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What you need to know before you arrive | What you need to know after you arrive | Planning ahead for college & university

So, your family is planning a move to Canada?

In this case, you may already be aware that Canada is well-known around the world for the quality of its education and schooling system. Canada relies heavily on taxpayer-funded public programs, including healthcare, social services, and education. Most Canadians and newcomers (that’s you!) agree that the taxes they pay are well-spent in funding the country’s robust education system.

Just how good is Canada’s education system?

Canada has an exceptional education system. According to a 2023 report Canada is viewed as having the second-best education system globally. An in-depth analysis conducted by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that the Canadian government spends 11.1 percent of total expenditure on education, above the OECD average of 10.6 percent.

As is often the case, money spent on schooling in Canada seems to pay off. According to the 2021 Census, roughly 58 percent of Canada’s working-age population (ages 25 to 64) have graduated from either a university or college—that’s the highest proportion in the G7.

This is not to say that schooling in Canada is perfect. Some schools have large class sizes, with a low ratio of teachers to students. Some schools offer less extracurricular programming, artistic studies, and sports than others. Some schools offer fewer course options and academic programs. For these reasons, it’s important to do some research in advance, because in the end, you will be the strongest advocate for your child’s successful education.

So, ready to go to school? Class is in session.

What do you need to know about schooling in Canada before arriving?

The Canadian system | Preschools & Pre-Kindergarten | Elementary & Secondary Schools | Common Questions | Post-Secondary Schools

Big decisions: Either the place you live will dictate where your child goes to school, or where you want your child to go to school will dictate the place you choose to live. It’s your choice.

When it comes to your child’s education, the research you do before coming to Canada can make a huge impact on their experience.

Education in Canada is largely managed at the provincial/territorial level, meaning that the system in Ontario will differ from the system in British Columbia, and so on. Even inside a province, education can vary dramatically between different types of schools and different school districts.

Navigating your child’s educational opportunities is a bit like navigating the Canadian immigration system: there are a few crucial things you have to learn at the beginning, but as long as you take the time to educate yourself, you’ll be empowered to make the best choice when it comes to educating your child.

Understanding the Canadian education system

The Canadian education system can be divided into three stages: preschool or pre-kindergarten, elementary & secondary education (also called K-12), and post-secondary education. Although there are a few differences between the provinces, there are some distinct features for each of these stages.

Preschool or pre-kindergarten

Three children in preschool with toy cars

Preschool, sometimes called pre-kindergarten, refers to an optional learning opportunity for young children, usually between the ages of three to five years old. The decision is yours as to whether or not you want to preschool your child. Preschool and other early childhood education services are available for free in some provinces, but in others (and for some private programs) parents may be required to pay.

Preschool is less rigorously structured than the mandatory stages of elementary and secondary school. This means that there are varied options for types of preschool, curriculums covered, schedules, costs, etc. You’ll have to research the options available in your intended destination and be sure to apply early, as the waitlist for some preschool programs can be long.

An alternative to preschooling is daycares. These are childcare centres where staff will supervise and care for children. Daycares often allow a wider age range of children to join in the fun, as they serve primarily to care for the children of working parents. While daycares are not explicitly educational, many daycares offer educational activities as a part of their services.

Deciding whether or not to enrol your child in preschool or daycare is your decision. While it is generally accepted that the first years of a child’s life are formative in the evolution of personality, social skills, and personal development, a preschool or daycare experience is not necessarily the only means of encouraging this kind of development. Many parents in Canada encourage the early childhood development of their children in less formal environments, like through activities at home and participation in neighbourhood play groups.

Pro-tip: Make sure you research early childhood education in your intended province of residence in Canada. Some provinces offer subsidized access to certain preschooling and childcare services.

Elementary and secondary education

In Canada, it is not just your moral responsibility as a parent to ensure that your child gets an education — it’s a legal requirement (strong education, strong society!). Elementary and secondary education are mandatory parts of a child’s education in Canada.

Elementary and secondary education follows a similar structure across Canada, with some slight provincial variations. Typically, this type of schooling starts at age five or six and begins with one year of kindergarten. This is followed by twelve “grades” of schooling, each lasting one year. After completing Grades 1-12, a child receives their high school diploma and may then be eligible for post-secondary education.

Provincial oddities:

  • In Ontario, kindergarten is split into two years, Junior Kindergarten (for four-year-olds) and Senior Kindergarten (for five-year-olds). Neither of these are mandatory.
  • In Quebec, the elementary and secondary school system is divided into six grades, followed by five “secondary levels” (Sec I-V), which only adds up to eleven years. However, following completion of Sec V, students are given the opportunity to attend CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel). CEGEPs act as a hybrid of high school and college/university learning, often offering a semi-specialized curriculum based on a student’s interests or career-goals.
  • In Nova Scotia, kindergarten is referred to as primary.

