• Jared Warren

Education During the Great Depression

Although the effects of the New York stock market crash in October 1929 were not immediately felt in Ontario schools, by about 1932 the economic crisis that resulted in massive unemployment and a series of cutbacks to education began to affect how schools were run in the province. Classrooms were now crowded by drop-outs seeking to avoid unemployment, and there were fewer jobs available for new teachers. Building projects and much-needed improvements to school buildings were halted. Municipalities and local school boards were unable to collect taxes to provide funding for schools because of the financial distress among families during the Great Depression. The desperate situation created tensions between teachers and school trustees while they tried to come up with imaginative ways to teach students with fewer funds. Vocational education suffered most when provincial grants and federal contributions ceased with the expiry of the Technical Education Act.

Teachers recognized that they were in a better position in terms of earnings and job security than agricultural labourers and industrial workers during the economic crisis. Consequently, they were generally more accepting of their dramatically reduced salaries and new teacher applicants sought to underbid one another to secure employment. Rather than initiate strikes or labour unrest, teachers worked harder to maintain a positive image of education during the Depression by participating in and contributing to local relief efforts, even with less pay. In addition, the OSSTF launched a public relations campaign to promote education as a worthwhile investment for the future by initiating Education Weeks, which informed parents and ratepayers of the objectives of education in Ontario, how classes were conducted, and the need for financial support. By extension, school teachers were heavily involved in extracurricular activities to forge a relationship between the school and community.

The moderate action taken by teachers during the Great Depression enabled them to ask for favourable returns when the economy slowly began to improve after 1935, including small gains in raising salaries, securing written contracts, and earning a measure of job tenure. Meanwhile, the provincial government became increasingly aware of the need to extend larger provincial grants, as well as assume a greater share of total education costs to support communities that were evidently unable to provide enough funds for their schools in the aftermath of the Great Depression. With the aim of “guaranteeing quality of educational opportunity for all children,” the provincial government sought to finance schools so that all were on equal terms in effectiveness rather than depend on local support.

It was also during this time that the names of classes in high schools shifted from Lower, Middle, and Upper School and Forms 1 to 5 to be replaced by Grades 9 to 13. By the end of the Great Depression, Ontario high schools had become more tied with the local community, and further resembled the schools as they are today.


Theodore Michael Christou, Progressive Education: Revisioning and Reframing Ontario's Public Schools, 1919-1942 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), pp. 23-25; Robert M. Stamp, The Schools of Ontario, 1876-1976 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 143-147, 156-157, 163.