Charlotte Mirzazadeha
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada

Overview of Education System

The Canadian education system is decentralized at the national level and has neither a national education system nor a national curriculum. The Canadian education system is centralized at the provincial or territorial level. There are 10 provinces and 3 territories, and as a result, 13 independent education systems in Canada.

Within each jurisdiction, departments or ministries of education have overall responsibility for the following: developing curriculum; allocating funds to public school boards; setting policies and guidelines for school trustees, directors of education, principals, and other school board officials; setting requirements for student diplomas and certificates; and administering provincial or territorial assessments. Education services are delivered locally through boards of education, public schools, and independent schools, while the Ministry of each jurisdiction provides leadership, develops policy and legislation, oversees system governance, sets curriculum learning standards, and builds accountability frameworks in partnership with school boards.

In addition to public school settings, there also are private, separate, charter, and home school settings across the country. Public and separate school systems that are publicly funded serve about 93 percent of all students in Canada. Six jurisdictions provide partial funding for private schools if certain criteria are met, which vary among jurisdictions. No funding for private schools is provided in the other jurisdictions, although they still may be regulated.1 The proportion of private schools to public schools varies greatly across jurisdictions and by language of instruction.2

In general, there are two school levels: primary (elementary) and secondary. In Canada, the primary level mostly ranges from Grades 1 to 6 or from Grades 1 to 8 (depending on the province). Outside of Quebec, the secondary level mostly ranges from Grades 7 to 12 or from Grades 9 to 12 (depending on the province). In Quebec, the secondary level consists of Grades 7 to 11.b Lastly, at the secondary level, many jurisdictions offer a large variety of school types (e.g., alternative or specialized schools) as well as varied courses or tracks (e.g., applied or advanced), which can affect the content of their mathematics or science courses.

The age range for compulsory education in Canada varies across provinces from 5 to 19 years old. In most Canadian jurisdictions, children may begin primary school at age 6, with the compulsory starting age ranging from 5 to 7 across jurisdictions. Prior to starting primary school, most children are enrolled in preprimary education. While all jurisdictions offer some form of preprimary education, such as kindergarten, depending on the jurisdiction, it may or may not be compulsory. Besides kindergarten, several other early childhood programs are available prior to Grade 1 in public or private schools, or in other independent institutions across Canada.3

Languages of Instruction

English and French are the two official languages of instruction in Canada, with the majority of students receiving first-language instruction in English. For Canadian students attending schools in which English is the medium of instruction, French is taught as a second language; the reverse is the case for schools in which French is the medium of instruction. In order to ensure that English-speaking students have the opportunity to learn both of Canada’s official languages, French immersion programs are offered in the public education systems throughout Canada. In these programs, students who do not speak French as their first language receive some or all of their instruction, and perform their schoolwork in French. Similarly, English language programs are available for students who have not received first-language instruction in English.

Canada has rich cultural diversity that includes numerous aboriginal populations. To support aboriginal cultures and eliminate the gap in literacy achievement, several bilingual programs are offered for First Nations languages in combination with English, French, or both. Of these aboriginal language programs, Cree and Inuktitut are among the most notable.4

As a multilingual and multicultural country, Canada has a significant and continually growing immigrant population. In some large urban areas, school boards have identified more than 75 different home languages and dialects among students. A number of language programs are available in American Sign Language, Arabic, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish, and Ukrainian, among others.

For mathematics and science, the primary language of instruction is English in an Anglophone school and French in a Francophone school. Mathematics and science instruction may also be in French for French immersion students. In Canada, English is considered to be the first language of French immersion students and French their second language. In addition to these programs, some jurisdictions also offer bilingual programs that provide instruction in a target language (other than English or French) for up to 50 percent of the school day.5 This bilingual instruction may or may not include mathematics and science, and may or may not be in a student’s first language.

  • a Written with contributions from provincial departments and ministries responsible for education in Canada.
  • b In this document, Grades 7 to 11 are equivalent to Secondary I to Secondary V in Quebec.