How is education structured in Canada and what should you know before enrolling? Learn about the Canadian school system, from K-12 to university.
How is education structured in Canada, what do each provincial and territorial school system share and how has education in Canada changed over the years? Whether you want to explore the evolution of your own schooling or you’re thinking about enrolling in the Canadian school system, we’ve laid out all you need to know about education in Canada. Take a deep dive into the Canadian Education System, from kindergarten up to post-secondary.
A brief history of Canada’s education system
The vast geography of Canada resulted in various education systems developing at different times and in different ways. Before European settlers arrived in Canada, the Indigenous populations had their own traditional methods of transferring knowledge.
Since the arrival of English and French settlers, education in Canada went through several transitions. A complex colonial history fraught with opposing interests further contributed to the deviating developments of its education system. Here, we present a snapshot of Canada’s school system from just before its Confederation in 1867 to the present day.
The first centralized education system of Canada
In the 18th and mid-19th centuries, in what was formerly known as Upper Canada and Lower Canada, schools were often administered by religious organisations. The Catholic and Protestant populations each had their own schooling systems.
There also existed privately owned schools that can be attended for a modest fee and more expensive schools for the children of the wealthy elite. It wasn’t until 1846 that a centralized education system was proposed in order to ensure all children, no matter what their background, had access to education. But this was not a straightforward implementation.
Egerton Ryerson, the chief superintendent of education of the time and often credited with creating the public school system that is active today, drafted the bill that was later approved as the Common School Act in Upper Canada.
This bill detailed the structure of the proposed education system and its many components. Items included the training teachers would receive, how appointed superintendents would be responsible for separate school districts, and a school tax for parents to support the school system.
The bill was created in part to promote British culture in Canada, but it also served to ensure that children could access education regardless of their family’s finances. Lower Canada, which included a significant French population despite being a British colony, resisted the Common School Act and other legislations that Upper Canada attempted to implement.
Confederation of Canada and the Education System
Eventually, the Confederation in 1867 saw the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick becoming part of the Dominion of Canada. The new constitution outlined new laws that pertained to education. Notably, it took education from federal jurisdiction and gave it to individual provinces. To this day, individual provinces and territories are in charge of the education of their residents.
The rest of Canada had its own history of colonial schools based on where settlers populated and the needs of its population. For example, in British Columbia, there were a few private and colonial schools before John Jessop, the first superintendent of education, arrived in the province from Ontario. After British Columbia officially became a province of Canada in 1871, Jessop campaigned for a public school system modelled on Ryerson’s bill.
Throughout many provinces, including Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, disagreements on language and religion meant protests and amendments to the school system. Funding was a continual issue, with many resistant to the taxes required to fund the education system. The shifting of borders between provinces and territories also affected the legislation around each school system. To this day, each province’s education system remains dynamic, improving with the ever-expanding field of education studies and subject to new knowledge and political interests.
Residential schools in Canada
The public good that a centralized school system did for settlers was revealed to be a devastation for the Indigenous population of Canada. Egerton Ryerson, who wrote the bill that would be the foundation of the public school system in Canada, was also in part responsible for the Canadian Indian residential schools where Indigenous children were placed from the 1800s until 1970.
These residential schools were created to assimilate Indigenous children into the settler cultures that were predominantly Catholic or Protestant. Ryerson proposed a boarding school system where the children could learn the mannerisms of “civilized” people.
From its inception, the residential schools were premised on erasure and colonial discrimination. Its history is intrinsically tied to the history of Canada, and to this day, the horrors of what had incurred at these residential schools, including sexual abuse and murder, are being uncovered whilst survivors of these schools suffer from what they endured.
Apologies and action-based reconciliation have been implemented, but the story isn’t finished when Indigenous communities continue to face discrimination and the lingering effects of colonial imperialism. It remains to be seen how this history will be overcome and how the Canadian government and the Indigenous communities can move forward together.
Education in Canada Today
Access to public education in Canada is vital in ensuring that every child is given the opportunity to flourish and pursue careers that will not only pay well but enable them to contribute to society. It has been shown time and again that there is a correlation between education and health, wellbeing, income, equality and reduction in crime rate. In Canada, the majority of students that are school-aged attend publicly funded schools, meaning that tax-payer money goes directly to better the community.
How does the education system in Canada work?
