Generally, the school year runs from September (the day after Labor Day) to the end of June for elementary and secondary schools and from early September to the end of April for universities. There are some exceptions, however. Some public schools in Canada have been experimenting with all-year schooling with shorter holidays spread out during the year and some university programmes, especially some professional courses, run through the summer.
Although education is under the jurisdiction of the provinces, funding comes from all levels of government: municipal property taxes, provincial taxes and federal taxes (a portion given to the provinces through transfer payments). The federal government provides funding for post-secondary education and is responsible for the education of aboriginals, armed forces personnel and inmates of federal penal institutions. Responsibility for the administration of elementary and secondary schools is delegated to local elected school boards or commissions. In some provinces the provincial governments have become more involved but these boards generally set local budgets, hire and negotiate with teachers and shape school curriculum within provincial guidelines. It is usually the individual schools that set conduct and mark their examinations but some provinces are heading back to province-wide exams.
This really depends on the individual province, but generally primary education starts at the kindergarten level (junior and senior) at the age of 4 or 5 and continues to the end of grade 6, although some schools continue to grade 8. In some provinces there is a junior high level, either grades 7 and 8 or 7, 8 and 9. Secondary education, or high school, goes from grade 9 or 10 to grade 11 or 12, again depending on the province.
Some parents choose to place their children in a school-like setting before it is legally required to do so. For pre-school, children are usually aged 3 and 4 and attend only a half-day of ‘class’. It is not a structured setting and the focus is on the basics: the alphabet, numbers, arts and crafts, songs and play. Studies have shown that children’s minds are very absorbent in their first five years of life. Pre-school can enhance a child’s vocabulary, motor skills and social skills and is a good option as an alternative to regular day-care if parents work.
Kindergarten to grade 6
Junior kindergarten is usually just half a day, but after that children attend for a full day, although for the younger grades a rest time is usually ensured. In elementary school, children have the same teacher for all their subjects with a few exceptions. Special education and French classes are taught by teachers trained particularly for those courses. The curriculum emphasizes the basic subjects of reading, writing, math’s, geography, history, science, social studies and introductory arts. Small tests and projects are assigned as well as homework. These school years often involve special projects, field trips and dramatic presentations (Christmas pageants, musical recitals, etc.). In some provinces children get the opportunity to learn a musical instrument like the recorder or even play in a small school band in grades 5 and 6. In some provinces enriched or accelerated programmes are available for academically-gifted students, as are special programmes for slower learners and students with disabilities.
Grades 7 and 8
For the purposes of this book, it will be assumed that these two grades are attended at a separate school and are not grouped with grade 9. For those schools that go from grade 6 to 8 or for those schools that include grade 9, the curriculum is not any different. The only difference is how the levels are divided. A child in grade 7 is about 12 or 13 years of age. At this stage a lot more is expected from the students and subjects are studied in greater detail and depth. Often, each subject has a separate teacher so that students have a ‘homeroom’ teacher who teaches one subject and then they travel together as a class to other teachers to get instruction in the other subjects. Students do not choose their subjects; the courses are all mandatory. They are instructed in English, French (not all provinces), math’s, science, history, geography and physical education. In many schools, mid-year and end-of-year examinations are given in addition to tests, assignments and essays. Enrichment and remedial learning programmes are available as well.
By law, children must attend school from the age of 6 until the age of 15 or 16, depending on the province. Ontario recently brought in legislation making attendance in school mandatory until 18 or graduation, whichever happens first. The new law includes fines for parents who allow their children to drop out before that time, and fines for employers who hire students during school hours when the students should be in school. Also, students who have dropped out of school before they’re 18 can have their driver’s license suspended; or cannot obtain a driver’s license if they don’t already have one. Most provinces have grades 9 to 12, but Quebec students finish in grade 11 before going into the CEGEP system (more on that later). High school entails taking compulsory courses and having the option of choosing electives. All schools offer a core curriculum mandated by the province. They differ in what electives they offer. Some schools are very academic-oriented while others offer trade and technical courses. Usually the courses taken in the last year of high school are the ones that universities and colleges look at when deciding whether or not to admit a student. Most universities look at the mean average grade of these courses when assessing a student’s application. In Quebec, after grade 11, students go to a CEGEP, which is like a junior college, before heading to university. If students have advanced skills in a subject, beyond the grade to which they are automatically designated because of their age, they can be tested and put ahead a year (or more) so that they remain challenged. This does not mean they automatically obtain credits for the courses they skipped, but it does mean they have more room in their timetable for other courses. At some high schools there is also the option of enrolling in enriched courses that provide advanced-level academia for students who have shown exceptional ability in a particular subject like English or math’s. There are also special programmes for students with learning challenges, such as attention deficit disorder, autism, dyslexia, etc. In some schools those students are integrated into the regular classroom with help from additional education assistants and therapists (occupational, speech, etc.) while in other schools, there are separate classes for those students.
