Newcomers to Canada: What will education look like for my children?

Julia Hornstein
Published: March 20, 2023

In Canada, there is both a public and private education system.

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The Canadian government subsidizes public education from kindergarten all the way through to the post-secondary level. On average, the government spends almost six percent of its GDP on education.

In Canada, there is an age of compulsory education that depends on the province, meaning that between certain ages, children are required to attend school. In some provinces, kindergarten is an option. However, in every province, children between the ages of seven and 16 are required to attend school. In Manitoba, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories and Ontario, the age of compulsory education goes to 18.

Levels of education

In general, the education system, whether it be public or private, is divided into three levels:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Post-secondary

Primary education, also known as elementary school, is from kindergarten or Grade 1 (ages six to seven) and runs through to Grade 8 (ages 13 to 14). The school year is usually between the months of September and June.

Secondary education, also known as high school, runs from Grade 9 (ages 14 to 15) to Grade 12 (ages 17 to 18). In Quebec, students attend high school until the age of 16. They may then continue to CEGEP, which is a two-year college where students may pursue a university preparation diploma or a vocational diploma.

Canada has a large network of post-secondary education, i.e., college and university. There are many internationally recognized university programs in urban and rural areas throughout the country. The college or university year usually runs from September to April or May and is comprised of two semesters or terms. In most cases, students would start a post-secondary education program in September.

Education in English and French

International students can choose to study in either English or French. Some educational institutions offer instruction in both languages, but students are not required to be fluent in both languages to attend school at any level in Canada.

Across most of the country, the main language of education is English, but French language education is widely available throughout the country. Regardless of the main language of instruction, French or English as a second language is generally taught from an early age.

Language instruction works differently in Quebec. In Quebec, students are usually required to attend school in French until the end of high school. However, a child may be eligible to receive instruction in English if:

  • A child’s mother or father pursued elementary studies in English in Canada;
  • A child’s, or a child’s sibling/s, has received a major part of their elementary or secondary school instruction in English in Canada (if the child’s mother or father is a Canadian citizen);
  • A child’s mother or father attended school in Quebec after August 26th, 1977, and could have been declared eligible for English instruction at that time (if the child’s mother or father is a Canadian citizen)

Generally speaking, when newcomers to Canada choose to settle in Quebec, their children are required to attend public school in French. However, private school options in English may be available. In addition, children whose parents are in Quebec temporarily (for example, on a work or study permit) may attend school in English.

How does Canadian education compare worldwide?

Canada is home to some of the world’s top educational institutions and is one of the most educated countries in the world.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures 15-year olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

In 2018, PISA published the results of their assessments. Canadian students obtained high average scores in each subject. Canada placed 6th in reading, 8th in science and 12th in math among 78 participating countries, meaning Canada’s average subject scores were close to or above the 90th percentile among all participating countries.

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