As previously mentioned, each province and territory has their own education system. These systems individually determine the curriculums that are taught, the training teachers will go through and the qualifications that will be earned. Although there is no shortage of variations, there are some aspects of schooling and some terms that are recognized across Canada.
No matter where you live in Canada, if you are of school age (about 6 to 16), public school is free to attend. The different types of schools available to children in this age range include public, religious, private and homeschooling. Public school is funded by provincial taxes, as well as some religious schools and homeschooling.
Statistics about public education across Canada
According to the 2016 census in Canada, in the 2016/2017 school year, over 5.5 million individuals were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools (sometimes called primary, junior, junior high and high school).
Over 92% of these were in publicly funded schools, making the total number of public school students over 5 million. Of these, over 300,000 graduated in the same year. There have been deviations in these statistics throughout the years, but the numbers had remained somewhat steady in the past decade.
The school year is typically around 195 days in the year, which accounts for national and provincial holidays, although this varies from province to province. The school year usually starts in September and ends in June, although the exact dates vary from year to year and are dependent on the location.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many school boards have offered online learning in lieu of attending classrooms in person. Some schools are also considering blended learning as a way to keep students and staff safe while supporting student learning as best as possible. Find out ways that teachers and trainers can best incorporate blended learning in their classroom with this course by the University of Leeds.
K-12 in Canada
Generally speaking, the public school systems of each province covers education from kindergarten to Grade 12. This is sometimes known as K-12. Kindergarten programs are a part of early childhood education, where the age of the children attending is from birth to about age 6.
The attendance of kindergarten is optional, and the age of attendees varies depending on province or territory. Attendance in schools from Grade 1 is then compulsory until a certain age, or younger if the student obtains a diploma before this age.
All teachers on government payrolls must be qualified through recognised training and have gained the proper certifications in order to teach young people.
Standardized testing in Canada
Some provinces have standardized testing to ensure students are at a good level of literacy and understanding of math and science, but the points at which these tests are administered and the contents of these tests vary depending on where the student is a resident.
Many students also partake in national and international assessments to track student progress and to understand how Canadian students sit within the global scale.
Languages in Canadian schools
The two official languages of Canada are English and France, and the curriculums of many provinces and territories reflect this. Under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians have a right to educate their children in either French or English if it is their first language, regardless of which language is spoken by the majority.
French immersion is also available in select provinces, where half the curriculum is in English while the other is in French. This differentiates from French as first language instruction, otherwise known as Francophone schools.
In Francophone schools, all courses except for English are taught in French, with the assumption that the student’s first language is French. In French Immersion, bilingualism is encouraged, whereby some courses are taught in English and others in French. This provides the opportunity for students to be familiar and become fluent in both official languages of Canada and opens up many more doors for employability across Canada and internationally.
The territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories also officially recognize various Indigenous languages, including Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and Dene languages. These languages and the corresponding cultures around these languages are taught as a part of their curriculums.
Grades and qualifications
The grading system also varies depending on the school system, but a conversion metric is available in order to adequately compare grades. This is especially useful for students looking to pursue post-secondary education outside of their home province/territory or abroad.
There are different streams that students can take in order to earn a secondary school diploma, with requirements differing on whether they’re aiming to attend post-secondary education, complete vocational training, join the workforce or something else.
Private and homeschooling in Canada
There were close to 2,000 privately funded schools in Canada in 2018. Parents may want to put their children in private education for the sake of particular philosophies of education or else for religious reasons. Generally speaking, these schools require a large sum of tuition, ranging from $4,000 to over $60,000 per year.
These schools also fundraise through other means, including alumni donations. There are also provincial governments that contribute a modest amount towards these schools.
Every province and territory also provides the option for homeschooling, with the regulations and requirements varying depending on their individual legislations. Some funding is available to homeschooling parents in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon, although exact amounts depend on the region and districts the homeschoolers would fall under.
There are also many homeschooling support groups and communities that homeschoolers can take advantage of throughout Canada.
Post-secondary education in Canada
Post-secondary education in Canada consists of universities, colleges and educational institutes that cover a variety of educational types, including academic, vocational or professional. Different degrees, diplomas and certifications are awarded to those who complete programs at these organisations. In accordance with Canada’s many fast-growing industries, specialised training is offered in many fields for anyone interested in pursuing a career in Canada.
Universities in Canada
There are 97 universities across Canada, many of which have prestigious international recognition. For those looking to expand their knowledge on a variety of academic topics, from science to the arts, Canadian universities have a reputation of being world-class leaders in their respective fields and have consistently attracted students from around the world.
