How equitable is Canada’s education system?

Canadian provinces have developed equity policies and systems for meeting various learner needs that include linguistic, remedial, psychosocial and other forms of support. Equity does not mean treating everyone the same way, but rather recognizing that everyone is different and adopting appropriate practices for learners’ different needs and realities.

However, inequities persist for certain learners (Indigenous, refugees, the poor, visible minorities, etc.) and there are significant disparities between groups in Canada. In some provinces, there is a multi-tier system, which increases the number of selective programs and private schools. This, in turn, weakens the public school system and leads to unequal treatment benefiting those who are better off. Students with difficulties from poor backgrounds are over-represented in regular public school classes, and drop out in higher proportions. Even so, there are very few indicators to diagnose, track and measure the equity or inequities produced by the way in which the school system or its schools operate. Although recent studies have documented various processes and practices that have a detrimental impact on the school experience of certain minority youth, schools are not identifying and measuring these practices so they can be changed. Some examples:

  • standardized evaluations ill-suited for the learner’s profile, which can result in learners’ needs being under-represented or under-estimated
  • a cultural or linguistic bias in the evaluation instruments used and during professional assessments, which can result in academic difficulties being over- or under-estimated
  • rankings or a tendency towards “special” classes, an alternative educational setting or specialized follow-up (black youth are more often identified as being “at risk” or “special needs” students)
  • negative attitudes towards and perceptions of learners in certain groups (or their parents), or lower staff expectations
  • disciplinary measures or penalties (more severe in the case of black youth)  
  • excessive supervision or, on the contrary, a failure to intervene and provide protection
  • a lack of resources, access to services, appropriate practices and relevance of the knowledge acquired. For example, the drop-out rate among Aboriginal youth shows that school practices are inadequate and do not meet their needs. When it comes to immigrant youth who enter the system in the middle of high school, many students as young as age 16 are put into the adult education sector, where the services are less suited to their needs.

As we can see, there are few indicators when it comes to school practices and services that directly address data on student needs and realities. That is why new indicators must be created to measure the development of student abilities and skills vis-à-vis the threefold mission of schools: provide instruction, provide qualifications, and socialize students. Inclusive, equitable schools care about access to education as well as the manner in which it is provided, adapted and made culturally relevant to enable all students to acquire the skills they need to flourish, live a healthy life, have a range of options, take part in, integrate into, and contribute to society, and become successful workers, parents and citizens.

Information resources

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Pan-Canadian Education Indicators Program (PCEIP)

Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective 2016

Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2008). Learn Canada 2020. Ottawa: CMEC

Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2008). Inclusive Education in Canada: The Way of the Future. Report prepared in collaboration with The Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Ottawa: CMEC.


United Nations General Assembly, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 21 October 2015, A/70/L.1. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E

Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (2011). Racial Profiling and Systemic Discrimination of Racialized Youth. Report of the Consultation on Racial Profiling and Its Consequences. Government of Québec. http://www.cdpdj.qc.ca/Publications/Profiling_final_EN.pdf

Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2016). Steering the Course Back to Equity in Education. Report on the State and Needs of Education 2014-2016. Montreal: CSE, September 2016. English summary: http://www.cse.gouv.qc.ca/fichiers/documents/publications/CEBE/50-0494Summary.pdf

Fereira, F. H. G. and Gignoux, J. (2014). The measurement of educational inequality: achievement and opportunity. World Bank Economic Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 210–46.

Mc Andrew, M., Potvin, M. and Borri-Anadon, C. (eds.) (2013). Le développement d’institutions inclusives en contexte de diversité. Recherche, formation, partenariat. Montreal: Presses de l’Université du Québec.

Mc Andrew, M. et al. (2015). La réussite éducative des élèves issus de l’immigration.  Dix ans de recherche et d’interventions au Québec. Montreal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal.  

Meschi, E. and Scervini, F. (2014). Expansion of schooling and educational inequality in Europe: the educational Kuznets curve revisited. Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 66, No. 3, pp. 660–80.

Milanovic, B. (2013). Overall income inequality in numbers: in history and now. Global Policy, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp.198–208.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). PISA 2012 Results. Excellence through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed, Volume II, Paris, OECD, 342. http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/pisa-2012-results-excellence-through-equity-volume-ii_9789264201132-en.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2014). Towards indicators for a post-2015 education framework. Post-2015 Education Indicators Technical Advisory Group of the EFA Steering Committee. Montreal: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, November 2104, version 2. http://unesdoc.UNESCO.org/images/0023/002306/230611e.pdf

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2005). Guidelines for Inclusion. Ensuring Access to Education for All. Paris, France: UNESCO. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001402/140224e.pdf

Potvin, M., Magnan, M.-O. and Larochelle-Audet, J. (eds.) (2016). La diversité ethnoculturelle, religieuse et linguistique en éducation. Théorie et pratique. Montreal: Fides Education.

Potvin, M. (2015). L’école n‘est pas neutre : diversité, discriminations et équité à l’école québécoise. In Demers, S., Lefrançois, D. and Éthier, M.-A. (eds.). Les fondements de l’éducation. Perspectives critiques.  Montreal: Multimondes, p. 381-448.

UNESCO (2014). Sustainable Development Begins with Education: How Education Can Contribute to the Proposed Post-2015 Goals, Global Education Monitoring Report. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO (2015). Education in 2030: equity and quality with a lifelong learning perspective. Insights from the EFA Global Monitoring Report’s World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), Global Education Monitoring Report Policy Paper 20. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO (2016). World social science report, 2016: Challenging inequalities; pathways to a just world. International Social Science Council, University of Sussex (UK). Institute of Development Studies. Paris, UNESCO/ISSC, 359 p.

Meet the Expert(s)

Maryse Potvin

Maryse Potvin

Professeure, Université du Québec à Montréal

Maryse Potvin est politologue et sociologue de formation et professeure titulaire en sociologie de l’éducation à l’Université du Québec à Montréal.

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