Inequality Explained: The hidden gaps in Canada’s education system

While Canada’s education
system ranks high among OECD countries, socioeconomic inequality factors in at
all levels. This is why it matters.

By: /
19 January, 2016
Teacher Kathy Stauch's 9th Grade French-immersion geography class pose for a picture at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
By: Anastasia Rogova

Graduate student

By: Ashley Pullman

Graduate student

By: Cristina Blanco Iglesias

Graduate student

By: Rachel Bryce

Graduate student

This explainer was written by a group of UBC graduate students as part of our Lind Initiative series on inequality. It was an assignment from a course on public policy. 

How does income inequality impact educational attainment? Despite Canada’s efforts to promote equal access to education, the experiences and outcomes of students differ greatly depending on their family incomes. Here, we explore the educational opportunities of the top and bottom 10 percent within the early childhood, primary, secondary and postsecondary sectors. We illustrate how, in Canada, these unequal groups are differentiated by much more than just income.

Who’s in the top 10 percent of Canada’s earners?

A typical family belonging to the top 10 percent of earners in Canada receives an annual income of $200,000 or more. Parents in such households are much more likely to have attained a higher educational degree and professional status in medicine, law, finance or academic postings. With more money comes more resources to not only provide their children with quality childcare, summer camps, private international schools, extracurricular activities and postsecondary education, but also to cover domestic services in order to gain time to spend with their children.  

Who’s in the bottom 10 percent?

Contrastingly, in Canada a family in the bottom 10 percent makes below $30,000 a year, less than half of the estimated $79,600 average Canadian family income. With 6.7 percent of paid employees earning minimum wage, a child born in the bottom 10 percent is likely to have parents, if employed, earning $10.14 an hour. The bottom 10 percent household income group is where most First Nations families are found. In most cases, parents would have not completed secondary or postsecondary education, creating a divide in the academic support they can provide, especially when compounded with economic factors.

A note on Indigenous education

Although this article attempts to depict educational inequality in a wider Canadian setting, the inequalities in First Nations reserves deserves particular attention. The median income of Canada’s Indigenous population aged 25 to 54 is estimated to be $11,000 lower than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Furthermore, the employment ratio is 14.3 percentage points lower for First Nations individuals than for others. Thus, for reasons elaborated upon below, it should not be a surprise that the 2011 postsecondary education graduation rate of First Nations youth was only 35.3 percent. Compare this to the 78 percent graduation of their non-Indigenous counterparts and the educational gap becomes seriously alarming. Moreover, income inequality and the educational disparities associated with it are further aggravated when we differentiate between First Nations living on and off reserves.

The early childhood experience

It is well known that early child development is crucial for future well-being. Although far from deterministic, the role of education should not be neglected, especially given its direct and indirect impact on later income, health and even life-expectancy. Extensive research has shown that early literacy skills acquired even before entering kindergarten strongly influence a child’s later academic success. Numerous studies reiterate the importance of early childhood development, highlighting the difficulty of overcoming developmental inequalities. Yet what ought to be more deeply considered is the systemic impact of social and economic inequality, especially as early development depends almost entirely on the resources a family can access both for learning skills and for basic necessities. Plainly put in a BC teacher’s letter to The Vancouver Sun: “it is hard to learn if you are cold, hungry and worried.”

Canada’s top earning families: Without affordable universal child care, children in Canada will have vastly different experiences, with those from higher-income families being more likely to spend their pre-school years in high-quality licensed child care. Full-time care from the end of parental leave until the start of kindergarten costs a family in B.C. approximately $50,000 in child care fees. In licensed child-care facilities children are taken care of by professionals with degrees in education, who not only provide a safe and comfortable environment but also teach pre-literacy and numeracy skills. In the highest-quality, and thus most expensive, childcare options, children receive better health, safety and nutrition, smaller class sizes, opportunities to develop motor, social, language and cognitive skills through play, and more in-centre resources to foster growth. Moreover, parents from the highest-income families tend to hold higher levels of education themselves, and in turn pass on both the knowledge and dispositions that aid success in structured learning environments. Together, supplementary early childhood activities, quality childcare and social transfers result in children from the top 10 percent gaining indispensable social and academic skills.

Canada’s lowest income group: With the exception of Quebec, Canadian provinces spend extremely low percentages of GDP on childcare. The report “Growing Up in BC – 2015” claims that about 30 percent of children who start kindergarten in British Columbia are vulnerable in at least one key area of early child development. For families living in British Columbia, it is often more expensive to have a child in full-time daycare than to pay for an undergraduate degree. If a family cannot afford these costs, they look for cheaper options, and while not always inferior, reduced funding impacts the services available. Children whose parents are struggling economically often end up in less regulated environments, which may impact both health and safety risks, and physical and intellectual development. Academic and social segregation is already apparent by the time children start school. Preparedness to learn is often dramatically lower for children living in poverty compared to their peers from higher-income families, due in part to both early child care and learning opportunities and external support. Families living in poverty have less access to the resources necessary in the early years to prepare children for success at school.

