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Explore: The Canadian education system by province and territory

The Canadian education system is ranked one of the highest in the world, we explore how it works in each province and territory.

Over half of adults in Canada have earned some form of higher education qualification. This is owed to Canada’s comprehensive public education system, which offers free, inclusive education for all. More than 90% of Canadian children learn in the public education system, but the specifics of what they learn and how they’re taught differentiate depending on where in Canada they live.

Canada’s education system is divided between its provinces and territories, with each government or jurisdiction responsible for the funding, organisation and curriculums of their public schools. 

This means there are thirteen different public school systems which provide free education to Canadians across the country, from kindergarten to grade 12 (also referred to as K-12). Find out about each province and territory’s education system, what’s unique about them and what they share with the rest of Canada.

Canadian public education by province or territory, at a glance

While public education finds similarities throughout Canada, its details vary, which means a different learning experience and timescales for students. This is due to a complex and often contested cultural history leading to Canada as we know it today. 

With each province and territory developing in different ways throughout its history, its education also developed in different directions. Here are some facts and statistics about education in each province and territory, listed by population, as well as unique aspects of each education system.

Education in Ontario

Ontario is the most populous province in Canada, and its school system is led by Ontario’s Ministry of Education. The Ministry is subdivided by districts, and each district has four school boards pertaining to religion and language: the English Public School Board, the English Catholic School Board, the French Public School Board, and French Catholic School Board. Parents can decide between which of these their children should attend as well as which school board they’d like their taxes to go towards. 

However, regardless of the school board, all students are required to study French from grades 4 to 8 and have at least one French credit to graduate from secondary school. This is because French and English are both the official languages of Canada, and while Ontario’s official language is only English, Ontario’s history with various French-speaking settlements and communities means French language skills are widespread.

Publicly funded education is offered from kindergarten to Grade 12. Kindergarten in Ontario is full-time and is optional for children 4 to 6 years old. It is then mandatory for students from ages 6 to 16 to be enrolled in some recognised form of schooling.

There are four standardized tests for students administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). The first three, occurring in Grade 3, Grade 6 and Grade 9, is to assess the reading, writing and mathematics of students and to measure their success against the rest of the province and other national and international metrics. 

The final test, called the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT), is taken at the end of the 9th grade, and a passing grade is required in order to earn their secondary school diploma. Students are able to continually resit the test until they pass.

Public universities and colleges in Ontario are not free, but for residents, they are often subsidized so that less tuition has to be paid. One of the highest ranked universities in the world, the University of Toronto, is situated in Ontario. There are a total of 22 universities and 24 colleges in Ontario.

Requirements and structure of the education system in Quebec

In Quebec, where French is the official language, the school system is governed by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (or Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur in French). The system is then divided into local school service centres, which consist of parents, students, staff members and citizens.

Kindergarten is offered to 4-year-olds, although attendance is not mandatory. For students who are 6 to 16, attendance is compulsory until the school year during which they turn 16. Elementary school consists of grades 1 to 6 and secondary school is from grades 7 to 11.

There is one set of standardized examinations, called the Ministerial Examinations, which contributes towards the final marks that students receive upon receiving their secondary school diploma.

Most schools in Quebec teach French as the primary language, although there are also publicly funded schools that teach in English which can be attended by those whose parents are native English speakers. Religious schools such as Catholic schools exist in Quebec but are not publicly funded.

Quebec has 18 universities, all of which offer courses and programs in French, although a select few also offer courses in English. McGill University, which is consistently ranked high in world university rankings, is located in Montreal, Quebec.

Education in British Columbia (BC)

In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education looks after the school system, which provides free education to students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Francophone schools are available to those whose parents are native French speakers or who attended a Francophone school

All students are to learn a second language in grades 5 to 8, with French being the default unless other options are provided by the school board. Catholic schools that exist in BC are not publicly funded and thus are considered private.

The Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) is a test given to students in grades 4 and 7 in order to give the Ministry, parents, teachers and students an overview of where the students are in terms of their studies. There are also graduation assessments that students in grades 10 and 12 undergo in order to earn their secondary school diplomas.

There are 14 public universities and 11 colleges located in British Columbia, many of which have excellent reputations as world-class institutions. 

