Please enjoy the full recording of Bennett’s "Hotspot Spotlight: Schooling in Toronto" webinar. A smart, informed conversation, hosted by one of our lead education consultants, Leticia G. de la Rasilla, with her esteemed colleague, Alison Randall.
Time markers for your cruising pleasure.
1. CURRICULUM 2.47
2. MOVING WITH VERY YOUNG CHILDREN 4.48
3. MOVING WITH OLDER CHILDREN 7.22
4. TYPES OF SCHOOLS 9.12
5. SPECIAL EDUCATION NEEDS 11.02
6. LANGUAGE 15.04
7. TAKEAWAYS 17.58
8. BONUS: SCHOOL START AGE 21.10
9. SONG: BALADE À TORONTO by JEAN LELOUP
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Leticia: Welcome, everybody. Thank you for taking the time for being with us today! We have another webinar in which we want to give you a quick overview of the complexity of schooling for families relocating to Toronto.
I have the pleasure of being accompanied today by my colleague, Alison Randall, who is an independent education consultant based in Toronto, Canada and who brings a lifetime of teaching and international lifestyle to her consulting work with Bennett. Allison is a Canadian-born, but she has an extensive expatriate experience, as she has lived in many different countries; to name a few, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Dubai, Mexico, and Guatemala. She thus knows firsthand the experience of relocating with children to a new country of a different language, and the challenges of finding good-fit schools for them. At the same time, Allison has worked extensively as a teacher in Canada, both in public and in private schools, with students of all ages, including students with special education needs. She's currently the Head of Pedagogy for a Reggio Emilia-inspired childcare center and she volunteers with several organizations in the city. Along with her academic achievements, as well as being a polyglot, she brings her experience and empathy to support the Bennett families she works with.
Allow me to also introduce myself! My name is Leticia G. de la Rasilla; I oversee Bennett's work in Europe, am the Client Services Representative for the region, and have been working as an education consultant for the past 16 years. I've also been an ex-pat for many years, having lived and worked in various countries and continents - actually, one of them being Mexico, where Alison has also lived and worked - a country I really hold close to my heart as my youngest son was born there. So, I've also experienced both sides of the relocation consulting process personally.
With no further ado, let's focus on what brings us here today, which is the city of Toronto, capital city of Ontario, and also Canada's most populous municipality with nearly 3 million inhabitants. The city is also ranked as one of the most multicultural in the world owing to half of its population being born outside of Canada.
Alison, thanks a lot for being here today. I think, to start off the session, I'd love to begin with a basis, in order to help our audience better understand the complexities of schooling in Toronto, especially for someone who may be arriving from abroad.
So, if I were to move there next month with school-aged children, what would you tell me that is special about Toronto?
Alison: Well, first of all, good morning, Leticia, and everyone who's joined us today. Thanks for coming to learn more about my wonderful city of Toronto. In a very quick summary, which I think you captured beautifully, Toronto is incredibly multicultural, with people living all across the city. We have a few neighborhoods that are focused on specific cultures, but I find that people are just very intertwined - it's a lovely place to live.
In terms of our curriculum here, you can find anything you're looking for because of the multicultural background of the city. So, as a basis, in the public school system, children start at the age of 4, and we have a parallel system - the public school system, and the public Catholic school system. Those two are kind of the same, funded by the government. Secondly, we have a vast offering of private schools, that will offer everything from the IB curriculum to Montessori to Reggio Emilia to anything you can possibly imagine here. And, we have many, many students who come to Canada to start schooling with the hopes of also going on to post-secondary school here, who will often come just for high school.
Leticia: That's good to know, that we can choose from almost any school system in Toronto. So, let's start with the with very young ones. We are now seeing, compared to what was happening 10 - 15 years ago, a lot of families who move with very young kids, 2 - 3 years old, looking for an educational component for their children wherever they end up living instead of more a childcare/babysitting alternative, which is what used to happen some years ago.
What would be the school starting age? You were mentioning children starting school at the age of 4, but, if we get a family who has a 2- or 3-year-old, is there something available for them that would include that educational component?