As elementary and secondary education are mandatory and play a major role in a child’s development, we’re going to focus on this topic a bit longer and answer some of the most common questions:

Types of schools | Cost of schooling | Language of instruction | When does school happen? | Ages for schooling | Elementary—Middle—Junior High—High School | Subjects covered | Extracurriculars & Special Programming | Special Needs & Disabilities | School Boards

What types of schools are available in Canada?

There are three main options for elementary and secondary schooling in Canada.

  1. Public schools: These are publicly-funded schools available to students in every region across Canada. These schools are free for children to attend (funded through the same tax-payer system which funds healthcare and social services!). About 91 percent of children in Canada attend a public school.
  2. Private schools: These schools are owned by private entities and typically require parents to pay a tuition fee for their child’s enrolment. About eight percent of children in Canada attend private schools. Tuition fees among private schools can vary significantly.
  3. Homeschooling: This is an option whereby a parent chooses to keep their child at home and educate them independently. Homeschooling regulations differ between provinces, but parents can often find suggested curriculum and supporting material online. Less than one percent of children in Canada are homeschooled.

Sidebar—Catholic & religious schools: Religious schools, mostly Catholic, exist across Canada in both the private and public systems. At these schools, Catholicism is often integrated into course curriculums. In Ontario, Catholic school boards receive provincial funding and are attended by a growing number of non-Catholic students. While many Catholic schools offer quality education, the integration of religion into learning may be something you want to consider or avoid, per your preference.

You may be wondering whether public or private school offers the best education for your child. Well, that depends on a number of factors: Do you have income available to afford private tuition fees? What kind of learning environment best suits your child? Which private and public schooling options are available in the place you’re planning to live?

Studies show that students enrolled in private schools typically have a stronger academic performance than their public-school peers. But, researchers question whether this is due to the quality of private education, or whether it is due to the fact that private school attendees often come from families with more financial resources and parents with higher levels of education themselves.

Canada’s public school system is well-regarded around the world. However, you should research the public school options in the place you intend to live and ensure that there are educational offerings that suit the needs of your child. You can begin by looking into the website for the Department of Education for any of the provinces you’re considering to make your home in Canada:

Alberta | British Columbia | Manitoba | New Brunswick | Newfoundland & Labrador | Northwest Territories | Nova Scotia | Nunavut | Ontario | Prince Edward Island | Quebec | Saskatchewan | Yukon

How much does it cost for elementary and secondary schooling in Canada?

Elementary and secondary schooling in Canada is available for free through the public education system. Of course, you should expect some indirect costs for things like school supplies, lunches and snacks, clothing, and field trips.

If you choose to send your child to private school, you will have to pay tuition fees. These vary depending on the school you choose. As an example, let’s examine 2023 tuition fees for Grade 1-5 students at the prestigious Upper Canada College in Toronto. For the academic year, you can expect to pay CAD $40,750-$44,100 in tuition fees as a day student and more than $73,000 if you’re a boarding student. This is at the higher end; other private schools may be more affordable.

If you’re being careful with your money, you may want to consider the affordability of the public school system. Attending a public school may even allow you to save ahead for your child’s college or university studies. You can start by opening a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) with a trusted bank and invest your savings tax-free while benefiting from eligible government grants.

In which language(s) is education offered in Canada?

Schooling in Canada is offered in the country’s two official languages: English and French. English schools offer some French-language studies as a part of their curriculum and vice-versa for French schools. However, the quality of the second-language offerings varies from school to school.

If you want your child to be educated in both languages, you may want to consider finding an English school that offers a robust French immersion program (or vice versa), or sending your child to a French school in an English area. As well, some schools offer courses in other languages beyond English and French.

Notably, French schools exist across Canada, not just in the French-speaking province of Quebec. While there may not be a French school in every community, if you want to prioritize giving your child an education in French, you can likely find a school in your preferred province.

Do you need French to succeed in Canadian society? No. Many Canadians don’t have fluency in the French language, but having French abilities can be a big boost to a person’s employability, especially if they want to live in Quebec, New Brunswick, or work in certain fields, including many government jobs.

When does school take place each year in Canada?

Elementary and secondary schools in Canada typically start in late August or early September. The school year usually ends in late May or June.

The months of July and August are taken as summer vacation each year. Although, sometimes summer vacation starts in late June, with classes beginning again in late August.

On which days of the week does school operate in Canada?

Elementary and secondary schooling takes place five days a week from Monday to Friday, with the exception of statutory holidays and summer vacation.

How long is each school day in Canada?

The typical school day in Canada starts around 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. and lasts until about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. This changes a bit from school to school, so it’s best to check with your school.

