School Systems | The Canadian Encyclopedia


School Systems

A present-day feature of all developed countries is a system of schooling which is governed and supervised, at least to some extent, by the state. These systems were established and expanded to facilitate universal and compulsory education for young people between certain ages.
Lord Roberts School
Lord Roberts School, 1100 Bidwell Street, built in 1900, Vancouver, c. 1907 (courtesy Vancouver Public Library/5133).

School Systems

A present-day feature of all developed countries is a system of schooling which is governed and supervised, at least to some extent, by the state. These systems were established and expanded to facilitate universal and compulsory education for young people between certain ages. In order to increase the likelihood of attendance, this schooling is generally provided free of charge. While education can be seen as a major benefit to the individual who receives it, it must also be seen as a public good.

Because of this public dimension to schooling and education, it is appropriate that the state be seen to have a compelling interest in ensuring the viability and effectiveness of its educational system. In most countries today we also find a system of private or independent schools which are still subject to some government control but in which a considerable portion of the costs are paid for by fees.

Constitutional and Political Context

While the current Canadian education system has been shaped by the federal nature of the country, and specifically by section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, school districts, governed by locally elected boards of trustees, have been a key element in the public schooling of this country since the very early 19th century. Legislation which was passed in Upper Canada [Ontario] in 1816 set a pattern for school system governance which, with very little change, has prevailed to the present day in much of the country. This legislation was based in many ways on values borrowed from the US. A system of common schools governed by locally elected school trustees is integral to this legislation. Local control over school matters survived the legislation dealing with confederation and persists in every province and in the 2 territories to the present.

Within the Canadian constitutional framework, section 93 of the Constitution Act of 1867 (formerly known as the British North America Act) granted virtually exclusive responsibility for education to the provinces. This section states that "in and for each province, the Legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to education." This total provincial control is tempered only in relation to denominational schools. Provincial governments may not take away rights that have been granted, and enshrined in law, to specific classes of persons in relation to denominational schools prior to the particular province becoming a part of the federation.

This means that in 5 of the provinces there is a system of education in place in which specific denominational rights in relation to education are protected. In 4 of these, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Québec, the rights are safeguarded only for Protestants and Roman Catholics. In the fifth province, Newfoundland, the entire educational system is interdenominationally based, where 8 different religious denominations enjoy constitutional privileges in relation to schooling.

The Expansion of Educational Systems in Canada

As Canada's population expanded, the demands on the educational system of the country also grew, although in more recent times the relationship is not directly linear. The highest enrolment in Canada's schools was in 1970-71, when the public and independent schools had a combined enrolment of 5.8 million students. Although the country's population continued to grow, school enrolment declined considerably from 1971 on, as the children of post-war baby boom parents graduated. This decline continued until the mid 1980s and reached a low of 4.9 million in 1985-86.

Since the 1980s there has been a steady and gradual increase in those attending school, and the number now stands at 5.44 million, of whom 277 000 (5.1%) attended an independent or private school. Enrolment in these nonpublic schools has increased steadily from 1971 when it represented only 2.5% of total enrolment.

From the end of the last century there was also a steady increase in the number of school jurisdictions in all provinces. Consistently all provinces have responded to this increase by amalgamating the smaller districts into larger units and thus reducing the number of trustees and the amount of governance required. This process began in earnest in the 1930s but gained considerable momentum in the postwar years and has continued to the present.

Organization and Structure of Systems

The Canadian constitution has stipulated that control over education rests with the individual provinces. This has resulted in a situation where we find 12 autonomous educational systems, one in each of the provinces and 2 territories. Individual systems have developed their own distinctive ways of regulating particular facets of their operation. While there are similarities in many areas of operation, each province has developed its own legislation dealing with a variety of operational areas, among them religious schools and schooling, compulsory attendance, school and school system organization and francophone education.

The difference in school jurisdiction organization is most notable in the manner in which religious schools and religion in schools is structured. Each province has developed its own solution to the issue of state-supported sectarian schools. While some provinces have a dual system within the public education structure whereby the Catholic or Protestant minorities are entitled to operate their own schools, 5 provinces have legislation in place which only permits the operation of religious schools as private or independent schools. Funding of religious schools is also problematic as 5 of the provinces provide no direct financial assistance to private schools.

