High school education in Canada for International Students – A Quick Guide

Education in Canada is, for the most part, publicly funded by the government, including primary and secondary school, which children attend from approximately ages 5 through 17. Teachers’ wages are paid by the government using tax money. There is the exception of private schools, which are paid for through tuition fees by the pupil (or their parents). There is also homeschooling, where the child is taught by the parent in a one-on-one setting. We will cover private schools and homeschooling later in the article.

The education system works as such: primary, then secondary, then post-secondary. Primary begins with kindergarten (children ages 4 or 5) and ends in the eighth grade, though some schools separate grades seven and eight, and this is called middle school. After this comes secondary from grades 9 through 12.

Most employers or post-secondary programs require a secondary education. Canada has the highest percentage of people with a college degree, a total of 51% of the population. Workplace and labour requirements are ever changing, and many now require some form of post-secondary education. Post-secondary education cannot be acquired without a high school (secondary education) diploma. Oddly, one in ten Canadians does not have a high school diploma, while one in seven has a university degree.

In this article we will focus on secondary education.

In every Canadian province, education is compulsory up to the age of 16. However, in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, the age is 18. Studies will culminate in the acquisition of a high school diploma, which means the individual will have met program requirements and quota. Should someone leave without completing their high school diploma, many places offer high school courses for adults.

There are typically 190 school days in the year, beginning after Labour Day in September and going until the end of June. Students then receive a two-month break from study for July and August. Albertan students receive an additional four weeks off for exams, including two weeks in January and two weeks in June.


The primary languages used in public schools are English and French. Part of the Constitution Act of 1982 states hat students will have access to education in either English or French, and students can optionally attend French Immersion classes. For international students, if English is not their first language, they will be immersed in designated ESL (English as a Second Language) courses.

Canada is currently in the process of allowing foreign students and graduates with Canadian work experience become permanent eligible residents. As well, an increasing number of international students are taking pre-university courses in secondary schools across Canada.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that the children of citizens educated in minority language will also be educated in the minority language in schools that are publicly funded. For example, in Quebec there are English schools and in other provinces, where English is the main language, there are publicly funded French schools.


Each province designs its curriculum. Within each province are district school boards that administer the programs. The board members are voted in by supporters within the same district. Each school board follows the curriculum that is outlined at the provincial level. Alberta is the exception to this: it has charter schools that have their own board and then report to the province. The federal government is responsible for the Royal Military College of Canada and providing funding to the education of Indigenous peoples.

Programs are in place such as Native studies, Aboriginal cultures and crafts or other indigenous studies, to create greater understanding of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America), although the breadth of these programs depends upon the area in which they are taught.

Within secondary education, (and postsecondary), there is effort to create positive attitudes and give sociological information. There is some criticism of the current teaching methods and curriculums, as focus has shifted from the fundamentals of knowledge to creating more inclusive environments. Those being critiqued are: grade inflation or failure to objectively grade students (teachers are no longer allowed to fail students); lack of feedback for students (budget cuts mean fewer teachers and classes, resulting in larger class size and less one on one time between teacher and pupil); and general lowered academic standards.

Secondary education typically ends in Quebec after age 16-17 or grade eleven. Grade 12 is part of post-secondary in this province.

Ontario used to have a grade 13 known as Ontario Academic Credit (OAC) but was cut out of the curriculum in 2003 so as to cut costs. This resulted in curriculum being more compacted into lower grades, posing slightly more challenging learning for students, but rendered Ontario’s high school education on par with other provinces.

The cutoff age for high school varies from province to province but typically cuts off at 19-21. Anyone older than this may attend courses for adults. Those who are expelled or otherwise do not finish high school may do so by taking drop-in programs, online classes or night classes.

Private Schools

The Constitution Act of 1867 states religious-based separate schools will receive public funding, as long as the schools were established by law before the province joined Confederation, but this only applied to Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1998 this was repealed.

5.6% of all students in Canada attend private schools. Private schools have a reputation for being elitist, but a small number of private schools are elite (for wealthy students with access to different kinds of education than public schools. For example, they learn more about managing money and people, rather than skills to use in a workplace. Of course they still learn academics and skills, but these schools have prestige). A large number of private schools are religious in orientation, so religion is tied into the curriculum.

Private schools are not commonly found amongst the prairie provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta) and were in fact forbidden at municipal and provincial levels, on the grounds that private schools are elitists and deny opportunity to children of the working poor. This is especially true in Alberta.

Catholic schools are publicly funded in Ontario but other faiths are not. For example, there are also Christian, Jewish and Islamic schools that are funded solely through tuition fees. Toronto has two boards: the Toronto Catholic District School Board and Toronto District School Board, as well as two French boards of Catholic and Public curriculum.

British Columbia has a number of Sikh, Hindu, Christian and Islamic schools. The government pays up to 50% of per-student operating costs, as long as the independent schools meet specific provincial standards.

Alberta has several charter schools, which as mentioned previously are schools that create their own board and report directly to the province. They are fully funded, not private, and Alberta does not give charters to religious schools. Instead, religious schools must follow provincial curriculum.

In all other provinces, private religious schools receive some funding but not nearly as much as the public schools.


In all provinces and territories, secondary education is divided into two categories: junior and senior secondary. Junior high school technically begins with age 13 (approximately) when students enter seventh grade and goes through ninth grade (age 15). Then senior high school begins in tenth grade at age 16 and finishes with twelfth grade at age 17 (approx.). Grades seven through eight are also commonly referred to as middle school.


Homeschooling is legal in all provinces and territories, and is a misunderstood type of education. Parents do not need to be certified teachers in order to homeschool their children. As well, there are no laws regarding homeschooling, only policy. Parents from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds can successfully homeschool their children. There is no legal requirement to keep records of education, either. It would be wise to keep track however, once the child reaches high school years, so that it is easier to apply for university or college. As well, looking ahead to admission requirements for universities will help tailor the high school studies.

If the child is previously registered in the public school system, the parents will have to submit a letter of intent to the school board (and the principal of the particular school) in order to withdraw from the public school system.

Some parents will opt to follow grade-based curriculum with textbooks and worksheets while others may use child-led learning that integrates into daily life and centres around the child’s interest. For example, if a child is more inclined toward mathematics and analytical thinking, then their areas of study would focus there rather than on, for example, arts and humanities. There are different methods in between these two extremes, as well. It is entirely up to the family to decide, depending on their beliefs or life philosophies and lifestyle. The core studies include reading, writing, math and research, and the child can choose others they are interested in.

It is estimated that between 1-2% of all school-age children are homeschooled in Canada, with 20 000 students in Ontario alone. It is hard to get exact numbers since they are not registered. You can homeschool from birth until whatever age the child leaves home.

There are several video lectures, workbooks and other resources available. However, there is nothing in the Education Act that states you must use a curriculum. Should the child be interested in something the parent cannot teach, they can send the child to a tutor or other course/workshop at colleges, online, or elsewhere. Even some textbooks can be understood by the child themselves without parental interference.

In public and private schools, skills and learning are observed through conventional testing and quizzing, but this is more because the ratio of students to teacher is high. At home, the one-on-one allows the parent to directly observe the progress and learning of the child. It is much easier to see if the child is catching on. Testing tends to cause anxiety or stress in students and can affect their performance (as well as the time limit) in a conventional classroom. Home schooling is a much more empathetic and relaxed environment in which the child can learn.


As children are under the influence and supervision of their legal guardians/parents until they turn 18, it is up to the parents/guardians to choose the type of schooling in which their child is enrolled. They can choose from a few different options, including:

Free public schools
Paid private schools
At-home education
English or French school

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