After classes are finished, most schools offer some form of extracurricular activities, including music, art, sports, debating, and other clubs and activities.

At what ages is school mandatory in Canada?

Depending on the province, school is mandatory from the age of five or six, up to the age of 16 or 18. Most students in Canada graduate from high school at the age of 17 or 18.

What is the difference between “elementary,” “middle school,” “junior high,” and “high school” in Canada?

Warning: the terminology for stages of schooling in Canada is not standardized, so you can have differences all across the country.

In Canada, Grades K through 12 are typically divided up into different stages and different schools. So, your child might attend Kindergarten-Grade 5 at one school, then move to another school for Grades 6-9, then complete Grades 10-12 at a third school.

Typically, these stages are defined as:

  • Elementary school: For the early grades.
  • Middle school and/or junior high school: For the middle grades.
  • High school: For the final years of secondary school.

There is no single rule for how grades and schools are organized. Even within a province, the structure will vary between school districts. Sometimes even within a school district there will be different structures.

To exemplify the variance, let’s talk about the town of Truro, Nova Scotia. If your child grows up on the south side of town, they might follow this schooling path:

  • Grades K-5 at Cobequid Consolidated Elementary School
  • Grades 6-9 at Central Colchester Junior High School
  • Grades 10-12 at the Cobequid Educational Centre (High School)

Meanwhile, if your child grows up on the north side of town, they might follow an entirely separate path, up until they meet in high school:

  • Grades K-4 at Bible Hill Elementary School
  • Grades 5-7 at Redcliff Middle School
  • Grades 8-9 at Bible Hill Junior High School
  • Grades 10-12 at the Cobequid Educational Centre (High School)

As you can see, the structure of schools varies pretty widely in this example, and these are two students growing up in the same school district, in the same town! When it comes to planning your child’s educational pathway, don’t get too hung up on the terminology, and instead focus on the reputations, resources, and offerings of the schools you’re considering.

What subjects will my child learn in school in Canada?

Canadian provinces set the curriculum for their schools. These curriculums are constantly being evaluated and modified to adapt to changes in the world. Generally, your child will learn a range of subjects including math, science, English, French, history / social studies, art, and physical education.

As your child progresses through the education system, they’ll have more opportunities for choice in their classes, allowing them to pursue more courses in the subjects that interest them and that they excel at.

What access to specialized programming (music, art, sports, advanced academics) will my child have in Canada?

Group of young men playing basketball

Based on your child’s interests, you should research the specialized programming available at the schools you’re considering. Certain schools are well-known for their afterschool music or theatre programs, while others might be known for their hockey and football teams.

Another important consideration is in the availability of advanced educational opportunities. How does the school support advanced learners? Some high schools in Canada participate in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, but not all of them.

If you want your child to have access to a certain type of program, you need to research in advance to ensure that the school you’ve chosen will be a good fit.

My child has special learning needs and/or disabilities. What resources will be available to them in Canada?

Canadian schools offer help for students with special needs, including: physical, cognitive, psychological, emotional, behavioural, and linguistic. However, depending on the needs of your child, you may want to consult with the schools you’re considering to determine which would best serve the needs of your child.

What do I need to know about school boards in Canada?

Schooling in Canada is organized in smaller geographic areas, called school boards or school districts. Each school board is responsible for the schools within a local area. School boards are responsible for things like buildings, administration, staffing, and student enrolment.

School boards are managed by members of the community who are elected by the local public. All school boards have regular public meetings where members of the community can attend to express their views (democracy at its finest!). Newcomers to Canada can have their voice heard through school boards.

Post-secondary education

After completing high school (or Sec V in Quebec), students become eligible for post-secondary education (though Quebec students first have to complete CEGEP). Post-secondary education includes college, university, technical school, and other higher education programs designed to give students advanced learning in a specific topic or skill set.

Canada’s post-secondary colleges and universities are well-respected around the world, with a few universities consistently ranking among the Top 50 worldwide (we’re looking at you, the University of Toronto, McGill, and UBC).

Statistics Canada reports that 65.9 percent of Canadians aged 25-64 have completed some form of post-secondary credential, far above the average in the OECD. And, first-generation immigrants in Canada have an even higher rate of post-secondary education, clocking in at 72 percent. Regardless of your child’s path in life, you can rest assured that in Canada they will have access to a range of quality post-secondary educational options if they choose to pursue them.

Post-secondary education is its own entirely separate informational tidal wave. To deep-dive into post-secondary education in Canada, we suggest consulting our Study Section.

What do you need to know when you arrive in Canada?

