A Newcomers’ Guide to Education in Canada

Last updated: 6 June 2023
A Newcomers Guide to Education in Canada

Discover the Canadian educational system with our in-depth guide. We give newcomers to Canada the crucial information they need for a successful educational experience in Canada, from the school enrollment procedure in primary and high school to an understanding of post-secondary education options across this country.

Table of Contents


Welcome to your comprehensive guide on Canada's educational system. This manual will provide you with an in-depth understanding of the Canadian educational system's framework, from early childhood schooling to high school. It addresses important subjects such as school selection, enrollment procedures, grading systems, and the distinctions between public and private schools. We also explore practical topics like common school events and activities as well as parental involvement in a child’s education and the SWIS program. We'll also go over the assistance available for students with special learning needs and the significance of language classes in the classroom. Dive into this guide to prepare for a rewarding and successful educational journey in Canada for you and your family.

Is education free in Canada for immigrants?

Yes. Getting an education for your child in Canada is free for all newcomers to Canada, including permanent residents, work permit holders and study permit holders.

As a permanent resident in Canada, you will not need to provide any extra documentation to allow your child to receive a free public school education in this country. In Canada, the public school education system covers the costs of school for all children of Canadian citizens and permanent residents from kindergarten to the end of high school. Typically, this means that school is free for children from the ages of 5 or 6 to 18 years old. This is because the Canadian education system is jointly funded through the taxes paid by all residents.

On the other hand, temporary residents (including study permit and work permit holders) may need to supply their local school board with certain documents to verify their child’s eligibility for a free public school education. The required documents may vary based on the province or territory you choose to settle in, as each region in Canada has unique rules that govern its education system.

In other words, for work and study permit holders in Canada with temporary resident status, their child’s eligibility for a no-cost public school education will depend on the rules of the school board in their community.

Example: Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in Ontario

In Toronto, the most populated city in Canada’s most popular immigrant destination province, the TDSB notes that children of work permit holders “may” qualify for “fee-exempt status” under certain conditions.

The same is true for any children of study permit holders under the age of 18. Under a specific set of conditions decided by the TDSB, including but not limited to the following, study permit holders in Canada can have their children educated in Canada’s public school education system for free.

  • The parent must have a letter of acceptance from a designated learning institution that receives operating grants from the Government of Ontario
  • The parent must maintain status as a full-time student
  • The student must live with the parent who is studying in Ontario
  • The parent must be accepted into a full-time program leading to a post-secondary degree, diploma, or certificate program. Certificate programs must be at least 2 semesters long and meet the Ministry requirement for total instructional hours (minimum 600+ hours).

According to the TDSB, if the fee-exempt status applies, the student may begin school 1 week before the start date of the parent’s program fees will apply to students who wish to enroll prior to this date.

Government and school board resources in the province and community you settle in will be able to provide policy information specific to your situation.

Note: If newcomers to Canada want to have their children educated outside of the public school system, they will incur out-of-pocket costs to enrol their child in a private school or boarding school (more on private vs public education to follow).

Is education in Canada public or private?

Canada has both public and private education options in most communities across the country, allowing families to decide on their child’s educational path based on their available financial resources and educational preferences.

Public schools are, as the name suggests, institutions funded by taxes collected from the public in each province/territory. These schools offer free education for children from kindergarten until they graduate from high school. Public schools are all governed by the province/territory they are in. This means that the material that their students are taught is chosen by the governments of each region.

Private schools, on the other hand, are owned by private entities that charge parents an annual tuition fee to enrol their children. Tuition fees vary significantly based on the institution. Private schools are not restricted to the curriculum decided by the province in which they are located, allowing them to independently decide what to teach students enrolled at their institution.

      Who pays for education in Canada?

      Newcomers to Canada can incur costs for their child’s education depending on the type of institution they want their child to attend.

      While a public school education is free for most residents of Canada (see above note regarding children of work and study permit holders) from when they begin kindergarten to when they graduate high school, these costs can range from between $15,000 and $30,000 annually for their child to attend a private/independent day school or $63,000 to $83,000 every year to obtain a private/independent boarding school education.

        What are the other education options for my child?

        Beyond public and private education options, parents interested in educating their children themselves may partake in homeschooling. Similar to how public schooling systems differ by province or territory, rules and regulations for homeschooling your child also vary based on the region you are living in.

        Note: Parents can often find suggested curriculum and supporting material online. Less than one percent of children in Canada are homeschooled.

        Which province in Canada has the best education system?

        Generally, Canada has a high quality of education regardless of where you settle across this country.

        Determining which province has the “best” education system, however, is a matter of understanding your family’s needs and preferences. Educational curriculums for the public school system are decided at the provincial/territorial level, meaning that each region makes its own choices about what students learn.

        For instance, while French is mandatory in the Ontario education system's curriculum for students in grades 4 through 8, learning French is only a recommendation in Alberta. Meanwhile, French is the predominant language of educational instruction in Quebec, as it is the first language of the province.

        To the extent possible, it may be worth using the internet to assess the different curriculums across Canada before picking the province or territory you would like to settle your family in.

        How do I enrol my child in school in Canada?

        In Canada, the school enrollment process will vary depending on the level of school you’re interested in for your child and where you live. In any case, however, parents require the following four documents to enrol their children in primary (elementary) or secondary (high) schools across Canada:

        • birth certificate
        • proof of guardianship or custody
        • proof of residency
        • record of immunizations (to prove that your child’s vaccines are up to date)

        The first step in the enrolment process for both elementary and high school in Canada is to contact your local school board.

        Since a school board usually manages a number of schools in the community, you will often have more than one school to choose from in your region.

        When a child is first enrolled in school across Canada, either the school board or the school they will be attending will assess their level of education and decide the level they should be placed at as well as whether they require free support (ex. English or French classes).

