.
Our school house at Upper Canada Village is a re-construction originally meant to represent a small local school of earlier days. It is reminiscent of the school described by Ralph Connor in the novel, Glengarry School Days. For the 1860s, it is rather old-fashioned and the local Trustees speak longingly of the days when they can afford a new modern school with all the latest amenities and equipment. They will need it, for in 1871, the province of Ontario will decide to make school compulsory for all and attendance will surely increase.