Newcomers Guide to the Ontario School System



Like many immigrants moving with kids I had a thousand questions on the school system prior to arriving in Canada and unfortunately I struggled to find answers anywhere.  The Internet is full of practical information to help newcomers settle but there was little on the workings of schools, the routine, the everyday experiences that your children will encounter.  How are you supposed to calm a child who’s nervous about a new school when you are armed with such little information?  Over the next few posts I am going to attempt to share my knowledge of the Ontario school system, it is worth noting that I am writing this not as an educator or anyone in authority but simply as a Mum.  Eldest son is now in the final semester in High school and youngest son is in Grade 6 in an elementary school.



Ontario is divided into 83 publically funded school boards, which are one of the following four types; English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic.  As I am neither French nor Catholic I will only be writing about the English public school system. Some elementary schools run a French Immersion programme where the children are taught all subjects mainly in French, usually French Immersion programmes need to be started by Grade 1. Compulsory education begins when children turn 6 and continues until grade 12 when they turn 18.  The school year runs from September to June



School starts with Junior Kindergarten (JK) and Senior Kindergarten (SK) and then it moves onto grades 1 -12.  Elementary schools are usually JK – Grade 8 and High schools are grades 9-12.  Some areas have middle schools, which cater for grade 7 and 8 only.  Kindergarten education is not compulsory although the vast majority of children do attend.  Kindergarten is usually part time, however, it is in the process of becoming full time in all schools across Ontario. The structure of the grade is somewhat different to the UK.  Children attend school with those born in the same calendar year, for example, grade 6 students will all turn 12 between January 1st and December 31st whereas in the UK the year 7 students will all turn 12 between September 1st and August 31st.


Admission Requirements

In England getting your child a place in a particular school is difficult and stressful to say the least, deadlines for application and then putting your fate in the lap of the Gods while you await the decision is enough to cause sleepless night for parents and kids alike.  In Ontario it could not be more different.  I remember visiting the schools that we hoped the boys would be attending when we were on our fact-finding visit.  I was desperate (with my English head on) to get the boys names put down but we couldn’t do it.  We kept being told that we needed to be living there first, I just didn’t understand. When my husband then made his solo trio over to buy the house I armed him with all the necessary forms and paperwork to register the boys in school and followed up with emails to the schools explaining our situation.  In hindsight I must have looked like a complete lunatic.  He was able to register youngest son at Elementary school but Eldest son needed to be present in order to register him in high school.  I tried to explain that we would be arriving in the summer holidays when school was closed so they told me to phone when the staff was back to school during the last week in August some 7 days before the school year started!  The point I was totally missing was that here kids go to their ‘home school’. Each school is given a specific area (which can be checked on the Internet) EVERY child who lives in their particular area goes to that school, end of story. There is no such thing as changing boundaries depending on numbers, priority to siblings or schools being full. Wherever you live you have a designated school that you will attend.  I wish someone had told me that earlier so I that needn’t of worried about the boys getting in to our chosen schools.  You can register a kid one day and have them start the next, easy peasy!

You will need certain paperwork in order to register you child in school namely, a birth certificate, proof of your emigration status, proof of your residence (rental agreement or mortgage) & immunisation records.  That is it, so simple.  There seems to be much less of a gap here between good schools and bad schools so going out of catchment to find a good school is pretty much unheard of.



Coming up in my next installment;

Transportation to school

The Structure of the School Day

School Holidays

12 thoughts on “Newcomers Guide to the Ontario School System

  1. Judy

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the 2 (British & Canadian) compare these days. I went through the British system in the 1960s and then it was very exam based and the teachers more like jailers than educators 🙂 The world had moved on a lot by the time my son went to school here in Canada and then overseas in American system schools. Observing my British nephews and nieces, things have obviously changed a great deal in the UK and the system is much more child (and education) friendly, but I still get the impression that the British system introduces academic work at an earlier age and also encourages earlier specialization, do you agree? That wouldn’t have worked so well for my son, who was late to read and didn’t figure out what he really wanted to do until 2 years after graduating university 🙂 How do you think the Canadian system will suit your children, given that no system suits everyone? Do you plan to return to the UK and do you think that might make for a difficult transition?

    Thanks for writing such a useful post. This is of huge value to anyone considering a move to Canada.

    And sorry for so many questions! 🙂

    1. Lou Post author

      Hi Judy

      Don’t apologise you have raised some interesting points!
      I totally agree that in the UK academic studies start much younger and here in Canada it is much more play-based learning. So academically both my youngest sons, who are in grade 6 and 12 are repeating many things that they learnt back in England. What I find over here though is that in Elementary schools in particular they spend a lot of time concentrating on developing positive character traits such as respect, responsibility, optimism and perseverance and life skills such as public speaking. Kids here from a very young age present book reports etc in class so they appear to be much more confident in speaking to both their peers and adults. My Grade 12 son never really did anything like this in the UK so now he really struggles when he has to present work to his class whereas it’s second nature to his classmates. Kids here are taught to be responsible for themselves, their belongings and their work which is another thing that I think is really lacking in UK schools, if one of my kids was late finishing a piece of work I often felt that it was my fault but here the onus is on the child.
      Specialisation starts here at about the same age as it does in England if not earlier and I agree that it comes way to early, I mean what 14 year old really knows what they what to do for the rest of their lives??? As a result it is not uncommon for adults here to take a career break and retrain.
      Regarding your question on suitability of the system, My eldest son is struggling with the responsibility that is expected of him and often misses deadlines because he was used to the constant reminders that he got in England whereas here they are told once and are expected to remember! It is probably a good thing that he is in his last semester. My youngest son on the other hand seems to be ‘treading water’ academically while he waits for the rest of his classmates to catch up with him he is benefitting from the emphasis on the positive character traits and he is learning to be responsible for himself and becoming more confident. On the whole each system has it’s good and bad points but I like the system here, my youngest Son is thriving in it and I hope he continues to do so.
      We are not planning on returning to the Uk but I would imagine it would be a very difficult transition as there would be a lot of catching up to do.

      I appreciate your comment

  2. Zhu

    I’ll be following the rest of the series because even though Mark is way too young for school, I must admit I don’t know much about the Ontario system and I should learn about it. So thank you!

  3. anightinthelifeof

    Great post idea. Well done.

    I have yet to figure any of it out on this end. We just received our first report card and had a massive struggle with all of it.

    Sounds like you’ve got it all sorted out!

    How are your kids adjusting to the differences?

    1. Lou Post author

      Thank you,
      I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve got it all sorted but volunteering at the school has helped get a better insight into how it all works.

      My youngest son is doing really well, the system here really suits him and I love asking him if he had a good day at school because he always replies Yes. My eldest is a different story, he was used to being mollycoddled in school in England so he has not adapted well to being left to his own devices.

  4. Hannah Johansson

    Awesome article!! my son was nervous about his first school too. My husband and I chose Sunnybrook School in Toronto. It was one of the wisest decisions we’ve ever made. Son gelled up with the school in no time and he loved every bit of it.Sunnybrook School did their best to bring out the best in my son!

    1. Lou Post author

      Thanks for commenting, lovely to hear your success story. It’s such a relief when you see them settling in and then begin to thrive isn’t it?

Comments are closed.