Postcard From Canada

In late February I led a delegation to Ontario to see what lessons its high performing education system could teach us,[1] and think about how to use those lessons to achieve systemic change at home.


“They’re all our children.”

Dr. Richard Lanz

Travelling through snow in temperatures as low as minus 30, we visited the school boards of Peel in suburban Toronto and  Kawartha Pine Ridge in rural Peterborough, met with representatives of the Ministry, OISE (the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education)  and NGOs such as the Martin Aboriginal Initiative. Visiting these organizations, entering schools and speaking to a number of system leaders, we were able to build a picture of the factors contributing to Ontario’s success.


The level of alignment in the system was remarkable. We talked to teachers, school leaders, district leaders, policy-makers, unions and universities. All of them articulated the same headline priorities for the system: closing the numeracy gap and embedding growth mindsets (“we’re not good at math, yet”). This clarity of purpose clearly gave everyone in the system a sense of ownership over a shared vision, and a shared language with which to collaborate. Everyone we met only spoke with the utmost respect of others in the system, whoever they were. Underpinning all of this is the internationally renowned work of Michael Fullan.


Richard Lanz at the Ministry of Education summed this up in a single phrase “they’re all our children.” Whereas often teachers and leaders hold themselves accountable to the performance of the kids in their class or their district, in Ontario there is as real sense that all educators are responsible for the education of all kids, with no exceptions. Coupled with this is a clear prioritization of support over accountability. The assumption is that everyone is trying to do their best for kids, and accountability is to them, and to other professionals. Surprisingly, data is treated with some caution. Levels of trust are high.


Teaching in Ontario is a prestigious and oversubscribed profession. As Julia O’Sullivan, Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education told us: “there is no guru to send for, no resource to buy, you need great teachers.” To keep these great people in the profession there are clear career paths along which to progress, linked both to experience and expertise (most of the people we met were experienced professionals – in contrast to the young aspiring leaders of our network). These include avenues into specialisms, promotions into school leadership and perhaps district or ministry roles, secondments to university posts.


Significant resources are invested in promoting public confidence in the education system. Messaging about education is consistently positive and supportive. This then feeds a virtuous loop – highly respected professionals are promoted into leadership roles, they continue to promote the quality of the system in a highly credible way, attracting high quality graduates to the system.


Of all of the experiences we had on the visit, perhaps the most provocative was a visit to The Cube. Ontario is trialling an advanced credit program for kids at risk of dropping out of high school. Simply, it means that students failing to get enough credits are entered into vocational courses that will also count for college credits. This has had a hugely positive effect on outcomes for the system. Normally we’d be suspicious of vocational programmes, but the high expectations, world class quality of the facility, motivation of the students, and clear path to careers dispelled those doubts. As we entered, we saw teams of sixteen year-olds installing solar panels four storeys up on a roof that they’d built themselves. Given our academic backgrounds, it challenged all of our notions about the content of a transformative education.

If you’re at all like me, you’ll now be asking: yes, but where wasn’t the system working? The truth is that when we asked about disadvantage, or the outcomes for poor kids, or minority ethnic groups we were met with bemusement. In Ontario they really do focus on the individual child, providing interventions to anyone that falls behind. The system is essentially blind to demographic or socio-economic trends. And it works to an extent: Ontario’s is one of the world’s more equal education systems. With one important exception.

The Martin Aboriginal Initiative was founded by former premier Paul Martin to tackle the huge injustices faced by Canada’s native populations. The statistics are stark. Where 9.5% of Canadian kids drop-out of high school before graduation, 60% of Aboriginal students do. Youth suicide rates among Aboriginal communities are six times higher than in the rest of Canada. MAEI is working in this space with organizations like OISE to do some great work, but there is not greater sign of the need – even in this great education system – for Teach For Canada to get to work.

[1] In the OECD’s 2009 results, Canada ranked 6th overall. In the most recent 2012 PISA Results, Canada ranks at 13th overall, though the additions of Macau-China and Taipei-China skew this somewhat. Ontario’s education system has been featured as a case study in McKinsey’s 2009 report How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better (

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