Education Organization | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Education Organization

The wide diversity in organizational structures in Canadian schools and post-secondary institutions reflects the fact that Canada has never had a co-ordinated education policy and is not likely to have one in the future.

Education Organization

The wide diversity in organizational structures in Canadian schools and post-secondary institutions reflects the fact that Canada has never had a co-ordinated education policy and is not likely to have one in the future. Co-ordinated action in education has, in the past, been frustrated by the historic, cultural and demographic differences between regions in Canada. Each province has the constitutional authority to develop its own educational organization and has been assiduous in exercising and maintaining this authority. However, the federal government has also introduced many policies that influence these provincial educational structures (see School System).


There are 4 major bases upon which education in Canada is founded. The most fundamental of these is the Constitution Act of 1867 (formerly known as the British North America Act), and the stipulations related to the admittance after 1867 of other provinces to Confederation. These laws assigned exclusive control over education to the provinces with the exception of some jurisdictions where this control is limited by previously enshrined rights accorded to specific denominations.

Provincial legislation pertaining to schools and to post-secondary institutions and the regulations associated with these laws are also significant. The rules and policies set by post-secondary institutions and local school boards under the authority of the provincial legislation can be seen as a third cluster in the foundations of Canadian education. The fourth basis would be court precedents and quasi-judicial decisions.

Provincial Systems of Education

The Constitution Act of 1867 made the provinces responsible for education, and so, 12 autonomous education systems have developed in the 10 provinces and 2 territories. Each province has at least one minister of education who is an elected member of the legislature (or, in Québec, the National Assembly). Four provinces presently have special ministries responsible for the post-secondary education sector but this number has fluctuated in the past decades. Each minister has one or more deputy ministers, appointed civil servants who administer their departments and advise the minister on policy. At the public school level the minister and, through the minister, the department of education, are responsible for establishing or approving curricula, certifying teaching and/or administrative staff, authorizing or approving textbooks, authorizing capital developments and allocating the majority of operating funds to local school districts.

Post-secondary Education

The system of post-secondary education in Canada is almost exclusively public. There is some ambiguity about the term post-secondary, in that for some it implies the level of education which one enters following high school graduation, while for others it is more a reflection of the age of the learner than a description of the programs. In the mid-1960s Canada's politicians were faced with an unprecedented demand for places in the country's universities and one of the responses was the creation and the expansion of the college system.

Public Control

Elementary and secondary schools in Canada are under public, federal or private control. Publicly controlled schools in all provinces are run by local school boards which operate under provincial statutes. In 6 of the provinces the local school boards receive virtually all of their funds from their provincial governments. In the remaining 4 provinces the local boards, in addition to receiving provincial grants, raise varying proportions of their revenue by means of local property taxes.

These methods of funding generally apply to all of the public schools within one province, whether denominational or not. However, in Alberta the separate schools have been given the right to opt out of the provincial school foundation fund and have been permitted to continue to levy taxes on their own supporters. This right has not been granted to the nondenominational public school systems. Four provinces have constitutionally protected Protestant or Roman Catholic school systems while Newfoundland until recently had an entirely denominational system of education. Approximately one-third of all students in public schools in Canada are enrolled in denominational schools, mainly Roman Catholic. Approximately 95% of the 5.36 million pupils enrolled in all schools (1993-94) were in public schools.

Federal Control

Under s91 of the Constitution Act of 1867, the federal government became responsible for native people and for their education (see Indigenous People: Education). Until the late 1940s this responsibility was largely discharged through church-operated schools acting on behalf of, and funded by, the federal government. While the Indian Act was amended in 1951 to facilitate the integration of native and non-native students in provincial schools, the initiative met with very little success.

Growing demands over the past 25 years that native peoples be given the opportunity to run their own schools has led to the Department of Indian Affairs gradually divesting itself of any direct involvement in native education in all but a very few reserve schools. Agreements between First Nations bands and the Department have led to a situation where the government acts merely as a funding agent for programs controlled entirely by sectors of the native community.

Band education authorities in most areas now make the decisions regarding staffing, curriculum, language of instruction, length of school year and allocation of resources. First Nations leaders see the matter of control over their own education and their own schools as part of the broader issue of their inherent right to self-government.

The federal government has also largely withdrawn from the governance of schools on armed forces bases operated by the Department of National Defence in Canada. Agreements have been put in place whereby local provincial school jurisdictions provide education to the children of forces personnel and the federal government provides funding. However, approximately 3000 students are educated in Canadian schools overseas and these schools follow the Ontario curriculum.

