Center on International Education Benchmarking

Canada is notable for its support of equity. It is one of the few countries where immigrant children achieve at a level similar to their native counterparts. Despite different policies in individual provinces, there is a consistent focus on giving all students an equal opportunity. The PISA tests show that children of new immigrants have scores as high as their native peers within three years of arriving, which is much better than most OECD nations.

Supports for At-Risk Pre-Primary Children and Families

Canada provides a national monthly child care benefit for families with children under age 6, the Canada Child Benefit (CCB). The income-tested CCB replaced a universal benefit in 2016. Provinces add provincial funds for low-income families to the national benefit to further subsidize the cost of care. Quebec is alone among Canadian provinces in offering a universal benefit and guaranteeing a public childcare slot for all families but almost all of the provinces are expanding provision. Canada has traditionally trailed many OECD nations in the provision of child care, and expansion of this system has been a high priority across Canada in the last five years. Most provinces have dramatically expanded provision and begun to focus on quality during this period.

In Ontario, the government has committed to expanding provision of child care places by 100,000 by 2020. It only recently created a provincial kindergarten system and now provides free full-day kindergarten for all 4- and 5- year-olds. In 2018, the Ministry reorganized all of its supports for young children and families in EarlyOn Centers. British Columbia recently committed to developing almost 22,000 more child care centers in the province, including those serving indigenous families. It has also added new subsidies for families to make childcare affordable. All families with incomes below CAN$45,000 (US$34,590) will get free childcare and there will be subsidies for families with incomes up to CAN$111,000 (US$85,320). British Columbia has Strong Start Early Learning Centers that are free of charge and offer education and support services for all families with children under age 5. The goal is to ensure that children are ready for school. The province added extra funds to support outreach to families in remote and hard to serve areas of the province.

Supports for At-Risk Students

Many of the Canadian provinces have revamped their education funding systems to make school funding more equal across schools. In the 1990s, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, Canada’s three most populous provinces, moved from a funding system based on local property wealth to a provincial-level system that distributes funding equally across the province. Since then, many of the provinces have added targeted funding for disadvantaged populations. In Ontario, for example, schools are given additional per-pupil allocations for a series of demographic indicators of risk (low-income, recent immigrants, low parent education or single parent status). There are other allocations for English language learners as well as special education students (see below). British Columbia provides additional funding to schools for special education (see below) and for Aboriginal and English language learners but not for other specific populations of students. As of 2017, however, the Ministry is in the midst of a year-long review of their funding formula and is likely to propose more funding aimed at improving equity for disadvantaged populations.

Indigenous families are a traditionally underserved group across Canada, and the federal government has assumed responsibility for funding their education. They are served at a mix of federal and state-run schools. The federal government has also made it a stated goal to establish education in the official minority languages in each province and provide funding to support the development and maintenance of these programs. Nationally, about 4 percent of Canadians are indigenous. Nearly a third are under age 15 and another 18 percent are between ages of 15 and 24.

Supports for Struggling Students

Canadian provinces have their own approaches to supporting students who struggle academically.

Since 2003, Ontario has focused on supporting struggling students in schools. As part of its goal to improve literacy and numeracy rates, the Ministry has implemented a series of major reforms. These included the establishment of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, a 100-person team, separate from the Ministry, devoted exclusively to working closely with districts and schools to improve literacy and numeracy. The Secretariat works with schools to set high but achievable goals for improvement in these basic skills and to identify ways to improve achievement. Specially-designated teams at both the school and district levels were funded to support the program, creating the capacity needed to carry it out. The result of these efforts was to raise the average proficiency rate on grade 3 provincial exams in reading, math and writing from an average of 55 percent in 2003 to 70 percent in 2017.

The second major reform in Ontario was the Student Success Strategy, which focused on identifying potential dropouts early and providing them with the additional help they need to succeed, including one-on-one learning opportunities, development of a range of new high school majors to appeal to a larger number of students, and the addition of experiential learning to classroom learning. Using government funds, high schools hired designated special teachers to support this program in schools. The result was an increase in high school graduation rates from 68 percent in 2003, when the new government came into office, to 86 percent in 2017.

British Columbia’s approach to addressing struggling students gives a great deal of flexibility to local schools and districts. The new Framework for Enhancing Student Learning requires districts and schools to develop local partnerships to address the needs of struggling student populations, including Aboriginal students. The province also recently implemented a new program, called Distributed Learning, in 2016. This policy gives schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of students not served well by traditional programs. Primarily, this gives students access to web-based learning programs.

Special Education

There is no national special education provision, so special education services are designed by each province. The scope of those services differs across the provinces but in general there is a focus on mainstreaming students. For example, Ontario considers a wide range of students “special needs,” from students with developmental or physical disabilities and/or learning disabilities to students who perform far beyond their grade level. As such, schools seek to reach accommodation with all of these students through modified educational programs and access to necessary resources. For students who cannot thrive in a mainstream school program, there is a formal process of identification and a process for shaping an individual program. There are also special schools for students with severe disabilities including deafness, blindness and extreme learning disabilities. The Ontario Ministry of Education allocates specific funds to school boards for special education programs and services, provides expert advice to school boards when considering special education policies, and has a tribunal in place to help mediate between school boards and parents if a conflict arises. This is in addition to a three-tier funding model (with levels of need) the province uses to allocate funds for special needs students.

In British Columbia, there is also an emphasis on inclusion of students with special needs in the traditional education system. The basic allocation each district receives factors in the costs of education students with learning disabilities, mild intellectual disabilities, students requiring moderate behavior supports and students who are gifted. Students with more severe disabilities, including those with severe physical handicaps, serious mental illness, autism, and those requiring intensive behavioral interventions, receive supplementary funding.


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