Alison: Absolutely. There's a lot available for young families. As I was mentioning, we have a vast selection of childcare centers, but many of them operate as preschools. There are Montessori schools (Montessori is very, very popular in the city of Toronto) that extend right on through elementary school into high school - so, you could start your child at the age of 18 months or 2 years and have them stay in the same school right on through elementary. Some childcare centers alternatively operate just as preschools - we have Reggio Emilia-inspired and standard academic preschools, and there are lots and lots of them. Also, some of the private schools will start at 3 years old, so that is an option. Our typical kindergarten program starts in junior kindergarten, which I think is quite different than how it starts in the United States; we have a full-day kindergarten program that starts the year children turn 4.
Also, our admissions process is a little bit different in terms of the way children are placed into their school year: it's based on the calendar year. So, for example, in the year 2023, all of the students who are born in that year would be in the same class together - it's not based on an academic calendar, so any child who was born in the year that they turn 4 all would begin a full-day kindergarten program that's called "Junior Kindergarten", and then they would go on and be in "Senior Kindergarten" the year they turned 5. Then, starting 1st grade would be the children who are turning 6.
Leticia: Interesting. What about the age where we find more complexities - the older ones? Those students who arrive at the age of 15+, where any decision they make will have an impact in their undergraduate studies and their future jobs - how is the transition to Toronto for them?
Would it be it easy for me, were I to tell you that I'm moving to Toronto with my 15-year-old child this summer?
Alison: I would say moving with older children is never easier than moving with little ones, of course. Our experience, and my personal experience with my 4 children, is that when they're so small, they just follow you as their parent and trust that. When you say, "it's going to be amazing," it's going to be amazing and a big new adventure for them! Of course, the thing with older children is the social aspect of things, but also, as you mentioned, the curriculum that they are coming from, and where they're hoping to continue their education. We can offer advanced placement courses, IB schools, we have many different options. We have schools that offer the British curriculum, so if you're part-way through A levels, we can find a school that can help you. The challenge, sometimes, is just getting into the school that you want, and it just may not be exactly the same as the school that you're coming from - but we do have many options here. I would say, the challenge is just the competitive nature of getting into those grade levels. So, that would be when working with an education consultant, such as one from Bennett, helps, because having someone that knows the individual admissions officers at all the different schools and where there might be a possibility for some movement, as opposed to just blindly applying to every potential school that you find on a list, is really very helpful.
Leticia: So, I see that there's a wide variety of international schools, but can you explain a little bit more about the difference between state schools and private schools?
How do applications to state schools work? Do I need to be registered first with an address in Canada? Can I do this from abroad?
Alison: We have a very strong public school system in the city of Toronto. As I was mentioning, there are the two parallel systems, the standard public system, and the Catholic system. In most neighborhoods, you would find one of each of those schools that you can attend.
Your question about where you need to be and how you can get into those schools is important. It's solely based on your address to begin with. So, especially for an elementary and middle school child, you find your address of where you're going to be living for your accommodation, and then you are able to apply for a spot in your local school - and there's always going to be a school that's close by you. Typically, you'd come into the country and register at a Welcome Center (these days, they're moving a lot of that online, which makes it incredibly easier for our relocating families!) and then the high schools tend to be an integrator catchment. This would just mean that it might be slightly further away from your house, but there will always be a local school close to you. We do have some state schools, or public schools, as we call them, that have slightly specialized programs that typically, like the private schools, would require that you need to apply a little bit further ahead of time, but sometimes we can figure out. if there are spots in those - it might be a tech-focused program, an arts-focused program, or a sports-focused program, but again, like the private schools, they're more competitive.
Leticia: This leads me to an area of education I think you know well…
What happens if I move with a child who has either special education needs or is a gifted and talented student? What would be the process to apply for a space? Can the family do something before they are in Canada with an address, or could they start beforehand? How difficult or easy is this process?
Alison: Access to the public schools really doesn't change - every public school would have a special education department and the child, assuming they would be coming with an individual education plan, would have access to that team. In terms of access prior to arrival, that is not possible. Schools will always want you to be in-country, in your accommodation, and starting at the school, and at that point, they would take a look at the individual education plan for the student and figure out a plan. for what makes the most sense in terms of support.
We are seeing in the independent private schools that there is an increasing focus on supporting students who have an IEP, and it's wonderful to see that they're building out big sections of the schools with specialized support for students, both from the mental health side, as well as from the education side. So, we're seeing that they're looking at the student more as a whole student, rather than just a "grades on a piece of paper" kind of student. That's very encouraging for me, to see that applications are not only based on grades.