Some provinces provide funding for the public denominational schools. Others also provide public funding for private and independent schools. In a number of provinces, however, there is no funding at all for religious schools, although all provinces permit their operation provided they meet certain government requirements for buildings and program delivery. Differences can be seen also in the manner in which levels of schooling are organized in the provinces. All provinces currently provide financial support for kindergartens.

There are also differences between provinces in the manner in which grade levels are grouped and labelled. Five of the provinces and the 2 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 BC secondary schools begin in grade 8, while in the remaining provinces and 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. For years Ontario has offered a fifth year of high school, but this is being eliminated and students will now obtain all credits needed to enter university in a 4-year period. In Québec high school ends at grade 11, but any student wishing to enter a provincial university must take a 2-year general stream program at a Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP).

While all provinces subscribe to the idea that schooling, in one form or another, should be compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16, there are also variations between provinces in the manner in which these ages are defined.

The Financing of Education

Constitutionally, only the federal and provincial governments enjoy the authority to levy taxes for the support of public services, but provincial governments have delegated certain taxing powers to local authorities, the most important of which is the power to levy taxes on property. In some provinces the government has also delegated this authority to school boards, permitting them to raise a portion of their revenue through this means of taxation. In 4 of the provinces, however, school boards are no longer involved in, nor do they have any authority to raise money by, means of taxation. In Newfoundland, PEI, New Brunswick and BC school boards receive all of their funding from the provincial government.

In 1994 the Alberta government passed amendments to its school legislation to change to a centralized funding arrangement. However this legislation is currently before the courts. In Nova Scotia, where school boards are permitted to levy a supplementary local tax for special programs, most boards have never exercised this right and in fact receive all of their operating grants directly from the province. The arrangement in the remaining provinces has the province providing each school jurisdiction with a portion of its funding. The amount varies from over 80% in Québec to, on average, 40% in Ontario.

In each of the provinces where school boards are involved in raising money by means of taxation, the local jurisdiction sets its own mill rate based on the shortfall between its anticipated expenditures and its anticipated revenue from grants. The requisition, however, is collected by the municipality at the same time as it collects its own municipal taxes. The municipality remits the requisitioned funds to the appropriate school jurisdiction and does this regardless of whether taxes are in arrears or delinquent. In this way, the school systems are assured of the required operating funds and taxpayers receive only one tax bill. If a taxpayer is in default, the municipality is responsible for collecting and, should it become necessary, seizing assets.

A colonial statistician estimated in 1882 that it cost parents about $10 annually in fees to keep a child in school and that this was more than most parents could afford. It is estimated that in the 1995-96 school year approximately $6400 will be spent in Canada per full-time student. This average national cost includes figures from the 2 territories, amounts which were well above $15 000 per student. However, this calculation can be tempered somewhat by the comparatively small enrolments in these jurisdictions compared to the provinces. In 1995-96 it is estimated that Québec will spend approximately $7500 per student and Ontario about $100 less, while PEI will spend the least of all provinces at about $5000. Although citizens in the Atlantic Provinces spend fewer dollars on education than do those in the rest of Canada, they spend a larger portion of their GDP in this area compared to those from any of the other provinces.

The Future of Educational Systems in Canada

While it is unlikely that provincial governments will relinquish any authority in the area of education, it is extremely likely that interprovincial collaboration and cooperation will increase. Within the last 5 years all provinces and both territories have established either a major review or a commission to examine the educational operation within its borders. The results of these investigations have led to fewer local school jurisdictions and greater centralization in terms of programming. There have been increased demands for accountability and for higher student performance and for greater parental choice and involvement. Provincial decision makers appear to have welcomed this situation and have responded by beginning to restructure the Canadian educational system in unprecedented ways.

It is expected that interprovincial collaboration in curriculum and test development will reduce costs at the same time as it increases consistency of outcomes across the country. The reduction in the number of local school boards will also reduce costs and will probably increase the extent of centralized control over school operations. The reduction in school boards is being accompanied by a move to emphasize school councils, whose role can best be described at this time as "evolving." While there is talk of these councils being involved in policy matters relating to school operations, and possibly being part of the process of hiring and dismissing staff, it appears that the great majority of parents would be more satisfied with some meaningful advisory role rather than a policy or governance one. Nor is there any clear understanding yet as to whether the terms school council and parent council should be seen as synonymous.

One outcome of this increased emphasis on the school, however, will be the reduced role for the traditional school board. Given the increased financial constraints under which they will operate, as well as the larger areas over which they will govern, it is inevitable that the roles of these boards will change. This change will be accentuated by any moves in power and control to either the provincial or the school levels. It may be that within the next few years school boards will see whatever powers they currently have substantially reduced so that they become little more than funding channels for programs decided upon and governed either at the provincial or the school level.