Public Education in Alberta

Alberta Education, also known as Alberta’s Ministry of Education, is the governing body for Alberta’s schools. Alberta’s students are touted as the highest-ranked in Canada and its education system is often cited as one of the best in the world. 

By some rankings, it’s been determined that if Alberta was its own country, it would be the second best out in the world, outranked only by Singapore in science. 

Students are required to attend school from ages 6 to 16 and offer grades kindergarten to 12. Although French is optional in Alberta schools, learning French is encouraged by the school authorities and is provided as a school subject, along with the option of French immersion and Francophone schools.

Parents can choose to send their children to public, Catholic, Francophone, charter schools or private schools, all of which receive funding from the provincial government.

Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) are given to students in Grade 6 and Grade 9, which help determine if students are learning as expected and to ensure that they are adequately prepared for the next steps in education.

Alberta is home to eight public universities and eleven public colleges.

Manitoba Public Education System

In Manitoba, kindergarten is generally offered to children from age 5. Schooling is then mandatory for children from ages 7 to 18. Its Minister of Education is divided into locally elected district school boards. 

The types of public schooling offered in Manitoba include English, French Immersion, Français and a Senior Years Technology Education Program, a public technical-vocational training course that covers a number of fields, from automotive technology to culinary arts. Religious and independent schools in Manitoba do not receive public funds and are therefore considered private.

Manitoba’s Provincial Assessment Program tests students in Grade 3, in Grade 7 and 8 as well as Grade 12, where a test in language arts and mathematics counts towards a portion of their final grades.

There are eight public universities in Manitoba and five colleges, some of which offer programs taught in French.

Education in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Education offers schooling from kindergarten to Grade 12, and attendance is compulsory for students between the ages of 7 and 16. The types of school divisions in Saskatchewan include Public, Separate (which are Catholic) and Francophone.

There is currently no standardized testing in Saskatchewan. There were initially plans to implement this in 2013, but these were shelved after concern was expressed by parents and educators.

Saskatchewan offers two public universities and several federated and affiliated colleges. There are also three Indigenous and northern educational institutions recognised in Saskatchewan, including the First Nations University of Canada.

Nova Scotia School System

In Nova Scotia, the second-most densely populated province, children aged between 5 and 16 must attend school. French is a part of the curriculum in grades 4 to 9, and then becomes an optional credit in secondary school. French immersion is also offered to students, along with a school board for Francophone schools. Faith-based schools in Nova Scotia are privately run.

Students in Nova Scotia are subject to a province-wide assessment in Grade 3, Grade 6 and Grade 8. Nova Scotia Examinations (NSE) are taken in English and Mathematics in Grade 10, the results of which contribute to the student’s final grades.

There are ten universities in Nova Scotia in addition to the Nova Scotia Community College which have several campuses across the province.

New Brunswick School System

As the only officially bilingual province in Canada, New Brunswick has four Anglophone school districts and three Francophone. Students can enrol in kindergarten starting from age 5 and must either complete secondary school or continue attending until they’re 18. French courses are compulsory for students to complete in order to obtain their secondary school diplomas for those in Anglophone schools, just as English is compulsory in Francophone schools. Religious schools in New Brunswick are privately funded.

Provincial assessment in New Brunswick is administered in Grades 4, 6, 9, and 10 on Reading, Math and Science with a French Oral Proficiency Assessment in Grade 12.

There are eight chartered universities, four public universities and five colleges in New Brunswick, most of which offer bilingual programs in line with the two official languages of the province.

Education System of Newfoundland and Labrador

In Newfoundland and Labrador, children who will be 5 before the end of a given year are able to attend kindergarten, although this is not mandatory. Grades 1-12 in this province are broken down into primary, elementary, junior high and high school. There are both English and French schools available, with French immersion programmes offered in several English schools.

Newfoundland and Labrador students must take Public Exams, which are comprehensive finals exams that cover a variety of courses and count for 40% of the students’ final marks.

The most affordable university in Canada, Memorial University of Newfoundland, is located in this province, along with the College of the North Atlantic.

Prince Edward Island Education System

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is the smallest province in Canada in terms of both landmass and population, but it’s also the most densely populated. PEI’s education system has two school districts: the Public School Branch, which administers the English speaking schools, and the Commission scolaire de langue française, which is the Francophone district. French immersion is also offered, with around 22% of students enrolled in these programs.