All education in the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory and Nunavut is funded by the federal government but is governed by ordinances of the assemblies of those 3 regions.

Private Control

Independent or private schools operate in all provinces of Canada and are dependent on provincial approval in terms of their curricula and the safety of their buildings. Only 5 provinces, however, provide financial support to these schools and no province supports them as generously as it does public schools.

The major source of revenue for these schools is fees; however, in 1991 the federal government contributed almost $5 million mainly through minority and second-language program grants. Approximately half of the independent or private schools in Canada are operated by religious denominations. There has been a steady increase in the number of these schools in the past 25 years. Currently (1996) there are approximately 1500 independent or private schools in Canada with an enrolment of approximately 262 000, up from about 135 000 in 1971.

Local Control

At the local level, the provinces are divided into public school districts that are typically governed by elected boards of trustees and administered by superintendents or directors and their staffs. These local districts implement provincial educational policy; evaluate and promote students; employ, transfer and dismiss teachers and administrators; develop some local curricula; select texts; and in a few provinces, raise supplementary funds through local property taxation (which is usually incorporated without review into municipal tax levies). They also assume responsibility for functions such as curriculum development, which may be decentralized by provincial governments.

Given the current fiscal realities every province is considering reducing the number of school jurisdictions and centralizing a number of functions formerly delegated to school boards. There are also plans in place to implement interprovincial collaboration in the development of curricula and in the development of a national testing program. The provincial ministers of education through the Council of Ministers of Education have agreed to implement a national School Achievement Indicators Program whereby a stratified sample of age-specific students will be tested in different subjects on a 3-year cyclical basis. It is anticipated that this initiative will drastically reduce the possibility of educational standards being significantly different from province to province.

Post-Secondary Education

Post-secondary education also falls under the control of the provinces, and consequently there are variations between provinces in the manner in which this sector operates (see Higher Education). All provinces have a dual track system of post-secondary education, with a clear distinction being drawn between the universities and the nondegree-granting institutions. There are almost 70 universities in Canada at present (1996) and approximately 200 technical institutes and community colleges. A number of the universities have separate colleges affiliated with them which either offer the university degree or act as feeder institutions for the university. Similarly many of the colleges have multiple campuses, often in towns other than the site of the main campus.

The 1995 full-time enrolment in post-secondary institutions in Canada exceeded 940 000 students, of whom just over 574 000 were in universities. At the university level this represents an increase of over 70% in the years from 1971 to 1995; however, the year 1995 saw the first drop in this category since 1978. In total there was a decline of just over 2000 in full-time enrolment, mainly among graduate students. This represents a decrease of 0.4% over 1994. Full-time enrolment accounts for about 64% of all enrolments at universities and about 62% at community colleges. From 1978 to 1994 full-time university attendance in Canada rose by approximately 57%, while in the same period part-time university attendance increased by over 90%. The number of part-time students at universities peaked in 1992 at just over 316 000.

However, in recent years the overall rate of increase appears to have slowed considerably, and there has been a decline in the number of part-time university students in 1993, 1994 and 1995. This decline is found in all provinces and at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Presently there are about 266 000 part-time students in universities in this country. It is speculated that the decrease in part-time enrolments may be due to increased tuition costs and labour market conditions. Generally, full-time students tend to be younger than their part-time counterparts, with median ages at universities of 21 and 30 respectively. At colleges the median age of full-time students is 20, while the median age of part-time students is approximately 30. In the past 30 years there has been a steady, sustained increase in the number of women enrolling in both colleges and universities, and women now make up the majority of students in both types of institutions in full-time and part-time categories (see Women and Education). In 1991 it was estimated that 23% of the entire 18-24 age group was enrolled full-time in post-secondary education in Canada.

In addition to colleges there is an extensive number of service organizations such as labour unions, professional associations, libraries, churches, private companies and museums involved in providing adult education.

College System

The college system operates in all provinces and remains under close provincial control. Its expansion in the past 30 years has been one of the most noteworthy features of the post-secondary education scenario in this country. The full-time enrolment in colleges has grown from about 21 000 in 1951 to over 390 000 today.


Since the 1960s also, most Canadian universities have come more directly under provincial control as the power and resources of the religious denominations which formerly governed these institutions have waned. Today, all except 2 Canadian universities operate under provincial charters and provincial legislation and receive the bulk of both their capital and operating revenue from the provincial governments. All provinces are increasingly exerting their authority in the overall planning, development and programming of universities, and university expenditures are subject to stringent government review.