Educational Rights and Practices

The adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, and specifically the inclusion of section 23, elevated the educational rights of the francophone or anglophone minority, depending on which province one is speaking of, to a stature previously enjoyed only by those receiving constitutional protection on denominational grounds. New Brunswick is Canada's sole officially bilingual province and has had a dual language educational system in place for some time. In all other provinces except Québec, the francophone community is the minority and as such has been granted the right to manage and control its own schools.

While these rights are subject to a "where numbers warrant" proviso, the courts have suggested a pattern of developing rights whereby the community moves from being in possession of comparatively few governance rights, where there are only a few students, to being entitled to assume complete control in the presence of sufficiently large numbers of students. Québec has received permission to establish a dual-language educational structure in which both the linguistic and denominational rights can be protected. All other provinces have established governance systems designed to ensure that the constitutional rights enshrined in section 23 of the Charter can be exercised, but no 2 provinces have established the same type of framework.

Obligations of the Provinces

In exercising their obligations with respect to education, all provinces have developed systems in which specific powers have been decentralized while others have been retained by the central government. In all provinces an educational structure has been established in which school boards, made up of school trustees elected at the local level, act as the intermediate decentralizing instruments between the provincial ministries of education and the schools. Historically, these local boards were set up to organize, administer and monitor the local school and generally represent the taxpayers living within reasonable distance of the school.

Originally each of these school jurisdictions was, by law, quite small, as it had to serve students who lived within walking distance. Each province developed a distinctive system of working through these local boards and the jurisdiction which these boards acquired is set out in the provincial statutes. These boards are legal corporations and consequently board members or school trustees are protected from personal liability provided that they act in good faith. These corporations are also legally able to enter into contracts with individuals and with other corporations in order to best fulfil their educational purposes. In 1996 New Brunswick abolished the school board system of governance and replaced it with a system of parent councils. Each school in the province will have a parent council and these will elect representatives to 12 district parent advisory councils. These will in turn send representatives to be members of the provincial Boards of education (one English and one French). While these boards are broadly charged with advising the Minister of Education, they have been granted extensive responsibilities which were formerly assigned to school boards, and clearly represent levels of involvement by parents in the education system. These councils and boards also suggest a diminishing role in the governance of public education for those members of society who do not have children in the schools.

The systems of education established by the provinces are public school systems. In some provinces this public system has 2 dimensions. These dimensions consist of public schools which are generally nondenominational, and separate schools, which, by definition, must be denominational. The term "public" when used in "public schooling" is often taken to imply public accessibility, equal opportunity for all the public, public funding and accountability to the public. However, in that separate schools are specifically denominational, they may be constitutionally entitled to limit access to those who are members of the same denomination.

Separate Schools

Most, but by no means all, separate schools in Canada are Catholic. Publicly supported separate schools exist in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the 2 territories. Québec has a dual confessional system divided between Protestants and Catholics, and Newfoundland has an exclusively denominational system that recognizes several religious groups for the purpose of organizing school systems. In the remaining 5 provinces, BC, Manitoba, New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia, the public school system is nonsectarian and nondenominational. In Newfoundland the 27 denominational school districts were reduced to 10 interdenominational districts in 1996.

Although the Constitution states that the provinces may exclusively make laws in regard to education, the federal government also has a number of responsibilities in this area. It is responsible for the education of First Nation, Métis and Inuit children, and for the education of children of members of the armed forces. In both of these areas however, it is divesting itself of direct responsibility and involvement and is increasingly acting as a funding agency either to local First Nations bands or to provincial school jurisdictions which contract to provide the educational services in their schools. The federal government also provides considerable subventions to the provinces to support post-secondary education, adult labour training, official second language instruction and cultural development activities, and is drawn into education through its jurisdiction over external affairs.


In addition to decreasing costs, consolidation has been seen as a means of increasing the access for all students to a quality education. By way of illustration, in the mid-1930s there were almost 4000 distinct school districts in Alberta, most of them operating one-room schools. These schools were unable to offer the breadth of programs which were available in the multi-room schools generally found in the more populated areas. By consolidating large numbers of these uneconomical districts, it became possible to operate regional schools which had larger enrolments and enriched programs of study.

