Canada ranks 9th among 38 rich countries on how well countries give children a fair start in life
A new UNICEF report released today measures levels of educational inequality in 38 rich countries along different stages of schooling. Findings show Canada's education system is among the most equitable in the rich world. However, income inequality and its side effects may stretch the education gap wider for some children in Canada.
In The Equalizer: How Education Creates Fairness for Children in Canada, the Canadian Companion to the global report, UNICEF digs deeper into what contributes to inequalities and how Canada could do better. Public education is a strong equalizing force in Canadian society, working to close disparities that children start school with so that by high school more children expect to continue their education beyond secondary school than in many peer countries. But school is not a place of opportunity for every child, and there are growing threats to the fairness and high standards Canada achieves in education.
"This report shows our education system is one of the most equitable amongst rich nations, and that it creates fairness even as income inequality has widened," said David Morley, president and CEO at UNICEF Canada. "Canada's social and education policies need to protect and grow the equalizing power of schools, because we are leaving some children behind and a more equal system pulls all students up."
UNICEF's global report, Report Card 15: An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children's Education in Rich Countries, reveals that Canada ranks 9th of 38 rich nations on the extent of educational inequalities at preschool, primary and secondary school levels. While children start school in Canada with wide gaps in family circumstances and access to services including early education, the education system creates more equality as children progress through it. By high school, the gap in reading narrows compared to other countries. Canada supports both high achievement and equality for many.
"What this report also teaches us is that when we invest in children, we get results. If Canada brought to other aspects of child and youth well-being the shared commitment we have to a good education, many more children would be healthy, free of violence and able to dream about and reach their full potential," added Morley.
The gaps: education is not an equalizer for some children
As for all countries, income inequality is a big force shaping children's education opportunity and experience, and there are wide and persistent achievement gaps for some children in Canada. While migrant children do just as well as the average Canadian child, girls do better than boys at reading and the gaps widens as they progress through school. Parental affluence has less influence than in many other countries but it matters: children in disadvantaged families are less likely to do well, even when their grades are just as good as their wealthier peers.
"All children have the right to a fair chance in life," added Morley. "In Canada, too many Indigenous children are left behind. Children in racialized ethnic groups, children and youth in care, children with disabilities and children who carry the burdens of poverty and other life challenges also have equal rights to be included and nurtured for their unique potentials."
The UNICEF report identifies threats to educational equality. Income inequality is making it more difficult to close the education gaps. It contributes to challenges for all children on both sides of the education achievement gap, contributing to poor nutrition, bullying and anxiety.
To sustain and improve educational equality, UNICEF Canada calls on all levels of government to:
Reduce income inequality. All levels of government should set a target to reduce child poverty by at least 50% by 2020, and 60% by 2030, through an increase in child benefits for the poorest families. A National Housing Strategy including Indigenous communities should help equalize children's learning and development by ensuring safe and secure housing.
Guarantee access to high quality early child learning and care. When some children benefit from preschool that others can't afford, inequality grows. Increasing access to early child education in Canada would help lift families with young children out of poverty.
Close the gaps between children in schools and establish a reconciliation framework to close gaps for Indigenous children. More targeted funding to schools with wide within-school achievement gaps between children, and to schools with lower average scores, would help increase equity.
Create more flexible learning opportunities. Beyond reading, science and math, children and youth also want to learn life skills like how to manage their health, financial literacy and about their human rights.
Make learning safer and healthier. We call for a holistic and balanced approach to children's learning and broader well-being at school. This can be achieved by focusing on food security and providing a universal healthy school food program in Canada, and by reducing the high rate of bullying, which is more common in societies with wider income inequality.
UNICEF Canada also calls on Canadians to join UNICEF Canada's One Youth campaign to elevate the rights and well-being of Canada's children and youth.
It is only by better understanding the state of our children and youth that Canada can identify the challenges, design solutions and direct smart investments to close the gaps and make children's lives better. It's up to all of us to sustain our commitment to Canada's great equalizer, our public education systems, and ensure they work for every child.
Visit UNICEF Canada to read all about UNICEF Report Card 15.