Understanding the BC School System

Have you ever tried navigating the BC schooling system and needed clarification about the difference between public, independent, and private schools? You are not alone. Layer on the differences between programs of choice, homeschooling vs home learning, and distributed learning, and it is no wonder why families find navigating the system complex. Add in a child(ren) with a learning difference, and the question of which type of school would be the best option for your child can become even more challenging.

This article provides a high-level overview of the BC schooling system, which can act as a starting point for families exploring school options. 

Three school systems in BC:  

  1. BC Public School System  
  1. BC Independent School System  
  1. BC Private School System  

Choosing a school or schooling system for your child can be daunting, magnified for families of students with learning differences. There is no one size fits all approach, and the ‘best’ school placement for your child must consider overall family needs and resources. It is also ok to start in one system and change to another once you understand your child’s learning needs better or if their learning or social needs change. Children’s learning and development are dynamic. While the school they attend is important, so are the other constellation of services, programs, and opportunities they engage in, such as extra-curricular activities, social activities, and family activities. 

BC Public School System

Most children and youth in BC enroll in the public school system. In BC, there are 1,571 public schools across the province, enrolling the equivalent of 563,514 full-time students from kindergarten to grade 12. Public schools are free to attend for all BC residents. They are organized geographically into 60 school districts, which operate independently and are governed by the Ministry of Education and Care. All public schools teach the BC curriculum and must meet ministry guidelines around class size and composition, provision of services for students with special education needs, and assessment and reporting.   

Individual school districts have a significant amount of autonomy in their operations, including how they structure schools, offer programs, and report on student learning. Some key differences you will see between school districts are as follows.

School modes

Some districts operate elementary (K-7) and secondary schools (8-12) only, while others have an additional middle school model. 

Programs of choice

School districts decide which programs they will offer and if they will offer these in neighbourhood schools alongside mainstream programs (dual track schools) or whether they will house programs of choice in a specific school. Families get a spot in highly sought-after programs through a lottery system. Common programs of choice offered in BC public schools are:  

  • French Immersion (both early and late)  
  • Montessori  
  • Fine Arts (including music/band, theatre, film etc.)  
  • Outdoor Education  
  • Gifted Programs  
  • International Baccalaureate Program  
  • Other language Immersion programs (such as Mandarin)  
  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)  
  • Trades/Apprenticeships programs  
  • Alternative Schools  
  • Programs for students with specific learning, behavioural, or social needs  

Additionally, many districts offer alternative ways for students to access public education, including home and distributed learning programs. Home learning and distributed learning models involve students working at home on the BC curriculum with family support. Students interact with teaching and resource staff via online or in-person programming or meetings. Some home learning programs also have in-person components where home learners learn with their peers.   

Home learning and distributed learning models differ from homeschooling, where students are not enrolled in a school district, and families undertake complete responsibility for student learning. 

Students in the public school system with low-incidence disabilities (such as ASD, physical disabilities, and severe mental health/behavioural challenges) receive additional funding from the school district to provide additional support for the student.  


School districts are responsible for determining how they will report on student learning within Ministry Guidelines. Some school districts use traditional report cards (available online via the MyEd system) to report student progress at specific times of the year (December, March, and June for elementary and mid-semester and end of the semester for high school). Other districts use digital reporting tools that provide more frequent updates to families throughout the year.  

With the new BC curriculum (which began implementation in the 2016/2017 school year), the use of letter grades (for example, A, B, C) to report on student learning has been phased out for grades 4 – 9 and replaced by a Competency Scale (emerging, developing, proficient, extending) to report student achievement. Letter grades and percentages are still used for reporting in grades 10-12. 

Did you know?

There is also a Francophone Public School District and Indigenous Public School District in BC. For families with at least one parent educated in a Francophone school, students can attend a public Francophone school in BC. The Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britanique (SD93) operates 38 schools across the province. School District 92, Nisga’a, is the first Indigenous School District in BC and serves learners in the Nass River Valley across four schools.

Advantages and Disadvantages

No cost to families  Families can generally only enroll in their school of choice if it is within their neighbourhood catchment.   
Being able to attend a neighbourhood school where your child lives near their friends/peers  Some school districts use lottery systems for public schools that are at capacity. Students may have to commute to a different school farther away.
Generally, have many options for programs of choice  
Teachers and administration must be certified teachers or have permission from the Teacher Regulation Branch 

BC Independent School System

There are currently 365 independent schools in BC. Independent schools receive some public funding from the Ministry of Education and are regulated by BC Ministry of Education and Care under the Independent School Act. Independent schools are only partially funded by the government (30-50% per student based on school classification). To operate, they rely on families paying tuition and fundraising from families and the community. There are three broad categories of Independent schools in BC:  

  1. Elite: a small number of expensive schools with exceptional facilities catering to families who are looking for an elite school experience   
  2. Specialty: schools with a specialty focus or specific philosophy such as Montessori, Waldorf, Outdoor/Forest School  
  3. Religious: Faith-based schools, such as Catholic, Christian, Muslim or Sikh. These independent religious schools have faith-based practices built into the school’s daily life and often require families to commit to supporting religious participation outside of school.  

