Adult Nightschool Celebrates 150th Anniversary · 5 November 2005, 22:12 by Chris Glover

Did you get your Learn for Life course calendar in the mail recently?

If you did and if you decide to sign up for an adult night course or a senior’s day course at a Toronto public school, you’ll be taking part in a Toronto tradition that dates back 150 years.

In October of 1855, Toronto Public Schools opened adult night courses for the first time. The school board itself was only eight years old and had just built some of its first school buildings – space had been rented before. Since they owned the buildings, and there were a lot of adults in Toronto who wanted to upgrade their skills, Toronto Trustees decided to run a night school program.

The program got off to a rocky start. Adult night school almost choked on its own success the first year. The Board had only three teachers, but 260 students, aged 15-21, signed up to study “spelling, writing, dictation, geography, natural philosophy, English grammar and arithmetic.” Many of the students had never attended school, and many could not read or write. Only 56 students stuck it out through that first winter, but by the next year many of the problems were sorted out and the program began to grow steadily.

Over the past century and a half, the adult night school program has waxed and waned as governments invested in the program, or pulled financial support depending on whether their mandate was fiscal constraint or investing in education. In 1860, the program was cancelled, but then the arguments for having an educated populace won out and the Board invested the hefty sum of $3000 per year to reopen the program in 1880. Then, as now, there was strong demand for adult education courses, and 1292 students showed up that first day in 1880.

The last 20 years of that century were marked by a couple of firsts. In 1885, at the request of the Massey Manufacturing Co. (of Massey Hall fame), asked the School Board to offer courses in its factory. It was the first time courses had been offered outside of the school houses, and started a trend that saw courses offered in dozens of community centres and workplaces a century later.

Ontario Normal School of Domestic Science and Arts

Another first came in the 1880s when Toronto was experiencing its first large wave of non-English speaking immigrants. It became clear by 1887 that there was a need to start an evening class, “for the purpose of teaching the English language to the Italian population of the city.” Today, the Toronto District School Board’s adult English as a Second Language (ESL) program has grown to the point where it has its own course calendar that welcomes students in 42 languages.

In the early 1900s there was a great need for technical education, industrial arts for boys and home economics for girls. In 1915, Central Technical School, on Bathurst Street south of Bloor, was built at the cost of $1 000 000 – an enormous investment at a time when most workers made $1 a day. One historian boasts that “it was at the time, the finest technical school in the world.” Night school classes have been an important feature of the school ever since, and it is still the Toronto Board’s largest night school site. In this, it’s 90th year, it will be offering 96 General Interest courses on everything from Adobe Photoshop, Bicycle Repair and Cooking, all the way to Woodworking and Yoga.

The Class of Then

During World War II, the distinction between youth day school and adult night school classes became blurred. Canada needed young people with technical training, so Toronto’s technical high schools ran in three shifts. Toronto’s public schools provided technical education to 30 000 civilians, army, air force and navy personnel.

Adult education went through an incredible growth spurt starting in the 1960s when an average of only 4% of adults would take courses each year. By the mid-1990s 35% of adults in Toronto were taking at least one course each year, and another 20% wanted courses that they could not find.

Gerard Kennedy, Ontario’s current Minister of Education, says that education is “the unleashing of human potential”. In the mid-1990s, our adult public school programs were helping 300 000 Torontonians pursue their interests, ambitions and dreams each year.

Unfortunately then the rug was pulled out from under the program. After their election in 1995, the former Conservative government cut funding for Adult Education programs. In 2003, the Conservative Supervisor attempted to cancel the program all together. Citizens, led by a group of determined seniors called Citizens for Lifelong Learning, fought to save the program, and eventually forced the Supervisor to back down.

Now, the Board is trying to rebuild adult programs across the city and you can help. As your Trustee in Trinity-Spadina, I have taken a special interest in rebuilding the adult programs in our ward. I want to know what we can do to offer the courses that you want where they are accessible to you. Please help by filling out our questionnaire at our website

Also, the new Liberal government has still not reinstated the funding for adult programs that was cut. Send a message to Gerard Kennedy urging him to reinstate the funding. Tell him that it’s not only the youth of this city whose potential should be unleashed. Gerard can be reached at: (416) 325-2929


If you didn’t get your course calendar in the mail, pick one up at any local public school or library, or sign up online at