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Girls' Boarding Schools

At girls' boarding schools, it's less about addressing difference than providing opportunity

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While boys’ schools have a longer tradition in Canada, the things that single-gender schools offer today, in some fundamental ways, reflect the academic tradition that arose within the girls’ institutions. Boarding schools, in particular, have provided leadership in addressing the challenges associated with developing and supporting a diverse student population, and providing students with the skills they'll need for success after graduation.

Establishing the tradition

The oldest independent JK to Grade 12 girls’ boarding school in Canada is Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, founded in 1867. From the beginning, the school was lead by a series of forthright women who had lived at the boundaries social and intellectual life, and experience that they brought to their role as educators. In the 1870s, Mrs. Anne Thomson, then principal of the school, addressed the students at convocation saying “Remember girls, you are not going home to be selfish butterflies of fashion. The Bishop Strachan School has been endeavoring to fit you to become useful and courageous women. I believe you will yet see our universities open to women. Work out your freedom, girls! Knowledge is now no more a fountain seal’d; drink deep!”

Thomson’s views were revolutionary for the time, and they found a welcome home at Bishop Strachan. She became one of a long line of headmistresses who would define the life of the school as challenging and progressive, a place where girls and women would continue to work out their freedom, and drink deep, just as Thomson hoped they might. She travelled to schools in England and the US seeking strategies and techniques to modernize the school’s curriculum. She began a program of financial aid, the first of its kind in Canada, offering bursaries and scholarships to broaden the student base. She worked to create a community with a reputation of achievement, not privilege. During her time, the school sent more students to university than ever before, this at a time when very few women went to university at all.


Trafalgar Castle School, Whitby, Ontario

It was through that kind of forthright leadership that girls’ schools differed most significantly from what was happening elsewhere. While all-boys schools could be brutal in the pursuit of conformity, the girls’ institutions were quietly empowering girls to do more, and to demand more of society as well as themselves. The women who taught at girls’ schools were modern and accomplished, and they imparted the values of education. They lead by example, providing a window onto a world of possibility.

Disrupting expectations

The world that Thomson, Walsh and others worked within is long gone. Yet, while there have been huge advances in the rights of women, traditional gender roles nevertheless are often unwittingly reinforced in academic and extra-curricular settings. Science and technology are more likely to be promoted to boys than to girls; English and the arts are more likely to be promoted to girls than to boys. Athletics, the prom, and many other aspects of student life can reinforce traditional roles and expectations.

Christina Brasco is a scientist, a graduate of Yale University and now a member of GE’s aviation team. There she develops data solutions and applications, and then works with engineers to implement them. Her experience of being a woman participating in fields that are still predominantly male has lead her to take part in mentorship programs, such as Girls Who Code, in order to motivate young women to consider careers in math and science. “The misconception that boys are better at math and science is something many girls have ingrained in their brains from a very young age. As a result, fewer girls elect to take advanced math and science subjects in middle and high school.” She continues:

“Young women who do pursue these subjects often find themselves isolated as one of a very small number of girls in a class, making connecting with their classmates more challenging. Finally, those who pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs after graduation end up in fields that are even more overwhelmingly dominated by men. Overall, girls and women are filtered out of STEM classes and fields in the classroom and the workplace.”[1]


Havergal College, Toronto, Ontario

That tendency to skew expectations based on gender is difficult to avoid, both within the classroom and in the larger community of the school. Jessi Klein, head writer for “Inside Amy Schumer” has said that in her childhood, as now, “the idea of what it means to be a girl [is that] you’re supposed to be this other. You think of ‘female’ as not the primary voice.”[2] That perception can be reinforced, unwittingly and unintentionally, by the daily progress of school life. When the whole school attends a boy’s football playoff game, for example, there is an implication that the boys’ team is the real team, one to which the girls’ team is secondary and ancillary.

Also true is that coed schools more readily reflect societal expectations of girls, something that then carries over into professional life. Caroline Paul was one of the first women on the San Francisco Fire Department, and she wrote about her experience for the New York Times. She worked on a rig in tough area of the city. “I’ve pulled a bloated body from the bay, performed CPR on a baby and crawled down countless smoky hallways.” She expected people to question her physical ability, and perhaps girded herself for that, yet found that the question she heard more than any other was “Aren’t you scared?” She writes that “fear is expected of women. This fear conditioning begins early. Many studies have shown that physical activity — sports, hiking, playing outdoors — is tied to girls’ self-esteem. And yet girls are often warned away from doing anything that involves a hint of risk.”

