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 2020 survey, Canada is viewed as having the third-best education system globally. An in-depth analysis conducted by Statistics Canada shows that Canadians spend 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, above the average spending for countries participating in the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
As is often the case, money spent on education seems to pay off. In Canada, 91 percent of adults aged 25-64 hold at least a high-school diploma, with 68 percent holding some sort of post-secondary educational credential. These figures are well above OECD averages, and demonstrate the importance of education in Canadian society.
This is not to say that education in Canada is perfect. Some schools have large class sizes, with a low ratio of teachers to students (although COVID-19 has impacted class sizes in some districts). 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 before coming to Canada?
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.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of education, let’s talk about one of the first things you’ll need in Canada: a bank account. This guide was produced in partnership with HSBC Bank Canada, who is here to help welcome newcomers to Canada with their Newcomers Program, valued up to $1,350.*
Learn more about the HSBC Canada Newcomers Program and find out how you can get up to $1,350* in value when you get started with HSBC. Issued by HSBC Bank Canada.
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
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. COVID-19 has also resulted in reduced spaces in some daycares where government-mandated enrolment caps have been introduced.
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.
- 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.
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