Get familiar with public school

By Dana Hall

Posted on June 21, 2021

Most children in Canada attend public school. Private schools, faith-based schools, and homeschooling options are available as well. (To learn more about Catholic education in Canada, see this article.) Public school is free, and Canada is considered to have one of the strongest public education systems in the world. Children learn basic school subjects and are also taught physical education.

The public school system is intended for children and teenagers, but adults can also take high school courses. Classes for adults are separate from the younger students and usually happen at night. They are meant to help adults achieve qualifications like a high school diploma. They can also be used to help develop certain skills. These courses are often free or have a small cost. You can learn more about adult learning here.

Types of school

Preschool: Preschool usually starts at age three, but some preschools will allow younger children to attend too. This is not part of the public school system, so you will need to pay for this level of schooling. Preschool is more like daycare and is not focused on education. Some parents like to send their kids to preschool so that they can go back to work or so their kids can start socializing with other children.

Kindergarten: The purpose of kindergarten is to transition kids into formal learning. It is different from preschool because the activities are designed to teach kids basic skills. Children do not receive grades in kindergarten. Kindergarten usually starts when a child turns five.

Some provinces split kindergarten into two years and starts when a child is four. The first year is called junior kindergarten. The provinces that offer junior kindergarten are the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec. Junior kindergarten is not mandatory but kindergarten is, in some provinces. Please refer to your province guide for more information. Note that in Nova Scotia, kindergarten is also called “Grade Primary.”

Elementary School: This can also be called primary school or grade school. It starts when a child is six and is the beginning of formal learning. Depending on the province you live in, elementary school will continue until the child is between 10 and 13 years old. Students are taught about a range of subjects and have one teacher and one classroom. It is mandatory for children to attend elementary school. If you do not want your children to attend, you can also homeschool them.


Middle School: This is also called junior high. It begins between the ages of 10 and 13 and ends between the ages of 14 and 16 depending on the province you live in. In middle school, student learning is divided into “periods.” They have their own class schedule, and each subject is taught by a different teacher in a different classroom. Quebec does not have middle school.

High School: Like middle school, high school classes are also divided into periods. Students are required to take certain classes, but they can also choose “electives.” These are classes students will take to learn more about particular interests and explore future career options.

High school classes are divided into two levels, the “academic level” and the “applied level.” Academic classes will qualify students to apply for university while applied classes will prepare students for college and trade school. To learn about how the post-secondary system works in Canada, check out this article by The Newcomer.

Language of instruction

School in Canada is taught in English or French.

If you live in an English-speaking part of the country, you will be able to choose if you want your child to learn in English or French as a primary language.

Most schools in English-speaking parts of the country will teach children in English. Most cities will also have a French school as well. This is intended for children who have a good understanding of French or who speak it as their first language.

There is also the option of French immersion, which is meant for children who do not yet speak the language. Schools offering “French Immersion” teach children French by using it as the primary language of instruction. This program starts when the child is five or six. If the child is older than six and does not speak French, French immersion is not recommended.

If you send your child to French immersion, the language spoken outside of class will still be English. Children are encouraged to speak French even at recess, but most choose to speak English with their friends. It is important that your child knows English, even if they are attending a French school. Otherwise, they will not be able to communicate with their peers.

If your child does not speak English already, it is recommended that they take English lessons before they go to school.

If you live in Quebec, you will be expected to send your child to French school. The main language spoken at the schools is French. If your child cannot speak French, it is a good idea to give them French lessons before they attend.

There are English schools in the province, but children can only attend in certain circumstances. If you are in Quebec temporarily, an exception will also be made for your child to attend English school.

The school calendar

School starts between the end of August and early September. Most provinces start school the day after Labour Day. The school year ends at the end of June. Refer to your province guide in the Settlement section for specific information about your province.

Back to school culture

It is common for kids to get “back to school” supplies and clothing before the start of a new school year. There is no obligation to take part in “back to school” activities, but many stores will have sales on supplies and clothing at the end of August. It can be a good time to buy these items for your children.

Public schools in Canada do not have school uniforms. Kids can usually wear what they want, but there will usually be a dress code to prevent “inappropriate” clothing from being worn. If you have a teenager who is shopping on their own, they should make sure their clothing follows the school’s dress code.

kid with backpack

Physical education and wellbeing

Physical health and mental wellbeing are a big part of the public school system. Children are taught about exercise and nutrition from a young age. They will be exposed to a variety of sports in gym class and learn how to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. Sex education is also taught in public school. The goal of this type of education is to make sure people living in Canada learn about healthy relationships, birth control, consent, sexuality, and gender. Sexual health education in Canada can be more intensive than what is taught in some countries, so it is a good idea to get familiar with your province’s curriculum. This way, you’ll know what your child will learn about in each grade.

Young people will learn about anatomy, safe sex, and birth control to help prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. In some provinces, students will also be taught about different kinds of sexualities, relationships, and genders. Youths will also learn about healthy relationships and consent.

If you are uncomfortable with your child learning about sexual health, you can remove them from certain parts of the curriculum. It is recommended that parents look at the long-term benefits of sexual health education before making this decision.

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