Some Independent schools belong to independent school boards or associations (such as the Federation of Independent Schools Association of BC or the Catholic Independent Schools Vancouver Archdiocese). Others operate entirely independently. All BC independent schools must teach the BC curriculum and meet guidelines for providing services for students with special education needs as outlined in the Independent School Act of BC.   

Independent schools receive additional funding for students with low-incidence disabilities (such as ASD, physical disabilities, and severe mental health/behavioural challenges).   

School modes

Some independent schools use a K-12 model (generally with junior and senior schools operating within the larger school). In contrast, others (generally religious) are elementary (K-7) or secondary (8-12), with a regional secondary school serving students from several associated elementary schools. Some Independent schools are single-sex (such as only serving male or female students). 

Programs of choice

Some elite and religious schools may offer programs of choice such as French immersion, international baccalaureate, STEM, or fine arts programming. Other independent schools are structured around what is considered a ‘program of choice’ in the public system, such as Montessori philosophy or an Outdoor Learning environment. 


Just like public school districts, independent schools are responsible for determining how they will report on student learning within Ministry Guidelines. Independent schools have moved to use the Competency Scale associated with the BC Curriculum to report student achievement in grades K-9.   

Did you know?

Several fully online Independent schools in BC offer distributed learning programs for students. These schools enroll students across the province regardless of geographic location. 

Advantages and Disadvantages

Families can enroll in a school of choice regardless of geographic boundaries. Tuition costs for families   
Families have the opportunity to integrate cultural or religious values into education.  There are generally only one or two classes per grade in Independent schools, which may mean a smaller group of peers, making social opportunities challenging for some students. 
Because they are generally smaller than public schools, some families feel that Independent schools have a tighter-knit community feel.   
Like public schools, teachers and administration must be certified teachers or have permission from the Teacher Regulation Branch.   

BC Private School System

Traditionally, private schools do not receive public funding and operate via family-paid tuition and fundraising. Private schools are the smallest grouping of schools in the BC education system, with less than 50 across the province. Private schools are not required to follow the BC Curriculum and can develop their curriculum and reporting practices. 

Starting in 1991 with six schools and then an additional nine schools in 2016, 15 private schools in BC now receive public funding due to their designation as Special Education Services (SES). These private schools only serve students with special education needs. Unlike public or Independent schools, where students with special needs are integrated into mainstream classrooms alongside peers without special education needs, SES schools serve only a subset of students with disabilities. Generally, they offer students comprehensive support based on their specific diagnoses and needs. These schools receive the full per-student funding amount that public schools receive (unlike the 30-50% for other Independent schools) and rely on fees from family-paid tuition. These schools support students with the following types of needs:  

  • Students with learning disabilities  
  • Students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)  
  • Students with complex psychological, socio-emotional or behavioural difficulties  
  • Students who are deaf or hard of hearing  
  • Students designated as gifted  
  • Students involved with the Ministry of Children and Family Development  
  • Students with unspecified learning challenges and intense mental health challenges  
  • Students who are At Risk and/or Gender Non-conforming

School models

The school models are highly varied and dependent on the population they serve. Some private schools are single-sex (such as only serving male or female students).  

Programs of choice

Some private schools may offer programs of choice. Some SES schools may have different programming streams for students based on their academic, social, and behavioural needs.


Private schools are not held to the same curriculum or reporting requirements as public or Independent schools, so reporting processes vary greatly.  

Advantages and Disadvantages

Families can enroll in a school of choice regardless of geographic boundaries.   Tuition costs for families   
Families can choose a school model and curriculum that meets their child’s needs.   The smaller groups of peers can make social opportunities challenging for some students.  
Due to the challenges of inclusion of children with special education needs in mainstream public or independent schools, families may feel that their child is better supported in a school explicitly focused on their learning and development needs.  Unlike public and Independent schools, teachers and administration are not required to be certified teachers or have permission from the Teacher Regulation Branch. 
School staff may include various educational or support staff based on student needs.  

– Jennifer Fane, Director of Education

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