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Highschool Education in Canada: Understanding the System

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

High School Education in Canada is a broad topic, and getting a decent grasp on the ins and outs of the Canadian secondary school system can take some getting used to. Different pathways will depend on the province and the various types of schools that one might attend. Each province or territory has its own system, so depending on where a student might live, their program will look a bit different - but the overall system is essentially the same. The primary goal of high school education in Canada is to prepare students for college or university by teaching them skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity which are needed at this level. High schools also teach history, languages, art, mathematics, and sciences but typically not all of these subjects are taught at once. This blog post will give you an overview of what high school education looks like in Canada, and there's a lot to learn about the Canadian high school system, so for a quick, yet in-depth play-by-play on the topic, keep reading!

What might a student need to know to begin attending high school in Canada? Canada is a country with strong constitutional rights, and it shows in the way our education system is organized. The Canadian government's approach to education is one of upholding the values of equality and universal access. The first year of high school in Canada is referred to as the ninth grade, and high school consists of 4 academic years, up until grade 12. Some schools will divide their academic years based on semesters, quarters, or terms The most popular academic calendar tends to be semester-based, with two semesters per academic year - winter semester (August-December) and spring semester (January-May).

Based on academic performance, students are placed in one of three types of schools: university preparatory, general, or vocational. This system exists across Canada and enables universities to transfer credits between different provinces and schools - making it easier for students studying in Canada to enroll in various Canadian universities.

1) A Superior System

What makes the Canadian system stand out from other countries? The system in Canada is built around creating equality - this means that every student who successfully completes the course curriculum will receive a diploma for his or her efforts. This doesn't mean that all students must attend the same school – there are private schools and home school associations for those who wish to pursue an alternative. The current system calls for students to attend high school until they are eighteen, which means that students will need to graduate in order to receive a diploma - the end goal for all students in Canada, with no standardized tests or other obstacles standing between them and their future.

In terms of rankings, Canada ranks as one of the highest countries in the world for student achievement. Students are seen as individuals, not numbers, and are given opportunities that will allow them to flourish in their own way - that's why choosing to pursue a high school education in Canada can be one of the best ways for a student to prepare for post-secondary education. In the most recent assessment conducted by OECD, Canada was ranked 6th in reading, 12th in math, and 8th in science. Canada also has one of the highest rates of successful completion of high school in the world - coming in 2nd overall. The system is designed to help young people learn within the classroom and also flourish in their day-to-day experiences.

The grading system in Canada can vary depending on the school - some schools use a percentage grade, others will use letter grades to determine their students' marks. For the most part, the majority of schools will use a percentage grade to assess a student's progress and each school will have different grading scales associated with their own set of rules about what letters are awarded for which marks.

This is the grade scale used in Ontario high schools:

A+ = 95-100%

A = 87%–94%

A- = 80%–86%

B+ = 77%–79%

B = 73%–76%

B- = 70%–72%

C+ = 67%–69%

C = 63%–66%

C- = 60%–62%

D+= 57%–59%

D = 53%–56%

D- = 50%–52%

F = 0%–49%

2) Wide Range of Pathways

Each student in Canada will have a unique secondary school path in order to fulfill their own specific direction. All public schools and most private schools will offer guidance support which is readily available and highly recommended for students to take advantage of. It is understood that each student will have a different educational pursuit, and there are so many exciting options to choose from!

  • University Preparation: These schools have core classes that include math and science as well as English and other language courses. In addition, they provide resources such as workshops, field trips, and guest speakers to help students prepare for post-secondary education. Students may choose to take IB (International Baccalaureate) programs, wherein they are immersed in an intensive program where they are able to study in university-level courses and get a head start on their post-secondary education. Similarly, A-Level programs offer university-level courses, but at a less accelerated pace and in a more focused academic approach.

  • General/Academic: This is the most popular choice in Canada. Most students go to a general school in order to be prepared for a job or pursue a trade after high school graduation. This path generally consists of core courses such as English, Math, and Science, which will provide a solid foundation for university or college. Students who choose this path may also get the opportunity to take social sciences such as history and geography.

  • Vocational: Students interested in pursuing a trade or vocation after high school can attend vocational schools that offer specific courses for their area of interest. Students in vocational schools have the opportunity to learn hands-on skills and gain industry knowledge from faculty members who specialize in their area of interest. They may also choose to take general courses that are offered at a vocational school if they wish to pursue other post-secondary education paths in the future.

3) Earning credits & Getting a Diploma

Canadian high schools allow students to choose which courses to take depending on their future goals and interests. This includes compulsory and elective credits. In Canada, different provinces will have different requirements, but for the most part, are equivalent in earning a Secondary School Diploma.

In Ontario, there are 3 specific requirements that each student needs to fulfill in order to receive their diploma - Successfully complete the province's Literacy Test, 40 Community Service Hours, and completing 30 credits total - including 18 compulsory credits (which all students must complete) and 12 elective credits (which is up to the individual student). Compulsory credits include those in English, Math, Science, Social Sciences, and the Arts. Electives are much more flexible and this is where many students are able to have a bit more fun with their high school education and pursue credits that pertain to their specific interests and passions.

Canada's high school education system is well respected around the world. With internationally recognized secondary schools, a highly regulated education board, and a wide range of choices, Canada provides an exceptional education for all students despite their socioeconomic status or post-secondary goals.

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