Leticia: Some years ago, I did work with a family who were moving from Canada to Europe, and they had a child with severe special needs. This child was attending a mainstream school, but within the mainstream school, there was a small class with a few children who have special education needs, who were somehow immersed in this mainstream school. Is this something that's still happening, or does this depend on individual schools?
Alison: We always start with the student, and work towards understanding what that student's needs are. In the case you're describing, that's where Bennett's special education needs consultants would come in. So, as with any school search - for those of you who don't know Bennett well - when we have a child with special education needs identified, then the local consultant (being me in Toronto) would work alongside as a SEN consultant, who really knows that schooling system and would take time to get to know the child in the family.
When we look at Toronto offerings, again, they're extremely vast. Recently, there was a school search we were working on, and there is a school here that has only special education needs students, but they're on the same campus as a mainstream school, and those two integrate throughout the day. This would be a good option for students who have quite high special needs. For children who have maybe lower level of needs, but still need some support, sometimes those programs are embedded right into the classroom. That would just mean that the student would be in the class with all of their peers, and there might be a support person who would come into the class to support them. So, I would say there's not a clear answer for that, Leticia - it just depends on the student, because we always like to look at what's best for the student’s needs.
Leticia: It's interesting to know that it's not an uncommon thing to have these mainstream schools with one or two small classes with children who have special needs within them. So, it's interesting to know, as you put it, that there is such a wide range of alternatives for them.
The official language in Ontario is English, but I do believe there's a large French-speaking community, many of which located in Ottawa. But what about the learning of French in Toronto schools? Is it treated as an optional foreign language, as it would be many other countries? Is it prioritized in some way?
Alison: That's a very good question. So, the official languages are English and French across the country from coast to coast. It just depends, as you say, on what is the more current language in a given part of Canada. So, in Toronto, English, I would say, is the "going language." But as I was saying, it's multicultural, so we have every language across the planet being spoken here. In our school system, though, French is offered as a second language - unless you are in a French program. So, there are full French publicly funded schools here. If you are a French speaker or if you come from a French background, those are available to families if they're coming in wanting a French education.
In the English stream, French is typically offered at different entry levels, and every student starting 4th grade takes what's called "Core French." That's just a course that you would take like you would Mathematics or English, and you get that for maybe 40 minutes a day. The thing that's very popular right now in Toronto, and has been for years, is French immersion, or "Extended French" as they call it. So, that is when you would take from half a day up to a full day of school in French, instead of starting an English stream. It's very competitive, I have to say. So, if a family is interested in that, they would need to begin application process quite early on, and probably only once they're in the country and registered in the public school system, because it's such a competitive program, and we also are suffering from a need of French teachers.
Leticia: So, you have fully French private school options, but are there any bilingual French & English private school options as well?
Alison: Yes! All of the private schools would be offering the same thing I just mentioned, which would be the Core French program, and then some of them would offer an Extended French program. Many of the private schools also offer many other languages. They may offer Mandarin or Spanish - it just depends on each school which language is offered. But I know that some of the top private schools certainly offer probably 3 to 4 different languages as options for students to pursue.
Leticia: Wrapping up, what would be the recommendation you would give the people who are listening to us today as a takeaway? They're interested in moving to Toronto, they have school-aged children - what would be the best takeaway for them from this session?
Alison: Toronto is my home. So, I would say, come to Toronto, it's a wonderful city, and it's a very easy place to live. There is a great variety of neighborhoods, and the school options here can pretty much meet everyone's needs. As with any education search for your children, I would just say - start early. The earliest you can give us the most options to support and find the education that you are dreaming of for your child, and if special programs are needed, this gives us a lot more options to apply for. Move to Toronto, there are lots of options!
Leticia: I think that that recommendation applies to almost anywhere in the world - the earlier, the better.
Thanks so much for all this interesting information. I know it was just a very superficial discussion, but this served well as a starting point of what Toronto has to offer in terms of schooling.
So, as a final question, Alison, what is it about being an education consultant that you find most rewarding when helping families?
Alison: It's always finding the right school for your family and having them cheering when we find it! But for me, what I find most rewarding is the first phone call - the intake call. When I meet my family for the first time, typically, they're arriving cross-eyed, stressed, it's a lot of news, it's a lot of emotion, a lot of the unknown, and feeling overwhelmed with so many checklists and things to figure out. So, I love the end of the first phone call, when families just feel they've handed over to me their stress about education, that somebody's got it in hand, and that that piece is mostly off their own list and over onto ours. I tend to see this sigh of relief from the families who are now thinking, "okay, now we have options, we know there are choices, and somebody's helping us get there..." so, I love that part.
