In Canada, education starts with an elementary school, from Kindergarten to Grade 7. Some regions then break schooling down into middle school or junior high, but, in most cases, students progress right to high school, Grades 8 through 12.
Schools generally operate on weekdays from 8:30 or 9 a.m. to 3:30 or 4 p.m., from September through June, with many extracurricular activities such as sports practices and games, as well as school club meetings, taking place following school hours.
Schools usually close for one or two weeks over the winter holidays and also close for a week in March or April for spring break.
All publicly funded schools are co-educational, meaning they accept boys and girls, and usually do not require children to wear uniforms.
Schools accept students based on their geographical location (each school has a geographical “catchment” area). However, it is possible for a student to request permission to attend a different school beyond the catchment area for special considerations, such as specialty programs.
Enrolling your child in school
To enrol your child in the public school system, contact the school board in the district in which you live. If there is a school in your neighbourhood, you may even simply go to the school to ask about enrolling your child. Generally, children will be enrolled in the school nearest to their home, although in some regions students may have to be bussed to a farther school.
A math or English language test might be administered to place your child in an appropriate grade. It is not unusual for immigrant children to be held back a grade if their language skills are low, or to even be able to skip a grade as secondary school curriculum might be more advanced in your native country.
The following documents might be necessary for enrolment:
• Birth certificate
• Immigration landing papers
• Medical and immunization records
• Previous school records and transcripts
Children with special needs
The Canadian education system guarantees education to everyone. Children with special needs (e.g., hearing/visual impairment, learning disabilities) are either placed in regular classrooms and provided with additional help or are provided with special classes or schools.
ESL in schools
Newcomer children who don’t yet know English will have access to English as a Second Language programs to help them learn English. These classes are often administered between regularly scheduled courses or in place of English taught to those who already speak the language.
Three types of schools
In actuality, you have a choice of the type of school you send your children to. There are three kinds of schools: public schools, private schools and charter schools.
Most children attend public schools where education is funded by the government. You do not have to pay for your child to attend school, but you will be expected to contribute for school supplies and extracurricular activities such as field trips.
The curriculum at public schools is set by provincial governments and is not allowed to impose any one religion as they must be impartial to people from different backgrounds.
A smaller percentage of students attend private schools, the majority of which are religious-based. In Canada, it is rarely elitism that makes parents send their children to private school; usually it is an appeal to a particular religion, an all-girls/all-boys environment or a belief that private education is of a higher standard. Unlike public schools, however, private schools charge tuition and have the right to select their students. They reserve the right to refuse those who do not fit their criteria.
A charter school is a public school, but it functions under a particular charter that declares its special purpose such as a concentration in one discipline (i.e., fine arts, English language). It is still required to teach the provincial curriculum, however. It also must have a board of governors and be strictly accountable to the agency that grants its charter. However, it may hire its own non-union staff, choose its own equipment and set its own budgets.
The quality of education is largely equal in public and private schools. Unlike in the United States, in Canada it certainly has no bearing on university admission for your child later on.
Getting involved in your kid’s school
Parents are encouraged to get involved or even volunteer in the school.
Most elementary and high schools offer parents an option of participating on a Parent Advisory Council (PAC). Being involved in such a group means that you, as a parent, will be involved in decisions regarding field trips, extracurricular activities, books and equipment, and other matters concerning your child’s school. This is a very good way to better understand the education system and to make new friends among other parents.
Some teachers, particularly in elementary, also encourage parents to come help the class for certain special projects or activities. Don’t be shy to take part of at your children’s school.