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History of the Education Movement in the Colony

The pre-1852 education system in Prince Edward Island was plagued by underdevelopment and a shortage of funding. Although it was regularly reviewed by government, the quality of the scholastic experience was inadequate. In fact, prior to the 1852 legislation, “…only two-thirds of the school houses in Queen’s County, the most populous and prosperous of the three Island counties, had ever been in operation at the same time."¹ At the heart of the matter rested financial concerns. Poor wages and sporadic pay often accompanied teaching positions, acting as a hindrance and frequently deterring the finest instructors from teaching in Island classrooms. The result was that by 1851, the public had grown disenchanted with the status of education in the colony and pressed government to implement positive reforms.

Spearheading the reform movement on public education was George Coles, the Island’s first Premier.  As a boy, Coles received little education but quickly rose to prominence as an affluent entrepreneur and brewer prior to entering the political arena.² Coles' educational activism was not only motivated by his drive to revitalize the system of education, as the public requested, but also by his ambition to tackle the land tenure question. More specifically, Coles sought to improve the arguably exploitative relationship between land owners and tenants, whereby illiterate tenants were typically forced into binding contractual leasing agreements, the details of which they could not possibly understand.        

Following the appointment of the Special Committee on Free Education in the Third Session of the Eighteenth General Assembly in 1851, the public rallied behind the cause and submitted an astonishing 53 petitions in support during the Fourth Session, a year later.

While free public education was supported by the overwhelming majority of the Island population, a small minority raised concerns over the program, particularly James Yeo Sr, William Douse and Tory leader Edward Palmer. In later January and February 1852, the House of Assembly received three petitions which did not support further taxation to fund a new school system.

Nevertheless, on March 18, 1852, the Free Education Act was passed in the House of Assembly by a tally of 16 in favour and 3 against. The bill was quickly ratified by Prince Edward Island’s upper house, the Legislative Council, on April 1, 1852 and was given royal assent by the Lieutenant Governor two days later.

For the impoverished working classes, the changes meant that their children would no longer be scholastically disadvantaged and enhanced the possibility for upwards social mobility. Financially, the flaws of the old system had been addressed. With wages now the responsibility of the colonial treasury, teachers had job security and local taxes were used to cover the costs of construction and maintenance of Island school houses.The result was that within two years, Island school enrollment doubled.³

¹ Ian Ross Robertson. “Reform, Literacy and the Lease: The Prince Edward Island Free Education Act of 1852.” Acadiensis. 20.1 (Autumn 1990) 56.

² “George Coles: Premiers Gallery.” Government of Prince Edward Island. Web. (17 Jan, 2011)

³ Ian Ross Robertson. “Reform, Literacy and the Lease: The Prince Edward Island Free Education Act of 1852.” Acadiensis. 20.1 (Autumn 1990) 56.

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