Center on International Education Benchmarking

System Design

Children can begin attending school in Canada at age four or five by entering a non-compulsory pre-school or kindergarten program. By age six or seven, all children must be enrolled in school. Children attend primary school until age 11-13, at which point they move on to lower secondary school where the range of taught subjects is expanded. Starting in lower secondary school, most schools offer two streams: academic and general, for students with different educational goals. There is a movement in some provinces to develop integrated teaching in lower secondary schools. Under this system, students would remain in the same classroom with the same teacher (as in elementary school) rather than have their subjects divided by period and teacher, but currently, lower secondary school is divided by class subject.

After completing lower secondary school, (around age 15 or 16) students can elect to move on to upper secondary (senior high) school, or to end their schooling.  Upper secondary school was, in the past, primarily for students who chose to pursue higher education, with students seeking vocational training educated separately. Now the majority of upper secondary schools are comprehensive and offer courses in both tracks, in a continuation of the lower secondary program. Students are not required to take any gateway tests in order to move on; they advance to the next grade based on completion of the previous grade. High school graduation is based on examination performance and/or course credits, though the specific graduation requirements vary across the provinces. In Ontario, for example, although there is a Secondary School Literacy Test that students must pass in order to graduate, they also have the option of taking and passing the equivalent Secondary School Literacy Course instead.  Graduation rates for upper secondary school vary across the country; in Ontario, the rate of graduation is 81%, and the overall average is 79%.


Canada does not have a national curriculum; rather, the provincial governments are responsible for establishing the curriculum for their schools, and each province has its own, ministry-established common curriculum. However, the Ministers of Education from each province have joined together in the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), in order to establish best practices in a collaborative effort. In addition to traditional compulsory subjects such as language, math, science, social studies and art, all provinces include citizenship education in the curriculum at both the primary and secondary levels. Many provinces have chosen to also incorporate elective subjects such as business and financial education.

Ontario has established curriculum frameworks, resources and achievement standards in the Arts, French, Health and Physical Education, Language, Mathematics, Native Languages, Science and Technology and Social Studies at the elementary level, and additionally for Business Studies, Canadian and World Studies, Classical and International Languages, Computer Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, Native Studies and Technological Education at the secondary level.  The curriculum is revised cyclically in consultation with curriculum developers, parents, teachers and other interested parties; a full revision cycle takes about nine years, with different components of the curriculum updated every year.


All provinces develop their own assessments. Most have province-wide examinations for certain year groups, during which the assessment measures numeracy and literacy, and core-subject tests to determine graduation eligibility in senior high school. In all provinces, parents also receive regular reports on their child’s progress. There are also several national assessments which are carried out periodically.  One of the primary national assessments is the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP), piloted in 2007. PCAP replaced the School Achievement Indicators Programme (SAIP), which had been in place since 1993. PCAP assesses the reading, math and science skills of 13- and 16-year-old students. The PCAP was formulated to be much like PISA; each year, one of the three core test subjects is the primary focus of the examination. In addition to the tests, PCAP also collects data on Canadian learning contexts. Students, principals and teachers complete surveys, which ask about their learning environments and how much value they place on the core subjects. PCAP’s results are reported through the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), and are analyzed by province, gender and language spoken. They are used to inform broad policy decisions and as a benchmarking standard across provinces, but CMEC does not provide data on individual schools or school districts to the public. Some provinces, such as Ontario, have their own set of assessments that are used to provide data about student performance at the school and/or school board level. Additionally, in most provinces, teachers use authentic assessment in their classrooms. This includes daily student work, teacher-made tests and quizzes, writing assignments and group projects.


Following a series of reforms in the 1960s and 1970s, the method of instruction in Canada changed from primarily rote learning to one focused on child-centered learning. Methods including open-plan schools, team teaching and the use of visual aids have been implemented with varying success across Canada in the last several decades. Specific instructional frameworks vary across provinces. In Ontario, the ministry provides sample activities and rubrics for instruction that match the curriculum by grade level and by subject, to enable teachers to incorporate activities and assessments in the instruction that are directly aligned with the curriculum goals.

The Structure of Ontario’s Education System


In primary and lower secondary school, test scores do not typically determine progression to the next phase of education. Graduation from upper secondary school, however, is often based on exam performance and course credits. In Ontario, students can proceed from first grade through twelfth grade without taking gateway exams. However, in order to graduate from high school, students must complete 18 compulsory credits in core subjects, 12 optional credits and 40 hours of community service as well as pass the Secondary School Literacy Test, or take and pass the equivalent Secondary School Literacy Course. Admission to universities in Canada is typically based on student performance in high school, and primarily on grades. Students who wish to continue on to university submit their transcripts to their school(s) of choice and are generally accepted on the basis of grades alone. Students are given preference at universities in their home province, but are allowed to apply to any university across the country.  There is no major gateway exam required for admission, though the SAT is administered in the majority of provinces for students who want to attend university in the US.

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