Provincial assessments take place in PEI in Grade 3 and Grade 6, with a mathematics assessment in Grade 6 and Grade 9 which counts towards the final grades of the students.

Due to its small size and population, PEI only has one public university and two community colleges.

Education in the Northwest Territories

The Department of Education, Culture and Employment looks after public education in the Northwest Territories (NWT). With under 10,000 students enrolled each year and with the largest demographic being Indigenous, there is a strong emphasis on Dene Kede and Inuuqatigiit in their curriculums. 

Dene Kede is a curriculum that involves the language, culture and worldview of the Dene nations, who are part of the First Nations in Canada. Inuuqatigiit focuses on Inuit culture, heritage and language.

In addition to these languages, schools are either Anglophone or Francophone, with French immersion available to students. 

There is no standardized testing requirement in the Northwest Territories for students to graduate secondary school.

There is one institute of higher education in NWT, called Aurora College. This institute offers degree programs and other higher learning courses across three campuses and twenty-one community learning centres.

Yukon Education system

Children living in Yukon aged 5 or 6 can enrol in kindergarten. After that, children go on to grades 1 to 12. Available curriculums include English, French Immersion and French First Language. 

Yukon has used virtual distance learning as offered by the Aurora Virtual School since 2013 in order to accommodate students living in remote areas where schools have not been physically set up. Also available to students is Blended Learning, where traditional face-to-face teaching is combined with online learning.

The requirements of graduating high school are the same as the BC Graduation Program, and the diploma that students receive upon graduation is the British Columbia Certificate of Graduation or Diplôme de fin d’études secondaires en Colombie-Britannique for those with French as a first language.

Yukon University is the only public university in the territory, with thirteen campuses offering a variety of programs. Also in Yukon is the Yukon School of Visual Arts, offering a foundation year art program.

Education in Nunavut

The Nunavut Department of Education works with Elder culture, heritage advisors and other stakeholders to determine the structure and curriculum of the education system. Children who are 5 years of age are able to enrol in kindergarten. If they’re to be 6 by the end of the current year, they must be registered for school. 

The Nunavut school curriculum is organized into 4 strands. The first is Aulajaaqtut, which involves health and physical education. The second is Iqqaqqaukkaringniq, which focuses on career and technology studies, math and science. The third is Nunavusiutit, which focuses on entrepreneurship, Inuuqatigiit (a curriculum focusing on Inuit culture and language), social studies and tourism. Finally, there is Uqausiliriniq, which involves arts, English language arts, French as an additional language and Inuktitut language arts.

The Nunavut Arctic College is the territory’s sole institution of higher education, offering a number of degree programs in conjunction with other universities around the country.

Spending on education in Canada

The funds that go towards public education in Canada comes from each province or territory. Below is a list of spending on education in each respective province or territory in the 2015/2016 fiscal year, the most recent year from which census data is available.

Canadian Public Education Statistics per Province or Territory

Province or Territory

2015/16 spending in $millions (estimate)

# students enrolled (2015/16)

Average spend per student per year ($)

Ontario

26,555 

1,993,431

13,321

Quebec

13,153 

1,196,667

10,991

British Columbia

6,450

553,377

11,655

Alberta

8,607

640,869

13,430

Manitoba

2,713

181,023

14,986

Saskatchewan

2,714

177,246

15,314

Nova Scotia

1,616

118,152

13,677

New Brunswick

1,414

97,911

14,446

Newfoundland

912

66,654

13,686

Prince Edward Island

247

19,713

12,531

Nunavut

240**

9990

24,024

Northwest Territories

310*,**

8,268

n/a*

Yukon

181**

5,251

34,469

 

*The Northwest Territories expenditure is combined within the department of Education, Culture and Employment; the exact amount allocated to education is unknown.

**Due to the difficulty of obtaining resources and the remoteness of these regions, costs tend to be higher

Final thoughts

Canada’s provinces and territories each have different demographics and budgets to work with in order to create their individual school systems. Some jurisdictions have unique challenges to face, such as remote communities and multiple language requirements, and others have budgetary limitations that require supplements and loans from the federal government. 

Regardless of the differences, the Canadian public school system provides access to education for every child, no matter where they live in Canada. This dedication to education is a part of what makes Canada one of the most educated countries in the world, and why so many Canadians continue on to higher education after completing public secondary school.

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