Canadian Education System: The Basics of Education in Canada

New international students often find it hard to understand how the Canadian Education System works. The good news is, Canada has a strong and well-funded system of public education, which is mainly managed by its provinces. And this makes things a bit tricky as each province’s school system tend to differ from others. Despite all this, the basics of the Canadian Education System remain unchanged across provinces and schools.

General information

There are three main levels in Canada’s Education System: Primary, Secondary, and Post-secondary. In addition, Canada offers students both private and public education in English and French. Therefore, International students can choose to study in either one of the languages. But this rule may not apply if the student lives in Quebec. Quebec generally requires students to attend a school in French until the end of high school. But there are exceptions to this requirement which will not be covered in this article.

Primary Education / Elementary School

Primary Education, also referred to as the elementary school, runs from grade 1 (ages 6-7) to grade 8 (ages 13-14). And the school year is run from September to June. Kindergarten, or grade 1, maybe required depending on the province the student resides in. Overall, elementary classes teach basic general knowledge to build the students’ foundation.

Secondary Education / High School

Secondary Education, also known as high school, runs from grade 9 (ages 14-15) to grade 12 (ages 17-18). Similar to elementary school, each year is from September to June. In addition, High schools offer summer courses for those needing more credits for their post-secondary education admission requirements. Compared to elementary school, high school courses are more specific. For instance, rather than taking a general “science” course, students can take classes in biology, chemistry, or physics. Moreover, writings and tests are much more demanding.

Provincial Exams

Currently, high school students in Canada have to write specific Provincial Exams as part of their diploma requirements. These exams are made by the provincial government and the exams’ grades are very important; Since a bad grade on any of the exams can result in failure to meet the admission requirements for post-secondary education. Fortunately, the ministry of education is aiming to remove the provincial exams for grades 10, 11 and 12 courses in the near future.

Post-Secondary Education

Thanks to its large number of post-secondary institutions, Canada offers one of the best higher level of education worldwide. The main post-secondary institutions include colleges and universities.


credit: College of the Rockies

Colleges are community schools that focus on career training and granting university credits. As a result, colleges tend to be more career-oriented than most universities. Students who are looking for practical or hands-on training can highly benefit from colleges. It is common to attend college for a few years before going to University. That’s why Colleges are also an option for students whose grades were not high enough to enroll in University right after high school. These students often apply to Colleges and transfer to University after.


credit: University of Winnipeg

While colleges focus on career training, universities grant degrees such as Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral Degree. Due to many similarities between Universities and Colleges, we will refer to them as colleges for the rest of the article.

Students can apply for any college program they desire as long as they meet the admission requirements of that program. For the most part, students begin their study program in September or January. A college year often runs from September to April or May and has two semesters. In addition, many colleges offer courses in a third semester during summer. What’s more, you can get work experience through colleges’ co-op programs. Co-op allows students to build up their resumes and take a semester off to work in their study field. There are many advantages to taking on a co-op program thus making it very competitive to get in for most. As a result, you need to have a high GPA and lots of extracurricular experiences in and off-campus for co-op.

credit: Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning

Canada has a strong system of education at all of its three levels. Hence why many students come to Canada for education. Although the basics of the Canadian Education System is the same across provinces, there are a few differences among schools and provinces. So be sure to check out specific schools as you may find more information about their system.

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