In 1997, $15.58 billion was spent on post-secondary education in Canada, with the provincial, territorial and municipal governments contributing 62% of the total, the federal government contributing 12% and approximately 26% coming from student fees and other sources such as donations and investments. The total of $15.58 billion represents 2.25% of Canada's Gross Domestic Product. These figures do not show the allocation of the monies transferred to the provinces under the Established Programs Financing, which was set up as a result of 1977 legislation. Under this legislation the federal government transfers funds to the provinces to assist in the costs of health care and post-secondary education. This money is received by the provinces as an unconditional grant, goes into general revenue, and may return to the colleges and universities as part of the provinces' contribution of 62%.

While both the enrolment and the expenditures in post-secondary education have increased rapidly since the 1970s, the proportion of women in the universities and colleges has also increased dramatically. Women comprised only 35% of university and college students in 1970 compared with up to 60% today. Women receive 64% of undergraduate degrees and diplomas, 50% of master's degrees and 31% of doctoral degrees. Despite the fact that women students make up the majority of the student body in both colleges and universities, female faculty are still a notable minority, making up only about 24% of university faculty. Furthermore, while this figure represents an increase of over 30% in the last 10 years, these female faculty tend to be concentrated in the lower ranks of university faculty. They make up fewer than 10% of the full professors, 22% of the associate professors and 38% of assistant professors. At the college level the disparity is less pronounced; nonetheless women make up only about 40% of faculty in these institutions. Another cause for concern is the reality that while the proportion of degrees awarded to women has increased steadily, these degrees tend to be in the fields of education, fine and applied arts, and humanities, areas in which underemployment and unemployment tend to be highest.

The Federal Role

Canada is unique among developed countries in having no federal office or ministry of education. This is true at both the public school level and at the post-secondary level. Nonetheless, since as far back as 1912, the federal government has often been indirectly involved in providing financial support to educational initiatives. The federal government intervenes in education through a variety of programs operated by a multitude of departments and agencies.

Public School Level

At the public school level, in addition to the areas already mentioned in which the federal government has sole educational responsibility, the most significant areas of federal support are in the provision of funds for official minority language education and for French immersion programs (see Second-Language Instruction). In some ways the most visible programs are sponsored by the Canada Employment and Immigration Commission and the Department of the Secretary of State, but the federal presence in education can also be seen in the educational work of agencies such as the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Post-secondary Level

At the post-secondary level virtually all federal departments and agencies are involved in providing some financial support. Two of the more visible interventions is through the guaranteeing of student loans by chartered banks and other designated lenders, under the Canada Student Loans Act (see Financial Aid To Students) and through the operation of the National Research Council and 3 research granting councils. The post-secondary education program operated by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada provides funding to eligible students for tuition, travel and living costs at colleges and universities, and the Department of National Defence operates 3 military colleges, each of which is a university with the right to grant academic degrees. In addition, it also subsidizes university attendance for qualified forces personnel and provides funds to facilitate research in the physical and social sciences and in the humanities.

In 1867 education was one of the simplest of government services, easily administered and financed locally. As times changed however, matters became more complex and despite the clear language of section 93 of the Constitution Act of 1867, the federal government has felt obliged to intervene in the educational arena on numerous occasions to meet many national educational demands, financial and otherwise. These incursions commenced with very modest federal agricultural grants in 1912 to provinces and agricultural institutions, and continued through the Technical Education Act of 1919, which provided grants to the provinces for upgrading vocational, technical and industrial education (see Technical Education). These interventions have continued to the present with programs such as the vocational training funding established under the Technical and Vocational Training Act of 1960, and under the 1967 Adult Occupational Training Act and the 1982 National Training Act. The federal government has also provided funding for the official languages programs established to assist in the implementation of the Official Languages Act, 1969 and for the 1990 Stay-in-School initiative, designed to reduce the drop-out rate.

Some of these interventions are attempts by the federal government to respond to the continuous demands that our schools produce a better trained labour force. Others, such as the languages projects and the Canada Studies Program, attempt to ensure that the national interest and identity is fostered in the cultural and humanistic elements of the country's curricula.

