Education in Canada

If you want to achieve great success and wealth in Canada, it probably helps to have an education. Much of Canada’s success as a prosperous, modern, industrialized nation has been credited to the country’s strong tradition of high quality schools and universities, which remain among the most respected in the world.

Public School

Canadian children are legally required to attend school full-time from the ages of five to 18 and the provincial governments run public schools to provide students with their mandatory 13 years of education, free of charge. These 13 years are divided into 13 grades, beginning with kindergarten, followed by grade 1, then grade 2 and so on until grade 12. These 13 grades, in turn, are separated into three phases: elementary, middle and high, meaning most Canadian children will attend no less than three different schools before completing their public school education.

Elementary School

Canadian textbook

This math textbook has a big maple leaf on it, so teachers know it's Canada appropriate. Math might seem like a pretty nation-neutral topic, but the fact that Canada uses the Metric system and the United States doesn't can cause problems for those who try to teach from an American-made book.

It’s difficult to firmly state when elementary school (or any other phase of public school) begins and ends in Canada, since every province has its own cutoff dates, often set by local school boards. In the majority of cases, however, the elementary years usually span from kindergarten to around grade 6 or 7.

Kindergarten classes are usually considered little more than glorified babysitting and exist mostly to help socialize very young children into the classroom setting, with simple activities such as counting, singing, colouring and games. Some parents will even put their kids into even simpler preschool classes when they’re still toddlers, though these are not mandatory.

As the kids get older and more mature, the early numbered grades gradually educate students on basic concepts in the world of math, science, history, geography and civics, but with a strong focus on “hands-on” learning and creative projects. In most elementary classes, all subjects are taught by a single, all-purpose teacher, with students usually progressing to a different teacher after completing a grade or two.

Middle School

In a lot of provinces, middle school is a fairly new invention, designed to help facilitate the transition from easygoing elementary school to the more structured and demanding world of high school. Kids usually attend this phase in their early teen years, often from around age 13 to 15 or so — though again, it varies a lot from province to province.

Middle school introduces the concept of different subjects being taught by different teachers, with students moving from classroom to classroom. The subject matter remains mostly the same as in elementary school, but now with considerably more detail and stricter standards of grading. The focus begins to shift from creative projects and group activities to written assignments and test-driven learning.

High School

Degrassi High

For several decades now, the "Degrassi High" series has been one of Canada's most popular TV shows, and has no doubt convinced generations of Canadians that their high school lives are not nearly cool enough.

The most demanding phase of Canadian public education — both educationally and socially — high school spans the late teenage years and concludes with a fancy graduation ceremony at the end of grade 12.

Classes are now much more specialized and specific. Rather than simply “science” class, for instance, students may choose between physics, biology, or chemistry where there’s much more emphasis on honing your academic skills in one particular direction. Written assignments and tests become significantly longer and more detailed, and teachers stricter and more demanding.

In order to successfully complete high school, students must pass what are known as provincial exams in several subjects, which are written by the provincial government and supposedly provide the definitive assessment as to whether or not students have actually learned all the stuff they were supposed to over the last 13 years. Failing to get decent marks on provincial exams can make it quite difficult to get admitted into a good university, while failing to pass high school at all is a pretty intense social taboo that can severely limit one’s ability to find decent work.

Even once they’re well into adulthood, a lot of Canadians will look back at their high school years with fond — or at least vivid — memories. For many people, high school marks a true rite of passage from childhood to adolescence, and heralds the start of interest in “adult” stuff like dating, driving, alcohol and, of course, intense levels of stress and drama.

Private Schools and Other Aberrations

Around five per cent of Canadian families choose to opt out of the public school system and enroll their kids in special private schools, which are funded by tuition fees rather than tax dollars and thus cost money to attend. These are often considered to have better facilities and campuses than their public counterparts, and since they can be picky about who they do and don’t admit, generally higher grades and a better average calibre of student, as well. They’re also quite expensive, however, and remain controversial for precisely this reason. How much of a role should family wealth play in determining one’s quality of education?

French Immersion

French Immersion education is often associated with very ambitious parents who hope their children will have high-paying government jobs someday. For this reason, the programs tend to fill up extremely quickly, and there can often be very long waiting lists for a student to even be considered.

Christian schools are publicly-funded in the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland. In most cases, these subsidized schools are explicitly Catholic, for reasons which date back to the 19th century, when Catholics were often persecuted and unpopular. Today, however, it’s not uncommon for secular families to enroll their kids in Catholic schools simply because their educational and discipline standards are considered to be higher. In practical terms, the main difference between Catholic schools and non-Catholic ones is the former will include at least some religious studies classes as part of their mandatory curriculum.

A uniquely Canadian twist on traditional public education is French Immersion schooling, which is when a school in an English-speaking province provides all instruction in the French language in order to help make students fluently bilingual. Under the terms of the Canadian Constitution, any French-speaking parent has an automatic right to place his or her kid in French schools, but Anglo families must go though a more demanding application process. In Quebec, by contrast, the provincial government has made it particularly difficult for students to enroll in English immersion schools in order to promote a more unilingual province.

A very small fraction of Canadian parents opt out of both public and private education altogether and educate their children by themselves at home, in a practice known as homeschooling. This is a perfectly legal practice, though homeschooled kids must still eventually pass government-mandated tests in order to have their educations accredited. Homeschooling tends to be most popular with religious Canadians, rural families, or those with very conservative or libertarian political beliefs.

Post-secondary School: University and College

After graduating high school, a minority of Canadian teenagers proceed to enroll in college or university and continue their education into at least their mid-20s. A college, in Canadian language, is usually a small community school mainly focused on vocational or trade training, while a university is a formal, degree-granting institution. It’s quite common to go to a college for a few years before enrolling in university, especially if one’s grades were not high enough to earn admittance immediately after high school.

Laval University

Founded by French missionaries in the 17th century, Quebec City's Laval University is Canada's oldest post-secondary institution.

Canadian universities, like universities elsewhere in the world, are able to issue degrees in a vast array of subjects sorted into three basic tiers: bachelor’s (BA), master’s (MA) and doctorate (PhD). Broadly speaking, a BA will take at least five years to earn and will require students to take a variety of fairly intensive classes, each of which will involve writing several long essays and exams in order to pass. A master’s degree or doctorate will take considerably longer and will require the additional step of re-enrolling in the university’s graduate school program along the way, which has much tougher standards for admission.

These days, more Canadians are attending college and university than ever before, both because most Canadian post-secondary schools have been physically expanding to accommodate greater numbers of students, and also because rising incomes and new student loan programs have made post-secondary education far more affordable than it was in previous generations. A lot of respectable, white-collar jobs in Canada now require their employees to possess at least a BA, meaning the status is not nearly as elite as it once was. It’s currently estimated that just over 50 per cent of Canadian adults hold at least some sort of post-secondary degree — a global high.

Every province in Canada has at least one “good” university, in the sense of being an institution of some reputation and prestige. There isn’t really a “Canadian Oxford” or “Canadian Harvard,” but there are at least 10 or so universities that comprise a fairly well-understood elite group of roughly equal status and acclaim. These include the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, the University of Alberta in Alberta, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and McMaster University in Ontario, McGill University and the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. According to the prestigious 2016-2017 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Canada’s top three universities are the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and McGill.

Links About Canadian Education:

Quick Facts:

  • All Canadians are legally required to attend school from age 5 to 18.
  • The Canadian public school system puts children through 13 grades, each of which gets progressively more difficult and specialized.
  • After graduating from grade school, some Canadians choose to go on to university in order to secure a degree for better employment opportunities.
  • Every region of Canada possesses at least one university of notable status and reputation.