Fitting In: Inequality in Canadian Schools

In Canada, not all children are treated equally. By the time they start kindergarten, many children already experience inequality. Class in Canada means an inequality in children’s education. This inequality affects opportunities for children and will determine if they have a fair chance in life.1 Education inequality becomes important as child poverty rates have gone up in many provinces: Price Edward Island, Ontario, British Colombia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

In 2004, Statistics Canada identified 872,000 children, or 13% of all Canadian children, as living in poverty, according to the low income after tax cut-off (LICO-IAT). They lived in low-income households with average incomes after tax of $21,400. 2  Where does the income disparity stand now? The 2011 National Household Survey found that according to the 2010 after-tax low-income measure, 14.9% of Canadians were living in low-income families and 17.3% of Canadians under the age of 18 were living in low-income families whereas 18.1% of children under the age of 6 were living in low income families. 3

In theory, a wealthy child and a poor child should have equal opportunities to do well in school, participate in extracurricular activities and move on to university or college. But the reality is really quite different. As residential areas in Canadian cities become more and more defined by income, student achievements are increasingly reflecting this segregation by income.

In Toronto, where income inequality is the highest in Canada, wealth and test scores at Canada’s largest school board are related.4  Based on data obtained from the Education Quality and Accountability Office and 2010 income data from Statistics Canada, the data shows this divergence quite clearly.High-scoring elementary schools are primarily concentrated in high-income areas and vice-versa. In lower-income neighborhoods, a higher percentage of students fail the reading, writing and math tests. Schools in lower-income neighborhoods have a higher proportion of students failing the provincial standardized tests, achieving at Level 1 or 2 (Level 3 is a pass). 4

A 2010 Toronto District School board study showed that the majority of students identified as gifted were from the most affluent neighborhoods of the city. When it comes to gifted students, nearly 60% came from the three highest income deciles. Fully a quarter came from the very highest income group, and only 11% were from the three lowest deciles.5

Median family income and test scores in Toronto neighbourhoods show a distribution of good scores concentrated in higher-income, darker, neighborhoods.  6

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The study also found that those children identified with a language impairment or a developmental disability were more likely to come from lower-income neighbourhoods. Those disadvantages intensify through their schooling.5  Children from low-income families also have a higher likelihood of taking applied courses in high school, leaving them less likely to graduate or attend university or college.

According to The Globe and Mail, highly-educated parents with higher incomes can give their kids opportunities their lower-income peers do not have.6 A trend has emerged over the past two decades – the gap between the richest Canadians and everyone else has grown faster here than in all but one other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country, the United States. 6 As Canadian neighborhoods become increasingly segregated by income, the goal of giving everyone a fair shot at a good education is becoming harder to fulfill.

Andrea Deer


  1.           Phipps, Shelley and Lynn Lethbridge, “Fitting Kids In: Children and Inequality” in Dimensions of Inequality in Canada, edited by David A. Green and Jonathan R. Kesselman, 221-247. Vancouver: UBS Press, 2006.

2.         Low Income Children. “Rate and severity of low income among children in 2004”         (2004) Statistics Canada website. link (accessed 18 March 2015)

  1.       National Household Survey Profile. “Income of individuals in 2010.” NHS,(2011) Statistics Canada website. link  (accessed 18 March 2015)
  1.      “A tale of two schools: The correlation between income and education in Toronto.” The Globe and Mail. link (accessed 10 March 2015)

5.         “Research Review: Special Education: Structural Overview and Studen                             Demographics.” Toronto District School Board. link (accessed 18 March 2015)

6.         “How Income Inequality hurts every Canadian’s chance of building a better life.”             The Globe and Mail. link (accessed 10 March 2015)

Further Readings:

National Household Survey. “Persons Living in Low income Neighbourhoods.” NHS, (2011) Statistics Canada website. link (accessed 1 March 2015)

Schissle, Bernard and Terry Wotherspoon, “The Legacy of Residential Schools” in Inequality in Canada, edited by Valerie Zawilski and Cynthia Levine-Rasky, 188-207. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Social and Education Inequality: Bridging the divide. Canadian Education Association. link (accessed 1 March 2015)

“The social consequences of economic inequality for Canadian Children: A review of Canadian Literature.” Canadian Council on learning. link (accessed 1 March 2015)

Young, Jon and Robert J. Graham. “School and Curriculum Reform” in Schooling in Transition edited by Sara Z. Burke and Patrice Milewski, 400-423. University of Toronto Press, 2012.

One Response to Fitting In: Inequality in Canadian Schools

  1. Kaizer Abdua says:

    Education Inequality

    Since my family has low income tax, this makes me question my capabilties and skills in terms of education and whether I would be able to step on to college after graduating highschool or not. It is sad to hear that the more money you have, the more likely you’re going to be successful in life. In other words, class determines the chance of people going somewhere in their life.

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