Contributing to a new normal 

Boys are typically conditioned to face their fears and to strive to overcome them. Girls, more typically, aren’t. It’s an anecdotal understanding that was supported in a 2015 paper in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.[3] The authors concluded that “girls may be less likely than boys to try challenging physical activities, which are important for developing new skills.” And, as Paul notes, there is a significant cost, well beyond an impact on physical fitness; By unwittingly treating girls as more fragile, we caution them away from important developmental experiences and ultimately “we are failing to prepare them for life.”

“We must chuck the insidious language of fear (Be careful! That’s too scary!) and instead use the same terms we offer boys, of bravery and resilience. We need to embolden girls to master skills that at first appear difficult, even dangerous. And it’s not cute when a 10-year-old girl screeches, ‘I’m too scared.’”[4]

Still, the fear may not always be superficial, but instead a product of the kinds of expectations we make of girls. Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code in 2012, and through the experience of teaching girls in that setting she found that while we teach boys to brave, we teach girls to be perfect, something that can discourage creativity and engagement with new tasks and ideas:

“We immediately see in our program our girls' fear of not getting it right, of not being perfect. Every Girls Who Code teacher tells me the same story. During the first week, when the girls are learning how to code, a student will call her over and she'll say, "I don't know what code to write." The teacher will look at her screen, and she'll see a blank text editor. If she didn't know any better, she'd think that her student spent the past 20 minutes just staring at the screen. But if she presses undo a few times, she'll see that her student wrote code and then deleted it. She tried, she came close, but she didn't get it exactly right. Instead of showing the progress that she made, she'd rather show nothing at all. Perfection or bust.”[5]

Saujani believes that part of the teaching task, both in STEM settings and beyond, is to socialize girls to be comfortable with imperfection. “We have to show them that they will be loved and accepted not for being perfect but for being courageous.”

Pensionnat du Saint-Nom-de-Marie, Montreal, Quebec

Ecouraging openness and trust

Girls' schools continue to provide an opportuity to challenge those kinds of expectations, and to provide girls an opportunity to work outside of them. As such, girls' schools continue to set the agenda in Canadian education by embracing the leadership role that was established by the first girls' schools more than a century ago. A impressive reminder are two alumni of Branksome Hall that appeared on the cover of "The Read," the school's alumni magazine, in 2016. For the first time in the school’s history, the magazine featured two men: Andrew Sprung and Reed Wanless. Both graduated from Branksome in 2004. 

“Something about being in a single-sex environment, to a certain extent, allowed me to put off more fundamental questions about my gender and identity,” says Sprung, something he believes was a benefit to his developing sense of self. Rather than feeling a need to define himself, at Branksome he found a space to simply be who he was, to present himself honestly, without the kinds of questioning that may have occurred in other settings. 

Wanless agrees. “It’s not easy but you can get through it. If you’re open about yourself, and you trust the people around you a little bit you can become who you are and live a happy life.”

At Branksome both were supported by a program of gender identity, formally and informally. Both Sprung and Wanless found the space to grow into their identities, something that served as as foundation for their later gender transitions. 

“This is a continuation of the work we do every day at the school, which is supporting students to be the best they can be,” says Karrie Weinstock, Branksome’s deputy principal. That they were celebrated on the cover of the alumni magazine provided an important message to those within the school community and beyond. 


St. Margaret's School, Victoria, British Columbia

Reaching further

Girls’ schools have been shown to have a role in disrupting patterns and the messages that accrete around an understanding of gender, ability, and possibility. Studies by the National Association for Choice in Education (NACE) and others have shown that girls in a single-sex environment are more likely to explore non-traditional subjects and activities. Absent from boys, girls perceive new areas of opportunity, something that is encouraged by the presence of female mentors and role models. In other ways, participation is the result of little more than the environment itself. To be the best hockey player in the school—rather than the best female hockey player in the school—can provide an added motivation. Girls are more likely to join a robotics club, for example, when they don’t risk being the only girl in the room, or when participation won’t be read as an act of defiance to a perceived status quo. Certainly, that’s the tradition that girls’ schools in Canada continue to this day. It’s not about isolation, it's about providing a space for a greater freedom of interest, engagement, and identity.

–Glen Herbert


[1] Interview with Christina Brasco. "What Women Want: Careers in STEM." Media Planet Education and Career News. Accessed April 21, 2016. 

[2] Jessi Klein in interview with David Brancaccio. Esquire Classic Podcast: Esquire Magazine in partnership with PRX Public Radio Exchange. Episode 2. Released October 18, 2015.

[3]  O'Neal, Elizabeth E.; Jodie M. Plumert; Carole Peterson. "Parent–Child Injury Prevention Conversations Following a Trip to the Emergency Department." Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsv070. First published online August 13, 2015.

[4] Caroline Paul, “Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared?” New York Times. February 21, 2016. p. SR8. Print headline: "It’s Not Cute to Be Scared."

[5] Reshma Saujani. "Teach girls bravery, not perfection." TED Talk. Filmed February 2016.

