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School in Canada: The Canadian Education System

January 24, 2020

School in Canada runs from September to June every year. Generally, students head to class the week after Canadian labour day (the first Monday of September). Watch this video for basics on the Canadian school year and Public vs. Catholic vs. Private options, or scroll down to read in detail all the way until Cégep!

There are some other things that hold true across all provinces and territories. For example, schools observe all national and provincial holidays (in the province where they’re located). Public institutions also give two weeks of holidays over the Christmas period, and one week of holidays in March called ¨March Break.¨ Finally, the academic year lasts until the end of June.

A note on Public vs. Catholic vs. Private

Each province and territory has a majority of public schools, with Ontario Catholic schools also publicly funded by choosing taxpayers. The reason for this goes back in history to attempts at soothing Protestant vs. Catholic minority tensions. Due to the ¨public¨ nature of Catholic schools in Ontario, non-Catholic students can be permitted to attend if parents so choose.

Parents have some control over enrolling their child in particular public schools but there are address/location-based catchment areas so students that fall in the local area receive priority.

As an alternative, parents may also choose to pay and enroll their child in a recognized private school. These range from Montessori and Waldorf schools to religious schools. From schools for high achieving academics or sports players, to the posh and well-connected in society. Prices are set by individual schools but can cost tens of thousands per year.

Pre-school

Pre-schools are not a mandatory part of the Canadian education system but can double both as  exposure to an educational environment and childcare for working parents. They focus on play, developing fine motor skills, and early social skills. Naps and snack time are typical important aspects of pre-school. Each pre-school’s schedule and structure is unique and requires research on the part of parents.

Kindergarten

Kindergarten is the first mandatory level of education in Canada. The structure of kindergarten, half vs full-day, depends on the province. Full-day kindergarten has become increasingly common because it supports working parents.

Little girrl putting play-dough around dolls

Generally speaking, children enter kindergarten by the September they are five years old. There is some choice on the part of the parents whether to put their child in early if they don’t turn five until October, November or December of that year, or to wait until the next. The decision really depends on the individual child and family.

There are two years of kindergarten, but classrooms tend to mix them together. A child’s first year is called Junior Kindergarten, and the second, Senior Kindergarten. Their days (or half days) focus on play, stories, and social skills like sharing and patience. This is also a safe space for children to learn about how schools work. In the morning, you stand and sing the Canadian national anthem to start the day, you tell the teacher if you have to go to the bathroom, and you share attention with other kids. Kindergartens are also within Elementary School buildings (the next level of education). This gets them accustomed to the way classrooms, halls, and playgrounds look.

Elementary School (also called Primary School)

Little girls practicing writing

After finishing Senior Kindergarten, children move onto Elementary school. From now until reaching university, each year of study is called a Grade, and Elementary school covers Grade 1 until either Grade 5 or 6. Catholic and private schools, or public schools in smaller communities, can go all the way to Grade 8. There are curriculum differences between provinces. If you’re interested in what students learn at the Elementary level, curricula are freely available at each province’s education website.

Elementary school in Canada is also the first time that students receive report cards showing their performance. At this level, they are called ¨letter grades.¨ The letter grades are, from highest to lowest, A, B, C and D. F is a failing grade.

Middle School

Middle School is the next step after elementary schools that don’t reach Grade 8. They serve to separate children from preteens. Middle schools start at either Grade 6 or 7, lasting until Grade 8. Another intention of Elementary School is to prepare students for the structure of high school. Most middle schools introduce lockers and moving between some classes. Students might go to the high school in their neighbourhood, or spend Grade 8 applying to a high school that has a particular strength.

High School

High school students sitting on stairsWhether your elementary school went to Grade 8 or you went to middle school, all Canadian students go to high school from Grade 9 until 12. Some individual students may choose to do an extra year after Grade 12 known as a ¨lap year.” This allows them to take more classes and to improve their grades. This is possible because for the first time, in high school, students have some choice over the subjects they learn.

Generally, Grades 9 and 10 have one elective class that they choose from a variety of arts, trade or skills programs that their school offers. Not every school will offer the same choices if they don’t have the resources. For this reason, middle school students might apply to a high school outside their area if another offers the technology or arts electives that interest them most.

While in high school in Canada, grades/marks generally switch from letters to percentages. Whereas in Elementary school, a student may have received an A grade, now they will receive between an 80% and 100%. The minimum percentage to pass a course is 50%. 

A high school task: applying for post-secondary

Graduating class throwing caps in the air

Grades matter most in Grades 11 and 12 because they can be viewed by post-secondary educations. Grade 12 is most important, particularly during the first half of the year because admissions decisions are made between January and March and depend on the student’s grade point average up to that point. Post secondary schools will then give the students they admit a minimum grade point average to meet through the end of Grade 12 to maintain their spot. They may also hineed to maintain a certain average to receive scholarship offers made in their letter of admission.

Generally speaking, a postsecondary school in Canada will make admissions decisions based on each student’s percent average of all Grade 12 marks combined.  Indeed, if you apply to universities, there are no other requirements at all except for specialized programs like Engineering. That means no standardized testing like SATs, A-Levels, or Selectividad in Canada. It also means no essays, and universities do not even know your name. The reason is to give people as much of a fair shot at their education as possible by limiting any conscious or unconscious bias by the admissions committee, or having one day’s test change their entire life. However, some universities will look beyond the grade point average and require certain grades for classes important in their program. This is particularly true when applying for sciences. 

Cégep (Quebec ONLY)

After Grade 12, Quebec high school students must do one more year of public education. It’s considered their first year of post-secondary education, before entering a university. This study year is called the Collège d’enseignement general et professionnel (Cégep).  In English, it translates to General and Professional Teaching College. For Spanish readers, Cégep is very similar to a one-year Bachillerato program.

Man fixing vehicle engineThe next article in this series on school in Canada will explore postsecondary options, but it is worth noting here that in addition to preparation for university studies, Cégep of itself serves as short-duration postsecondary school, or technical school for students who choose to attend with that focus. Students choose their Cégep depending on these types of programs combined with the area of expertise they are going into, much like choosing a university major. Other decisions include whether they prefer to study in English or French, and where the program is located, as many Cégep students are still living at home with their parents. Cégep is also a unique system that permits exchange programs and accepts full-time international students as well. For more detailed information on Cégep, check out the official page.

Next up in the series: post-secondary school in Canada. Be sure to subscribe to the Intrepid Emma email list so you don’t miss out! In the meantime, check out this article on language learning.

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About the Author

Emma Givens

Emma Givens is the Founder and CEO of EG: Content & Copy. She’s a brand messaging strategist, copywriter and writing coach with 10+ years of experience. She specializes in serving premium SMBs (Small and Medium-sized Businesses).

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