Leticia: Well, that's lovely, and I do agree 100% with you, Alison. I think many people have already heard me say that, when you learn that you're moving to another place, the best thing to do first of all, if you have children who have to go to school, is to lean on an expert. And I think what you just said about finishing the intake call and seeing how a family goes from being super-stressed to saying "whew, now I have someone to help," is what makes the difference. An education consultant can really lead the charge and support throughout the school search and to make sure the children end up enrolled in a school that that meets their needs - that's all that matters in the end.
I'm seeing this question coming in - what is the compulsory age to start school in Toronto?
Alison: Yes, that's a good question. So, as I was mentioning, we do have kindergarten which starts the year children turn 4, and then continues through the year they turn 5, but school actually isn't compulsory until 1st grade. So, parents have a lot of choices for where they could put their child prior to the year they're turning 6 - it could be in a private school, it could be in childcare, you could homeschool... there are lots of different options, but you aren't actually technically required to be registered in a school until 1st grade.
Leticia: So, if education is not compulsory until they go into 1st grade, the year they're turning 6, would the state fund any preschool education, or any education prior to the age of 6, or that would be totally on the parents?
Alison: That is a very complicated question at this moment. Typically, any childcare outside of the public Junior Kindergarten program is not funded by the government. However, there are some options for applying to subsidized childcare, if that's something that you want, but you need to be below a level of income. And then also, there is a move right now to a federally funded childcare program. It's being delivered differently across each province. So, in Toronto, it's being delivered differently than it would be, say, in Montreal, which is in Quebec. The goal is to have $10/day childcare. It's a complicated program, and its new, and the way it's being delivered is not terribly efficient - so, at the moment, I would not recommend a lot of people going to childcare centers that have opted into that program, because it's a bit messy. It may get better, but for right now, I would say stick with a standard childcare, or preschool, or a Montessori, or a Reggio Emilia-inspired school - somewhere that's a little bit more organized than what is happening within the new federally funded program.
Leticia: Well, this is very interesting! Along with the fact that you're definitely in love with Toronto, and after listening to all the alternatives that we have in terms of schooling, it does give me a little bit of need to move to Toronto! So, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you to everyone for being here today, for putting aside 30 minutes of your time, and we hope to see you on your next webinar. Goodbye, and thank you so much.
--- End of transcript ---
Please stay tuned for our next Hotspot Spotlight, Schooling in Boston, coming your way soon.
Based in Madrid, Spain, Leticia G. de la Rasilla is Bennett's Client Services representative and a Global Team Lead, overseeing and supporting Bennett’s Europe-based consultants. She also plans education outreach for our corporate and RMC clients, leading webinar discussions on relevant education topics and providing updates on high-demand locations. Leticia brings firsthand understanding of the expat experience to her Bennett work. She initially began work with the company in 2007 as an independent consultant based in Mexico, only to relocate to Germany and eventually repatriate to her native Spain. She has also lived in Ireland, France, and Belgium. As a mother of four children who had to “figure it all out,” she empathizes with the families she supports and understands exactly the kind of help they need.
Alison Randall is an independent education consultant based in Toronto, Canada, who brings a lifetime of teaching and “internationalism” to her consulting with Bennett. Born in Canada, she has lived in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Dubai, France, Mexico, and Guatemala. She knows firsthand the experience of relocating one’s children to a new country and finding good-fit schools for them, and she brings her experience and empathy to bear in her support of “Bennett” families.
Alison has worked extensively as a teacher in Canada, in both public and private schools and with students of all ages, including those with Special Education Needs. She also volunteers with organizations across the West End of Toronto, regularly preparing meals at the Fort York Food Bank, and she currently serves as President of her local Rotary Club.
Over the years, Bennett International Education Consultancyhas worked with hundreds of corporations across the globe, many of them Fortune 500 companies, providing domestic and international school advisement & placement services - preschool through university - to the dependents of relocating employees. In addition to education placement, our team provides customized consulting for corporations with a range of education issues: education policy writing & benchmarking, tuition studies, group move advisement & planning, and remote education solutions.