Most recent figures indicate that the total educational bill for Canada in 1997 was $58.6 billion. Of this approximately $6.5 billion was made up of contributions from the federal government. This total consisted of fiscal transfers to the provinces and territories in support of post-secondary education as well as the support provided for official languages programs and funding for university research, financial assistance to students and the costs of programs in areas of federal jurisdiction. At the present time the amounts being transferred to the provinces under this arrangement are being reduced, resulting in higher costs to the provinces and increased tuition costs for students.


In 1967 the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada was established by the provincial ministers of education, partly in response to what they saw as the growing federal involvement in education. The CMEC is made up of all the provincial ministers of education and acts on a consensus model of decision making. Consequently, while the council has been helpful as a forum for the exchange of ideas, it has had comparatively little impact on education at a national level. In recent years it has been instrumental in the forwarding of a number of co-operative initiatives, the most noteworthy of which is the development of a set of national achievement tests or indicators which are intended to assess how well students are learning across the country. The CMEC has also been involved with Statistics Canada in the compilation and reporting of reliable pan-Canadian statistics for both the elementary/secondary and the post-secondary levels of education. The council has a comparatively small staff and works collaboratively with the federal government in reviewing federal legislation related to education or to the funding of educational programs. A representative of the federal government attends CMEC meetings in a nonvoting capacity.

An Assessment

In 1976 the Report on Education in Canada by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that there was no real debate about goals and objectives for education in this country. The report stated that "Canadian education policy may be one of the least 'politicized' in the world." For some this lack of serious controversy about education is seen as support for the view that there was considerable agreement in society about the goals of education and the role of the schools. Whether this absence of open political controversy has helped sustain the status quo in education, or whether satisfaction with the status quo has removed the need for controversy is questionable. However, it is quite clear that one of the salient features of Canadian education until very recently was the extent to which very little substantive change in the manner in which education was governed and delivered had taken place.

Waves of Change

The years since the publication of the OECD report have seen massive changes in the structure of Canadian society. Pluralism has become our most descriptive characteristic, with a resultant emphasis on diversity and on tolerance for this diversity. Within the country as a whole this is often manifested as an attempt to strengthen and maintain regional and local identities. The picture is further clouded by the move towards globalization of many aspects of our lives, as shown by the pervasive and transnational cultural forces as well as by the development of hemispheric trading blocks and the rapid multiplication of immense transnational corporations. The tensions created by the need to remain viable and competitive in this changing world while at the same time sustaining and nurturing the multicultural, pluralistic nature of our own Canadian community have forced provincial governments to re-examine the educational systems in terms of how they are their structured and in terms of how, and what, educational services are provided. The tensions are further stretched because of the inescapable evidence that fewer dollars are and will be available for all public services, education included.

Future Directions

It is in response to these tensions that all 10 provinces and 3 territories have, within the past 5 years, established either a commission or a major review to examine the performance of their educational systems. The major focus of these investigations has been to identify alternative structures whereby education can be delivered more effectively and more efficiently. Within the public school context plans are in place to significantly reduce both the number of school jurisdictions and school board members in the country. It is intended to encourage greater competition between schools and school systems and to facilitate the establishment and operation of charter schools. Greater parental involvement will be demanded at the local level and teachers will be compelled to specify clear learning outcomes and demand high standards of performance from all students. The funding of education is being modified to ensure that a greater proportion of school system revenue is allocated to instruction. Many of these changes have been extremely controversial and there have been frequent court challenges to provincial government initiatives over them. The Canadian educational picture is clearly far more politicized today than it was 20 years ago.


The most common provincial scheme for financing education is some type of foundation program whereby a province guarantees a basic level of support for each public-school child. In some provinces the local school jurisdiction then augments this grant money through local taxation of property. However, the percentage of its total revenue which a local school district receives from the government will differ between provinces, and within provinces it will vary between school jurisdictions. For example, in Ontario (1991) on average, approximately 40% of boards' funds came from the province, but the proportion varied considerably depending on local fiscal capacity.

The York Regional Board of Education raised approximately 90% of its funds through local taxation and received only about 10% from provincial grants. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan school boards received approximately 70% and 50% respectively of their revenue from the province. A variety of special grant mechanisms to meet the special needs of particular school districts and pupils supplement this scheme. Significant changes are being introduced in the manner whereby provinces fund education. Ontario has recently (1996) concluded a review of its funding practices and Alberta has moved to remove the right of local school systems to levy local revenue. Alberta now collects all corporate and industrial educational taxes and distributes them to school systems according to provincial formulae. This is intended to remove the disparities caused by a system in which local wealth and fiscal capacity could cause large discrepancies between jurisdictions.