The public education system

According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canada consistently ranks among the highest achieving and the most equitable education systems in OECD countries. The public education system is praised for providing equal opportunity for all young Canadians to achieve elementary and secondary education. However, the socioeconomic impacts that visibly affect the quality of early childhood education clearly continue into the Canadian elementary and secondary school systems. When comparing students in the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent, there are striking differences in children’s readiness for school and parental ability to support their child’s education (through extra-curricular activities and external academic help, for example). The educational gap widens with unequal access to the best schools and with the separation of ‘good’ students from ‘bad’ students through academic streaming.

Top income earners: Canadian students from wealthier families enter elementary school already steps above other students in terms of their preparedness for school. UNICEF defines this preparedness in its Conceptual Framework for School Readiness: “success in school is determined by a range of basic behaviours and abilities, including literacy, numeracy, ability to follow directions, working well with other children and engaging in learning activities.”

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation emphasizes the importance of daily reading and participation in sports and physical activity, pointing specifically to the role positive parental involvement has in preparing children for school. Unequally distributed, participation occurs at higher levels in higher income households.

In addition to behavioural benefits, the schools with a higher proportion of wealthy students (i.e. those in high-income neighbourhoods) receive a higher academic ranking. Statistics Canada shows that “the higher socio-economic status of private school students and their peers accounts for half of the difference in the average score of standardized tests between private and public school students.” This achievement gap widens and enforces income inequality by supporting the future success of high-income students and leaving low-income students behind.

Lowest income bracket: On average, the situation for students in low-income families is entirely different. They face inequalities beyond just access to academic and extracurricular support. This becomes obvious when looking at the one in five children in British Columbia who currently live in poverty, without safe and secure housing, basic necessities such as warm clothing, and access to sufficient food. In Toronto and elsewhere, household instability and poverty may be contributing to the underrepresentation of low-income students with a ‘gifted’ designation (unusually high intellect) and overrepresentation of this group in the ‘special needs’ categorization.

Lower income is also connected to behavioural problems affecting students’ learning at a higher level than their wealthier peers. What makes matters worse is that low-income students are often restricted by school choice and the possible pathways their school offers. With regard to school rankings, lower income neighbourhoods consistently obtain lower achievement levels. Moreover, in schools with separate academic ‘pathways,’ low-income students are more than twice as likely to end up in applied-level classes, often leaving them unprepared for graduation and ineligible for many postsecondary opportunities.

The world of higher education

Despite Canada’s relatively few private institutions, comparably lower tuition and initiatives to increase accessibility for underrepresented groups, Canadian higher education nevertheless has an elitism that often goes unnoticed. Given that the majority of high school graduates will now attend postsecondary institutions of some type, inequality in higher education is not just an ‘access’ issue, dealing with who is ‘in’ or ‘out.’

Two new aspects of inequality within postsecondary education have been considered. First, researchers have charted how elite status shifts upward: as one level of education becomes saturated, higher and more difficult credentials become benchmarks for high attainment. Second, others argue that elite differentiation is now less connected to simply higher credential levels themselves, but rather pertains to differences in what, where and how one studies – a undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto provides better life chances than the same credential from a smaller, lesser-known institution just down the street. Indeed, as we follow the educational pathways of the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of earners in Canada, we find that both aspects are important to consider.

Top earners: Educational inequality is most acute when the top 1 percent of income earners is compared to the general population in Canada. As presented in a paper by Thomas Lemieux and W. Craig Riddell called “Top incomes in Canada: Evidence from the Census,” statistics show that although the percentage of income earners who held at least a bachelor’s degree grew from just over 10 percent in 1986 to 19 percent in 2006, the top one percent were three times more likely to hold a bachelor degree or higher, moving from 53 percent in 1986 to 65 percent by 2006. 

Likewise, differentiation is found when examining what subjects are studied by top earners. According to Lemieux and Riddell, by 2006 a quarter of top earners had studied commerce, management and business at the higher education level, compared to just 11 percent of the general population. Indeed, certain fields of study are found to have substantial earning power over others, even if the credential level is the same. For example, over a 20-year period, women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts can expect to make $652,100 while men who graduate from business can expect to make almost three times more, earning, on average, $1,619,400. The gulf is much smaller when the reverse is examined: men with a degree in fine arts earn $843,900 while women in business earn $1,169,100.

