Education in Canada

In Canada the education system consists of public and private schools (some of which are church-sponsored). The majority of children attend co-educational public schools where the language of instruction is predominately English (French in Quebec). With a few exceptions Canadian educational institutions are non-denominational, and school uniforms are a rarity. There are three formal levels of schooling: elementary, secondary and higher education. From a minimum age of five full-time education is compulsory in all provinces, even for children of temporary Canadian residence. However, the admission of foreign children to a public school depends on the parameters of the parent’s visa and free schooling may not be available. The federal government does get involved financially, providing some support for post-secondary education, adult occupational training and language tuition. If children entering Canadian education can’t speak English or French fluently additional schooling may be required/made available. Alternately parents can request that their child attend a private international school, though this option would be costly.

Individual Canadian provinces are responsible for their area’s standard of education. The standard of the school and the level of qualification needed to teach therefore vary and there are few nationally set requirements. It is a prerequisite in all provinces that a teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, and this applies for every level of education. Although education in public primary and secondary schools is free it is obligatory for parents to pay student fees to support extra-curricular activities, such as art. These fees fluctuate from between $5 and $100 per term. School buses are often provided but eligibility may be subject to age, school and distance. Parents Advisory Councils (PACs) are a feature of most schools and their primary concern is raising money to buy school equipment. Parents are strongly encouraged to involve themselves in their child’s education, and they are given the option of becoming a volunteer teacher’s assistant (to aid with reading and art projects).


Canadian schooling is organised into grades 1 – 12.  Children demonstrating advanced ability can skip a grade. Likewise, children who appear to be struggling may have to repeat a grade. Although a child can legally leave school at 16 it is not encouraged, and most students stay on until 18.

Pre-school Education

Although no pre-school education is mandatory, it is highly recommended that all children attend nursery school. This is particularly important for children of foreign parents.

Elementary School

The first years of a child’s compulsory education in Canada are spent at elementary (or primary) school which is usually attended until age 11. Children are taught essential skills such as reading, writing and maths. They also receive lessons in subjects like history, geography, physical education, science and art.

High School

Secondary education in Canada usually takes place in a high school, which can be further divided into junior and senior high. There are mandatory curriculum subjects as well as vocational programmes which provide training in specific fields (like agriculture and business). Students are also offered the option of learning job specific skills such as book-keeping or computer studies. In high schools the curriculum is divided into ‘advanced’ (in which students are prepared for university) and ‘general’ (in which students are prepared to go to a trade school or community college).

The General Educational Development (GED) Diploma is taken by students before they complete high school. This is the recognised entrance qualification for Canadian University admission.

Grading and Examinations

As soon as a student enrols in a public school a ‘record file’ is opened for them. This is a record of all grades achieved and follows the child through every school level.

Grades are internally comparable, viewed in comparison to the general standard of a particular school. At least twice a year students receive a report card which presents their achievement in each subject.


It is usual for a child to be registered at a school in their residential area. Although parents can request that their child attends a cross-boundary school (outside of their designated school district) acceptance is not guaranteed. Canadians will often buy a home near to their preferred school to gain their child a place, house prices near the best schools are consequently higher.

If new to the area parents should make enquiries at the Board of Education or the school districts central office in order to find out which school their child will be assigned to and what documents will be required for their registration. Generally, proof of residence, passport, birth certificate, details of the child’s medical history and an immigration record of landing will all be asked for. It is also recommended that examples of the child’s work and their most recent school report also be brought as they will be used to assess the child’s capabilities and assign them to a grade.

Terms and School Hours

Traditionally the Canadian school year is ten months, running from the first week of September until the last week of June. This is then divided into periods or quarters. In elementary schools the day runs from 8.30am until 3 or 3.30 pm. High schools often finish an hour earlier than elementary schools, with sports and other extracurricular activities scheduled after school hours.


Before beginning schooling most provinces require that children are immunised against a variety of diseases. The majority of schools have at least part-time nurses and staff members trained in administering first-aid. Although dental checks aren’t carried out at schools they often have a promotional dental health week. Sex, drug and alcohol awareness is taught in both elementary and secondary schools.

Higher Education

Usually students are required to attend college for one year and take a University Transfer Course before they are eligible for university.

Post-secondary education can also take place at community colleges. These low-fee colleges offer a range of one to three-year programmes teaching practical and para-professional skills.

Canadian tuition fees have more than doubled since 1990 and Canadian universities cost more for international students.

Health insurance is compulsory whether the student is automatically enrolled in the university health insurance plan or not.

For many students it is essential to obtain part-time employment, whether during term-time or breaks. Foreign students must check in advance whether their visa allows them to finance their education through employment. Some students may receive grants, university awarded scholarships or loans to help meet their living expenses. Canadian universities are often renowned for their excellent sporting facilities, with some providing full academic scholarships to athletes.

The average debt an undergraduate student will leave university with is approximately $20,000, though this can be much higher!

The entry qualifications required to attend Canadian colleges and universities is greatly dependent on their reputation. Specialist schools and education programmes often have a standard entrance examination.