Canadian universities are financed by a mix of public funds, tuition fees, donations and other funding bodies. Both the federal and provincial governments of Canada provide bursaries and scholarships that help students pay for their education. There are also a number of other funding opportunities through Canada, some geared towards Canadian students and others directed at international students.
Three types of degrees are available from Canadian universities: Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees and Doctoral degrees. The cost of going to university varies depending on the province or territory, the course, and whether you’re eligible for Canadian fees or if you’ll be paying international fees.
The competitiveness of universities tends to depend on their ranking. The highest-ranked universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill University in Montreal, have an acceptance rate of just around 40%, although this varies depending on the course.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these universities offered virtual learning, but as more and more students become vaccinated and as infection rates decrease, universities are set to reopen, depending on local and federal restrictions.
Bachelor’s degrees in Canada
Many professional careers now require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. For those aiming for a career in academia or else to attend a professional school such as law school, medical school, a bachelor’s degree is a necessary prerequisite.
A bachelor’s degree takes 3 to 4 years to complete and is suitable for those with little to no knowledge of a given topic. They tend to cover a large amount of general information and progress towards more specialized study as students complete higher-level courses.
Entrance requirements typically include a secondary school diploma, proven reading and writing abilities as well as math and science prerequisites depending on the degree in question. Depending on the course of study, you’ll need a certain number of secondary school credits in specific subjects.
Some programmes, especially for art, film and design, require a portfolio to be submitted as a part of the application to study. Others, such as for music, dance or performance, require an audition. Depending on the programme of study and the institution, an interview for shortlisted applicants may also be a part of the application process.
Master’s degrees in Canada
Master’s degrees are ideal for those who are looking to expand their knowledge in specific fields further and to gain specialist skills and understanding of more niche topics. Some careers require a master’s degree. Even for employers where a master’s degree isn’t a requirement, it can give candidates a competitive edge.
Such degrees can take from 1 to 3 years to complete, and usually requires a relevant bachelor’s degree or work equivalent in order to be accepted. Both taught and research master’s degrees are available in different universities around Canada. Taught master’s degrees have modules that must be completed, whereas research master’s degrees are more independently led, sometimes without any modules and timetables but rather guidance from a supervisor from the department.
Master’s degrees in Canada cost a tuition fee, although many schools offer employment as teaching assistants, researchers and other academic positions to help cover the cost of tuition and living.
Doctoral Degrees in Canada
PhD’s, or doctoral degrees, are research degrees that take from 4 to 6 years to complete in Canada. Some doctoral positions are available as a part of a larger research project, for which the positions will be funded.
Other types of PhDs are open PhDs, which means students lead their own research based on the topic of their interest. Students will have supervisors who are experts in their particular fields to guide and support their research efforts.
A doctoral degree is required for certain research positions at institutions of higher education as well as those who want to teach at a university level, depending on the course. Some careers also necessitate a doctoral degree. They can also help individuals obtain research and development grants for new businesses.
Doctoral degrees also certify their recipients as specialists in their area of study, which is valuable for those who wish to have a level of authority on academic knowledge.
Colleges and vocational institutes in Canada
Besides universities, there are many other educational institutions for those looking for post-secondary education to better their careers or else expand their knowledge. These include community colleges and colleges of applied arts and technology, institutes of technology and science or career colleges.
These types of schools tend to offer shorter programs of study in more specific areas so that their graduates are job-ready upon completing their program.
The qualifications offered at colleges and institutions include diplomas and certificates that grant the recipient license to practice in their chosen field. Examples of programs include business, computer technologies, social services, trades and more. Community and art colleges, as well as science institutes, often receive some form of public funding, while career colleges rely entirely on tuition and donations. Regardless of their funding status, most of these organisations and the credentials they offer will be recognized by governing bodies, giving their recipients the right to practice their profession.
Final thoughts on the Canadian education system
Although often recognised as one of the best education systems in the world, Canada’s complex colonial past means there are still lessons to be learned and damages to be undone. Canada is continuing to grow and reconcile with its past in order to produce the best possible future for all of its residents. As a result, its school system continues to evolve in order to align with new technological developments and face hurdles.
For those who are currently enrolled in Canadian schools as well as prospective students, with some of the best schools in the world, the education system promises a rewarding experience that strives to better itself with each passing year.