Denominational Schooling

The differences in school jurisdiction organization is most marked in the treatment of religious schools. Each province has developed its own solution to the issue of state-supported sectarian schools. The preconfederation arrangement in Ontario led to the constitutional protection of elementary separate schools, organized as part of the public school system in that province, for Protestants and Roman Catholics. In 1986 the Supreme Court of Canada supported the Ontario government in its attempt to extend full public funding to Catholic high schools and indicated that in so doing the province was merely restoring to the Catholic community constitutional rights which had been unjustly removed in judicial decisions in the late 1920s. Québec had a dual system (Catholic and Protestant) of education in place at confederation and this has been administered by a department of education since 1964. A Supreme Court ruling in 1993 permitted the Québec government to reorganize its educational system along primarily linguistic lines, but permitting Protestants or Roman Catholics to establish their distinct schools within this linguistic structure. Saskatchewan and Alberta adopted the Ontario arrangement in 1905 when they became provinces, as this was the structure specified in the Ordinances of the Northwest Territories of 1901. However Alberta continued to provide full funding to Catholic high schools, a right which was not returned in Saskatchewan until the 1960s. In the Maritimes unofficial local arrangements for public support to denominational schools evolved in many communities, although no legal provisions for sectarian schools existed when these provinces joined confederation.

Consolidation of large numbers of school jurisdictions in the past 30 years has brought about the virtual disappearance of these informal arrangements. Manitoba rejected legal and political attempts to re-establish state support for Roman Catholic schools in the 1890s (see Manitoba Schools Question), but by the 1960s modest state assistance was extended to them as well as to other independent schools. It is expected that by the end of the century independent schools in this province will be receiving approximately 80% of the funding available to public schools. British Columbia has a single public-school system but has provided tax support to independent schools since 1977. In Newfoundland the public school system is organized entirely along denominational lines; at the time of confederation (1949) 7 different denominations were granted constitutional protection for their schools. This protection was subsequently extended to the Pentecostal church. Not all of these denominations currently (1996) operate schools in Newfoundland, and the government is in the process of attempting to bring about major restructuring to reduce costs and duplication of services and to ensure a high quality of education for all students. In a provincial plebiscite in 1995 a narrow majority supported the government's call for a major restructuring of the educational system. The government subsequently approved a motion requesting a constitutional amendment to Term 17 of the Terms of Union with Canada and this request has been submitted to the federal government for consideration. Specific details as to the shape of a restructured educational system in Newfoundland are not presently available.

Levels of Schooling

Variations between provincial educational systems can also be found in many other organizational areas. Differences can be seen in the manner in which levels of schooling are organized. All provinces currently provide financial support for kindergartens in the elementary schools. Alberta, having reduced the level of support to kindergarten to almost 50% for 2 years, restored full funding in the 1996-97 school year. There are also differences in the labels which the different provinces attach to grade configurations. Five of the provinces and the 3 territories have the first 6 grades as elementary, while one province concludes elementary at grade 5 and another continues to grade 7. The remaining 3 provinces include grades 1 to 8 in elementary and then move to secondary schools. In British Columbia the secondary schools begin in grade 8 while in the remaining provinces and in the territories the final 6 (7 in Saskatchewan) grades of school are divided between junior and senior high school. Grade 12 is the highest grade in most provinces; however, in Québec it is grade 11. Ontario is in the process of eliminating the 5th year of high school. Students will henceforth be able to receive all credits required for entry to any of the provincial universities during their 4-year high school program. While Québec high schools end at grade 11 all students wishing to enter a provincial university must take a 2-year general stream program at a collège d'enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP).

Compulsory Attendance

Differences between provinces can also be seen in the manner in which compulsory attendance at school is delineated. All provinces work within the framework that schooling, in one form or another, is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. However, the manner in which these ages is defined differs notably between provinces. For example, Newfoundland states that those who are 6 years of age as of December 31 must be in attendance, while New Brunswick and British Columbia state 7 as of December 31, and Prince Edward Island states 7 as of January 31. Another province gives 6 on the first school day in September as the relevant age, while still another requires 7 on that date as the pertinent age.

Nor is the age at which students are no longer compelled to attend any less confusing. Depending on which province one resides in, one may be excused from the compulsory attendance legislation on one's 16th birthday, at the end of the term in which the 16th birthday occurs or at the end of the school year in which one becomes 16 years of age.