        What is the school schedule in Canada?

        Schools operate between September and June every year, minus weekends and holidays such as Christmas or March Break.

        Although this can vary at every school in Canada, elementary and high schools across this country typically begin their day between 8 and 9 am. The school day usually ends between 3 and 4 pm. In the case of universities and colleges across Canada, times tend to vary because they typically offer flexibility through evening and night classes for students that need such options.

        Summer break in Canada is between the end of one school year (late June) and the start of the next (early September).

        What languages are taught in Canadian schools?

        Students in Canada can study in either English or French. Some educational institutions offer instruction in both languages, but students are not required to be fluent in both languages to attend school at any level in Canada.

        Across most of the country, the main language of education is English, but French language education is also widely available. Regardless of the main language of instruction, some level of French or English as a second language is generally taught from an early age.

        In Quebec, however, students are usually required to be educated in French until the end of secondary school. This includes newcomers to Canada, although some private education options may be available for Quebec-bound newcomers who would like their child to be taught in English. In addition, temporary residents in Quebec (ex. on a study permit, work permit etc.) may enrol their child in school with English-language instruction.

        In addition to standard class instruction in English and French, many institutions across Canada offer English as a Second Language (ESL) and French as a Second Language (FSL) classes to students of all ages. These classes are designed to aid newcomer students in Canada, whose first language is not English or French, with learning how to write, read and speak in one of Canada’s two official languages.

        Especially for newcomers to Canada, specially designed and focused language classes are an integral part of the Canadian education system due to the advantages they provide children as they go through life, from when they begin learning French and English to when they become self-sufficient working adults. Knowledge of Canada’s official languages has been shown to be correlated with greater economic and career success in this country, meaning that your child could benefit greatly from receiving an education in both languages.

        How are students graded in Canada?

        Although there are variations based on the province/territory of education, the following table includes the general grading system used in Canadian schools.

        Letter GradePercentageDescriptor
        A80 to 100Excellent
        B70 to 79Good
        C60 to 69Average/Fair
        D50 to 59Poor
        F49 and UnderFail

        What is special education called in Canada?

        It is important for parents of children with disabilities/special needs to understand that Canada values the inclusion of all children within the education system. For that reason, many Canadian schools offer one or both of the following education options for students with intellectual and/or physical disabilities. The placement of your child in one of these situations will typically depend on the extent of their needs.

        Note: Other resources available for children with special learning needs include resource workers inside a school who are trained to aid students with disabilities throughout their learning experience.

        Immersion in standard classes with the help of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or similar aid

        For students with mild physical disabilities as well as some less severe intellectual disabilities, many of Canada’s schools will try to immerse them into standard classes with their classmates. Recognizing that they still may need special attention, many provinces and territories use Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to improve the learning experience of students with special needs. These plans outline how a school board will assist a student - through accommodations, services and special programs - to make sure that they are able to learn optimally and get the most out of their education.

        Specialized classroom settings for students requiring extra help and attention

        In the case of students with more advanced special needs, many Canadian schools offer special education classes where your child will be grouped alongside other students with special needs for a uniquely designed educational experience. In these classes, students will typically be taught different content than in standard classes, usually at a different pace that is more suitable for their needs.

        What are common school events and activities in Canada?

        Across Canada, schools often organize field trips that allow students to explore and learn while away from the classroom. Several examples of common field trip locations in Ontario, the top province for newcomer settlement, include the Ontario Science Centre and Black Creek Pioneer Village. These trips, which are typically organized to span a full school day, give children the opportunity to have fun and learn in a new environment.

        Other common activities run by Canadian schools include extracurricular sports teams and clubs for children to interact with one another outside of school hours. Always involving the guidance of an adult (typically a teacher at the school), clubs may operate for such things as chess or student government in high school as well as art, math or photography. Available clubs and teams will depend on the school board where your child is enrolled.

        Finally, many Canadian schools host annual events and spirit days that allow children to get involved with different parts of this country’s history. For instance, some communities across Canada celebrate Canadian icon Terry Fox with an annual Terry Fox Run. Likewise, it is common for schools in many areas of Canada to hold a moment of silence and a “ceremony” (often referred to as an “assembly”) on Remembrance Day in honour of Canada’s military.

        How can parents stay involved in their children's education in Canada?

        In Canada, many schools have Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) that allow parents the opportunity to involve themselves at their child’s school through fundraising and event planning, as well as volunteering their time to chaperone events such as school dances or field trips.

        A less time-consuming way to get involved in your child’s education is to attend their parent-teacher conferences, which give you the chance to get to know your child’s educators as well as get a better understanding of what they are learning, their strengths and weaknesses as a student and what you can do at home to help them succeed in the classroom.

        Finally, one way to get very involved in your child’s education is by participating in events and meetings with the school board or school district. School boards across Canada hold regular meetings throughout the school year, as well as the summer months, to give parents and community members the opportunity to voice their opinion and influence the school board’s direction and decisions (curriculum etc.). There may even be opportunities for parents to obtain a seat on the school board committee, as positions open throughout the year and spots are voted on by the members of the community served by the board.

        Talk to your child’s school and their teachers to get an even greater idea of how you can get involved with their educational experience in Canada.

        What is the SWIS program for settlement workers in schools?

        The Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program is an initiative from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that operates in many provinces across Canada. This program provides newcomer students and their families with settlement services and information through a SWIS worker assigned to your child’s school.

        Through this program, SWIS workers assist students and their families with their transition to life in Canada by giving them information to help them get more comfortable in a new country while also referring them to resources provided by other entities (schools, agencies, community programs) that also assist them in this goal.

        Please contact your school or the SWIS office directly (after enrolling your child at a school) to find out more about SWIS services available in your area.

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