Categorizing Types of Schools
Deciding what school to enroll your children in is a personal choice. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of what kind of school is better. There are pros and cons for all the choices and, of course, it comes down to what’s convenient for where you live and what you are able to afford.
Most students go to public schools. They may be less elite and specialized than private schools but parents who advocate public schools say that they offer just as good a level of education as private schools as long as the student works hard. There is often a broader selection of courses and the same amount of extracurricular activities as at private schools, but in some provinces public schools face funding problems that have resulted in large classes and the downsizing of special programmes. Public schools are co-ed, books do not cost extra and neither do most field trips. Sometimes extra fees are charged for special trips. But schools often undertake fundraising drives to raise money for such trips or projects. Public schools are non-denominational and any religious instruction is usually given in the context of a world religions course.
Smaller classes, a focus on academic courses and superior athletic facilities are what private schools offer in comparison to the public school system, but it comes at a price. Not including extras like the cost of uniforms, athletic equipment and books, the yearly price tag ranges from about $10,000 to $20,000 per child. Yet parents of children who go to private school still pay taxes that fund a public system they don’t use. Because of that, five Canadian provinces (B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec) give some funding directly to some independent schools. Of course, most private schools offer scholarships and bursaries. To get in, prospective students must pass an entrance exam in most cases. Private schools offer longer vacations for students under the premise that the time students do spend in class is more rigorous and demanding than time spent in public schools. Most of the private schools are girls-only or boys-only but there are a few that have become co-ed in the face of financial difficulty. Also included in this category are schools such as those offering the Montessori educational method. Boarding is available at many private schools for families that want to send their children to a private school quite a distance from their home. Additional fees for this are, of course, applicable, sometimes upwards of $7,000 a year.
Separate schools/alternative schools
Provincial legislation allows for the establishment of separate schools by religious groups. Mostly Roman Catholic, these schools offer a curriculum based on religion, from kindergarten through to secondary level. There are schools of other religious denomination as well. Uniforms are usually required and some schools are segregated by gender while others are mixed. Both Alberta and Ontario fund Catholic schools as they do public schools. Children do not have to be Catholic to attend. Alberta also funds some Protestant and charter schools on the same basis as they do public schools. (Charter schools are independent schools that have performance-based charters, or contracts, with the province.) Schools of other denominations are not publicly funded and parents interested in having their children educated separately must pay for it themselves. This has been a source of great controversy. Alternative schools are those that provide an ‘opening learning’ environment for students, where they can work at their own pace.
There are both French and English language schools throughout Canada, with French schools being most numerous in Quebec. Outside Quebec, French public schools are often referred to as schools with French immersion programmes in which all subjects are taught in French. These schools begin in the early grades, as it is considerably easier for children to learn a new language from an early age. If you want your children to go to one of these schools at a later stage, they will have to be tested to see where their language skills stand.
Most elementary schools have an indoor gymnasium and an outdoor playground. Secondary school facilities depend on the size of the school, with some having more than one gymnasium and most having a regulation-sized sports field for outdoor sports. Outdoor tracks and swimming pools are common for secondary schools and some even have weight rooms. Due to tight funding the upkeep of such facilities has been a struggle. Private schools in the cities have less expansive grounds than those in the suburbs or those outside the city altogether, but many private schools have extensive playing grounds, even if housed downtown.
The first step is to arrange a visit with the school. For public school there are restrictions in terms of choice. Normally you need to send your child to the school in your district. By calling your school board you can find out which school that is. If the local school doesn’t have a special programme your child may be allowed to go to another school further away that does have it. To enroll you need to bring your child’s:
• birth certificate
• immigration landing papers
• medical records (vaccination certificate)
• any previous school records.
The school will decide which grade your child should attend and if they need special lessons in English or French. Many schools offer English or French as second language (ESL or FSL) classes to help students catch up. If you think your children may have been incorrectly placed, talk to their teacher, guidance counselor or school principal. If you wish to acquire general information about Canadian schools before arriving in Canada, you may contact the Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA).
In elementary and high schools, students get two months off in the summer (July and August), approximately two weeks at Christmas time and a week in March (called March or Spring Break). Private schools often get longer periods of time off, with a couple of extra weeks in June and an extra week for March Break. People of religions other than Christianity are entitled to take off their holy days as well, such as Ramadan, although students have to catch up on the work they missed on those days.