At the same time these amalgamated boards were able to obtain their funding from a broader, more diverse and stable source of revenue. Following consolidations in Alberta the number of operating school jurisdictions was reduced to fewer than 150 by 1994 and in the past 2 years has been dropped to between 60 and 70 by 1999. A 1996 report by the Ontario government suggested reducing the number of Ontario school boards by 50%, from 166 to about 87. The precise number has not yet been finalized, as a court case is pending in relation to a number of amalgamations which were imposed unilaterally by the provincial government.

Similar legislative enactments have reduced the number of school boards in every province although some did not begin the consolidating until the 1960s. Many provinces have indicated that they intend to further reduce these numbers, most notably Ontario, Manitoba, BC, PEI, and Nova Scotia. While we now have over 5.4 million students in Canada's elementary and secondary schools, a number exceeded only in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there are fewer school systems involved today in delivering education to these students than at any time since the turn of the century.

While the number of school jurisdictions has declined, the number of educators involved with education has increased slowly but steadily, except through the period 1980 to 1984. In 1984-85, when enrolment had almost reached its lowest level in 20 years, the teaching force numbered just over 252 000, down from over 260 000 in 1980 but up significantly from the 240 000 in 1970. Since 1985 this number has further increased to 296 000 in 1996. A large portion of this increase can be accounted for by the change in funding practices in Ontario whereby Catholic high schools became fully funded and some 10 000 educators became part of the public school system without even having to change schools.

One should also remember that there are approximately 18 200 full-time teachers employed in private schools and a further 43 600 full-time equivalent teachers employed on a part-time basis. The overall increase in the number of educators can also be attributed to the lowering of the pupil-educator ratio, which has dropped from 17.2:1 in 1980-81 to 16.3:1 in 1996. These figures take into account teachers, counsellors, consultants and administrators and do not necessarily reflect any change in the pupil-teacher ratio in the classrooms.

Women in Education

At present approximately 60% of the educators in the Canadian school system are women. This figure has fluctuated somewhat in the last 30 years. In 1960 women made up more than 70% of the teaching force but the figure dropped to about 60% by 1970 and declined further to about 55% in 1980. In the 1980s the figure rose somewhat and it has been fairly constant around 60% for a number of years. In spite of this only about 29% of administrative positions in school systems are held by women, a figure which is notably higher than the 16% which was found in 1972-73. However, most of the gains appear to be a the vice-principal level. Another feature of this demographic picture is that in the Atlantic provinces the representation of women in administration has declined in the last 20 years, a fact that may be attributed to the closing of many smaller schools as a result of consolidation.

The past 20 years has also seen a steady aging of the Canadian teaching force. In this time the average age has risen from about 35 to just over 43 years. While the patterns vary considerably between provinces, the oldest teachers are to be found in Québec and the youngest in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Educators also appear to be leaving the profession at an earlier age. In 1990 only 4.5% were over 55 years of age, while 7.8% of the country's educators were over 55 in 1973.

At present one must have completed a minimum of 4 years of post-secondary education in order to receive a teaching certificate anywhere in Canada and in some provinces the minimum requirement is a degree in education. This is an indication of the considerable resources which have been expended on improving the standards of the teaching force in all provinces. Only 45 years ago, in 1951, Statistics Canada reported that 15% of the elementary teachers did not meet the minimum requirement of one full year of professional preparation following high school graduation, and that 40% of high school teachers did not have university degrees.

As a result of the expansion of the educational systems in Canada, practically all elementary-school-age children attend elementary schools, while almost 90% of secondary-school-age children attend secondary schools. All across the country an increasing number of students below and above the compulsory school age are also in attendance in schools.

Increasing Cost of Education

The expansion and increased access has been accompanied by a diversification and enrichment of the programs offered and, not surprisingly, by a considerable increase in expenditures on education. The total cost of education exceeded $1 billion for the first time in 1947. By 1997 the total bill was estimated at $58.6 billion, of which 60% was spent on elementary and secondary education. This was a considerable increase from 1989, when it was estimated that $28 billion was spent on elementary and secondary education.

Statistics also indicate that since the mid-1970s the costs associated with elementary and secondary schools have increased at about the same rate as the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is a measure of the change in price a typical Canadian household pays for a fictitious basket of goods . The Education Price Index measures changes in costs of fixed goods and services which school boards must purchase. While the EPI has increased considerably in the past 2 decades, it has generally increased at a rate which parallels the rise in the CPI.