Registering for school | School supplies | Getting to school | Eating at School | Grades & Reporting | Getting involved

Oh—you’ve arrived in Canada? We’d wish you congratulations, but we know you might not hear us over the noise of unpacking, applying for essential documents, having your first poutine, trying to meet people in your community, and adjusting to a brand new country!

We don’t want to add too much more to your Canada to-do list, but there are a few things you have to consider when getting your child’s Canadian education started.

Young students in classroom with raised hand

How to register your child for school in Canada

Hopefully you’ve already selected the school you want your child to attend. Now it’s time for enrolment. You need to contact the school board in order to find out the process for enrolling your child. It’s a good idea to contact the school to confirm enrolment even before you arrive in Canada, just to ensure you’ll be able to secure a place for your child.

Take note: In order to give your child the best chance of attending the preferred school, make sure you contact the school board as early as possible to understand the number of spaces available and the process for enrolling. Schools do not always have spaces available, so it’s best to act early!

If you’re enrolling your child in Canadian school for the first time, the school board or school will likely do some kind of assessment to understand where your child is at and what level is appropriate for them. This type of assessment also allows schools to determine if your child may want to access any additional resources such as language training.

What supplies do you need to get for your child’s education?

After completing enrolment, your child’s school should give you a list of supplies you need to obtain. Sometimes certain supplies are available for purchase or provided by the school itself, but this should be made clear by the school administrators.

In addition to supplies for classroom learning, you’ll want to consider other important items for your child’s school experience:

  • Clothing: Check to see if the school has a uniform policy or dress code that dictates what your child is allowed to wear.
  • Athletic clothes: Physical education is a part of most elementary and secondary school curriculums in Canada. As such, your child will likely need proper attire for gym class, including socks, sneakers, athletic bottoms and tops, and undergarments. 
  • Winter clothes: It’s never too early to start thinking about winter! During the cold months, you’ll want to ensure that your child has, at minimum, a warm winter jacket, boots, hat, and gloves. We recommend only getting these things once you arrive in Canada, because people who aren’t used to a Canadian winter might advise you incorrectly.
    • Living in Vancouver or the B.C. Lower Mainland? You *might* be able to get away with less intense winter attire than the rest of Canada.
  • Backpack: Your kid will need a sturdy and reliable (and fashionable!) backpack for carrying around all their textbooks, pencil cases, and binders.
  • Electronics: This may be part of a bigger conversation. But, will your child have a cell (mobile) phone? A tablet? Depending on how old your child is and your own views on electronic devices for children, this may be a conversation to have before school.

How will your child get to school in Canada?

School boards in Canada manage school bussing routes enabling students to get to and from school. But, if you’d prefer, you can also take your child to school yourself.

Once your child is old enough, they can also get to school on their own, by walking, bike, car, public transportation, or on one of Canada’s trained transport moose.

Okay, okay, fine. That part about the moose was a joke.

What will your child eat at school in Canada?

Typically, students in Canada eat lunch during the school day with breakfast and supper (dinner, or whatever you may call an evening meal!) occurring before they get to school and after they leave school.

You should ask administrators about your school’s lunch options. Public schools usually host a cafeteria with lunch available for purchase, while some private schools include lunches in the school fees. However, many students opt to bring lunch (so you can buy one of those cute little lunchboxes!). As well, when students get older, many opt to leave the school campus and go for lunch in the surrounding local community.

Some schools also offer breakfast programs, which are often free. These initiatives support families who might not otherwise be able to provide healthy breakfast options. If you’re looking for this type of support, ask the school.

How is your child graded and assessed throughout schooling?

You can understand your child’s progress in school in three big ways.

First, you can check in with your child about their progress and the marks they’re receiving on any homework, tests, and assignments throughout the year.

Second, your child will receive an official report card at predetermined points each year. This will allow you to see the official grades your child receives in each course, along with some feedback from teachers.

Finally, you can attend parent-teacher conferences throughout the school year. This will allow you to speak directly with your child’s teachers and discuss their academic progress and their participation in the classroom and in school life.

How to stay involved in your child’s education

There are many opportunities to get involved with your child’s education. Many schools have Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) where parents can volunteer their time into things like fundraising and event-planning. If you’re looking for a smaller commitment, you may be able to find opportunities to act as a chaperone on field trips or at school events.

If you really want to engage with your child’s schooling system, you can get involved in the school district or school board. School boards hold regular meetings where members of the community can attend and voice their opinions. You might even consider running for a seat on the school board, as positions are open to the public and new members are voted in by the community!

Start banking in Canada with Scotiabank

Scotiabank’s StartRightTM program1 is designed to help newcomers to Canada get started on establishing their financial security and navigate the Canadian banking system with ease. Scotiabank’s advisors can help you securely transfer your funds into Canada so you can set up your accounts and pay daycare or preschool fees whenever necessary.

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