Lowest income group: It is important to take stock of not only the lack of access for the poorest in Canada, but also the forms of access made available and the inequalities they produce. One major marker is debt accumulation. With the cost of tuition more than doubling since 1989, student loans have become a distinguishing factor of early wealth accumulation, as non-borrowers are found to own almost double the assets and three-times the net worth.

Although the Canadian student loan program allows those with limited economic means to access higher education, the bottom 10 percent often attends lesser-recognized and established institutions. A key player is for-profit private colleges, institutions with comparably lower entrance requirements and flexible programming. Yet in Canada private sector graduates have been found, on average, to earn no more than those with a high school diploma. Strapped with student loans and no earning premium, private-college graduates are more likely to default on their loans. As seen this year with the closure of Everest College in Ontario, graduates of private colleges are even now requesting loan forgiveness for what they dub “worthless” diplomas.

What can be done?

Traditional policy responses to gaps in the education system often involve increasing funding for specific programs, schools or sectors. Below are examples of experts’ current policy recommendations, by level of education:

 Early Childhood Education: Varying in effectiveness, programs and campaigns promoting accessible and affordable early childhood education exist across Canada. In British Columbia, the Early Childhood Educators of BC and the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC have partnered to organize the $10aDay Child Care Campaign, which advocates for a $10 daily child care fee – waived for lower income families – to better guarantee quality regulated care for all children. Of note, this campaign includes a special focus on First Nations communities, aiming to develop culturally relevant child care services that “would meet their needs and their human and constitutional rights.”

Public Education: In the public education sector, several reforms are promoted, including funding for additional and better trained teachers to facilitate smaller class sizes and address individual students’ needs. The Canadian Council of Ministers of Education reiterates the importance of teacher training and specifically highlights the integration of technology in the classroom to reduce educational gaps. Targeted programs have also been key. An astonishingly successful example is the 1997 tripartite agreement that established the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey as a First Nations educational advisory board independent of the federal government. With the mandate of advising rather than controlling, Mi’kmaq secondary schools prioritize cultural education and Mi’kmaq language. In 2012-2013, the graduation rate was over 87 percent, compared to the national First Nations average of roughly 35 percent.

Higher Education: Higher education advocacy groups in Canada are largely fragmented by sector, although there is much overlap in their policy recommendations. For example, Universities Canada and College and Institutes Canada both advocate for better employment outcomes through increasing the number of co-op placements and paid internships, increasing the number of indigenous learners through funding and enhanced programming, and governmental support for research and innovation. Other groups focus on equalizing access to higher education; for example, both the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Canadian Federation of Students recommend a fully funded public postsecondary education system with no or low tuition fees.

Although many of these policies and initiatives create noticeable success, it is evident from the systemic nature of the inequality in Canada’s education system that the responses must go beyond the typical silver bullet solutions. Individuals and groups are privy to shockingly different educational pathways. Without addressing systemic income inequality solutions aimed at only the educational system itself will fall short. 

Policy think tanks and government bodies increasingly recognize the need for a broad approach to resolve educational inequalities. The Canadian Federation of Teachers emphasize the need for a national poverty reduction strategy for Canada, which would include a higher minimum wage, broader eligibility for Employment Insurance and greater access to social housing. These necessary policy recommendations dovetail with the House of Commons all-party resolution to eliminate childhood poverty by the year 2000, a goal that thus far remains unattained. Although this campaign resulted in the creation of advocacy groups and organizations across the country, it remains unclear why childhood poverty still remains.

A public inquiry into the unaddressed and systemic inequalities is necessary to develop comprehensive and effective strategies to truly offer the equitable education system Canada aims to provide. Local schools and communities alongside political offices need to identify how educational disparity stemming from economic inequality affects the life chances of individuals and groups. If we continue to examine educational inequality as if it is not the logical consequence of economic inequality, but somehow a facet of society that can be bracketed out and ‘fixed,’ then we are bound to fall short of our laudable goals in this country.

This explainer was written by a group of UBC graduate students as part of our Lind Initiative series on inequality.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us

Also in the series

Inequality Explained: Everything you need to know about the TPP’s arbitration provision

Inequality Explained: Everything you need to know about the TPP’s arbitration provision


Here are
the pros and cons of the mechanism within the Trans-Pacific Partnership for
solving disputes between investors and foreign governments.

Inequality Explained: The trouble with pharmaceutical patents

Inequality Explained: The trouble with pharmaceutical patents


Can policy change lead to more equitable access
to life-saving medicines?

Inequality Explained: Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership affect Canada’s food sovereignty?

Inequality Explained: Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership affect Canada’s food sovereignty?


Nine questions on the TPP’s potential impact
Canadians should be asking.  

Inequality Explained: Lessons from South Africa’s Marikana massacre

Inequality Explained: Lessons from South Africa’s Marikana massacre


When tension grows between people and profit, communities must learn how
to extract, manage and share resources in a just way.