Newcomers Guide to the Ontario School System Part 3



This is my final part in this series of posts designed to share my experience of the public school system from the prospective of an expat mum, my aim is to arm newcomers to Canada with the information that I didn’t have when I first arrived.


At Elementary level there aren’t any surprises with the subjects kids learn at school, the usual assortment of numeracy, literacy, arts, science, humanities, physical education etc all make an appearance on the timetable.  Literacy, numeracy and French are usually taught everyday which doesn’t leave a lot of time for everything else.  In my opinion this results in a lack of basic knowledge in subjects such as history and geography, many kids here (even in high school) know very little about the rest of the world.  Music is another subject that suffers, although it is taught regularly it is little more than singing as instruments aren’t involved until grade 7.

Specialisation begins in Grade 9 when kids start High School.  Although the core subjects are compulsory the level at which they are studied varies depending on the Childs’ post secondary route.  Basically, students need to have an idea when they start high school whether they will go on to further education after graduation and whether they wish to go to college or university. Each year the compulsory subjects decrease in number allowing a higher level of specialisation. Generally high schools offer a much bigger range of subjects than secondary schools in England and include such courses as animation, construction, robotics, international business, fashion design and car mechanics.


High School

High schools provide education for grade 9 – 12.  Students take 8 subjects each year and gain a ‘credit’ for each subject they pass.  In order to receive your OSSD (Ontario Secondary School Diploma) you have to have at least 30 credits so students are working towards their diploma as soon as they enter high school. There are summer school programmes, which enable students to repeat courses they have failed.  Alternatively there is the opportunity of what is nicknamed a ‘victory lap’, when students complete a grade 13 in order to obtain the required credits. Students in grade 9 will select courses that are either applied or academic depending on whether they are more practical, creative, hands on learners or more academically minded.  Academic courses usually lead to university and applied courses usually lead to college, many subjects can be studied at either applied or academic level but the courses will be lightly different depending on the final destination of the students.

As well as 30 credits students also need to pass a literacy test and complete 40 community volunteer hours.  I personally think it is a fabulous idea to get kids to volunteer and I wonder why this hasn’t been taken up in other countries.  Students arrange their own volunteering so it can be tailored to the individual’s interests.

My eldest son went into grade 11 when we arrived in Canada, his school was very good allocating him credits based on his UK education so he entered grade 11 having accrued the same amount of credits as his classmates.

Assessment is mixture of coursework and final exams with the emphasis on the coursework.  Exams are usually a small percentage of the final grade, they are carried out in school and results are obtained within a few days.  Reports are given out in school every couple of months so there are regular updates on student performance and achievements.


Compulsory Testing

Compulsory testing takes place in Grade 3, 6, 9 and 10.

Grade 3 and 6 are very similar to the SATS testing that is carried out in England and test literacy and numeracy skills. Kids are prepared for these and practice for them well in advance.

There is a different mentality here compared to England regarding testing and grades.  Informal tests occur regularly in class and most work is graded so there are no surprises, kids know how well they are doing even when they are very young.  They are given deadlines to complete work and are aware of the consequences if work isn’t completed on time.  This method seemed pretty harsh to me when I first saw it but it seems to prepare students for adulthood better than the English system where many schools are non-competitive.  After all the world is a competitive place so teaching kids to ‘suck it up’ and try their best is not a bad thing in my opinion.

In grade 9 there is a test of  numeracy skills. There are different versions of the test depending whether they are taking the applied or academic course

The OSSLT (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test) is taken in grade 10, usually in March. It is a requirement to pass this test in order to receive the OSSD.


Further Information can be found at




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