Geoffrey Vendeville. "Exclusive all-girls' school Branksome Hall embraces trans graduates." Toronto Star, January 26, 2016. 

 


10 Elm Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 1N4

Toronto
Branksome Hall is an all girls school in Toronto, from JK to Grade 12, including 56 boarding students. Tuition ranges from $28,995 to $31,245 for day students. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • International Baccalaureate
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $29,590 to 56,855/year
401 Reynolds Street, Whitby, Ontario, L1N 3W9

Whitby
Located just 45 minutes east of Toronto, Trafalgar Castle School offers world-class curriculum in a small-school environment that inspires and encourages growth. * Day and boarding * All Girls * Grades 5 to 12 [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • 5 to 12 (Girls)
  • $21,860 to 52,230/year
1080 Lucas Avenue, Victoria, British Columbia, V8X 3P7

Victoria
St. Margaret's School (est. 1908) is an independent school in Victoria, BC, offering empowering education for girls from JK to Grade 12. At SMS, girls don't just get equal opportunity; they get every opportunity. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Traditional
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $9,500 to 49,300/year
1451 Avenue Road, Toronto, Ontario, M5N 2H9

Toronto
Havergal College is an all-girls school in Toronto for students in JK to Grade 12. Preparing Young Women to Make a Difference Since 1894. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $30,820 to 55,500/year
365 Compton Street East, Waterville, Quebec, J0B 3H0

Waterville
COLLÈGE FRANÇOIS-DELAPLACE is a private Traditional / academic boarding school in Waterville, Quebec. The school offers programs for grades 7 to 12 with enrolment of 200 boarding students. [view profile]
  • Boarding
  • Traditional
  • 7 to 12 (Girls)
  • $7,950 to 30,300/year
628, chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal, Quebec, H2V 2C5

Montreal
École secondaire francophone privée pour jeunes filles située à Outremont, Qc. Les frais de scolarité sont de 3 900 $ par année. Elle offre les profils Éducation internationale, Danse-études et Musique-études. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • International Baccalaureate
  • 7 to 11 (Girls)
  • $4,000 to 9,150/year
298 Lonsdale Road, Toronto, Ontario, M4V 1X2

Toronto
Located in Toronto, The Bishop Strachan School is Canada's oldest independent JK to Grade 12 day and boarding school for girls, welcoming students from Toronto and around the world. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Traditional
  • Reggio Emilia
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $31,190 to 59,100/year
205 Bidwell Parkway, Buffalo, New York, 14222

Buffalo
Independent day and boarding school for college-bound girls. Our STEAM curriculum is unique, and creative, independent thinking is valued. Located in Buffalo, NY, girls access the best of city living. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • 9 to 12 (Girls)
  • US $19,840 to 46,715/year
660 Brownsey Avenue, Duncan, British Columbia, V9L 1C2

Duncan
Queen Margaret's School is an independent co-ed day school Preschool to Gr. 7 and all girls day/boarding school for Gr. 8-12 in Duncan, BC. [view profile]
  • Day & Boarding
  • Traditional
  • Arts-intensive
  • 8 to 12 (Girls)
  • $5,100 to 52,400/year
10 Elm Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 1N4
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • International Baccalaureate
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $29,590 to 56,855/year
view profile
401 Reynolds Street, Whitby, Ontario, L1N 3W9
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • 5 to 12 (Girls)
  • $21,860 to 52,230/year
view profile
1080 Lucas Avenue, Victoria, British Columbia, V8X 3P7
  • Day & Boarding
  • Traditional
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $9,500 to 49,300/year
view profile
1451 Avenue Road, Toronto, Ontario, M5N 2H9
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $30,820 to 55,500/year
view profile
365 Compton Street East, Waterville, Quebec, J0B 3H0
  • Boarding
  • Traditional
  • 7 to 12 (Girls)
  • $7,950 to 30,300/year
view profile
628, chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal, Quebec, H2V 2C5
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • International Baccalaureate
  • 7 to 11 (Girls)
  • $4,000 to 9,150/year
view profile
298 Lonsdale Road, Toronto, Ontario, M4V 1X2
  • Day & Boarding
  • Traditional
  • Reggio Emilia
  • JK to 12 (Girls)
  • $31,190 to 59,100/year
view profile
205 Bidwell Parkway, Buffalo, New York, 14222
  • Day & Boarding
  • Liberal Arts
  • 9 to 12 (Girls)
  • US $19,840 to 46,715/year
view profile
660 Brownsey Avenue, Duncan, British Columbia, V9L 1C2
  • Day & Boarding
  • Traditional
  • Arts-intensive
  • 8 to 12 (Girls)
  • $5,100 to 52,400/year
view profile

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