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March 16, 2012
For immediate release
Province Celebrates 160 Years of Free Education
Education and Early Childhood Development
This weekend marks an important celebration as we reach the 160th anniversary of free education in Prince Edward Island, says Education and Early Childhood Development Minister, Alan McIsaac.
“I am pleased to recognize this important date in our legislative history for Prince Edward Island which marks the formal creation of a free public education system in our province,” said Minister McIsaac. “It is important to remember the legacy of George Coles and the Free Education Act and to appreciate the wonderful public education system that we all enjoy today.”
When it was granted royal assent on April 3, 1852, the Free Education Act was revolutionary for Prince Edward Island, establishing itself as the first of the former British North American colonies to enable widespread access to free public education.
Before 1852, the education system was underdeveloped and there was a shortage of funding. Although it was regularly reviewed by government, the quality of education was inadequate. Teachers generally had poor wages and pay was sporadic, which often kept the finest instructors away from Island classrooms. By 1851, the public had grown unhappy with the status of education and pressed government to implement change.
Spearheading the reform movement on public education was George Coles, the Island’s first and most renowned premier. As a boy, Coles received little education but quickly rose to prominence as an affluent entrepreneur prior to entering politics.
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 in the fourth session, a year later.
On March 18, 1852, the Free Education Act was passed in the House of Assembly. The bill was quickly ratified on its third reading on April 1, 1852 and was given royal assent by the Lieutenant Governor two days later.
For the working class, the changes meant their children would no longer be scholastically disadvantaged. Teachers had job security and local taxes were used to cover the costs of construction and maintenance of Island school houses. Within two years, Island school enrollment doubled.
"The Free Education Act passed in 1852 by the Crown Colony of Prince Edward Island was in response to the strong desire of parents to provide free education to their children,” said Owen Parkhouse, President of the PEI Home and School Federation. “The significance of this act is that it meant Islanders had greater access to free education than those in Great Britain at the time. The PEI Home and School Federation applauds the vision of the parents that went before us and for the opportunities that they opened up for succeeding generations of Islanders.”
The Free Education Act was a landmark piece of legislation and distinguished Prince Edward Island as the first of the former British North American colonies and Canadian provinces to facilitate an accessible and publicly funded school system. The statute pioneered a country-wide tradition of quality public education.