St. Margaret’s School – on Private Education & Girls

Published Feb 5, 2014

I wanted to learn a little bit more about private education and St. Margaret’s School for Girls as I’ve always been a bit sceptical of a school without boys… so I caught up with Jennifer Cook the communications coordinater at St. Margarets and I must say I am truly impressed by their programs, values, and focus…

Question 1: St. Margaret’s School for girls is a highly regarded school in Victoria BC, however for those parents who are not yet familiar with SMS, please tell us a little bit about your background and vision.

St. Margaret’s School For Girls was founded in 1908 by two English sisters, Edith and Isabel Fenwick, who were soon joined by their friend Margaret Barton. Despite the name the school has been non-denominational since the beginning: SMS was named for Queen Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093) who was canonized for her work for charity and justice. The School started in a small house at 810 Cook Street moving a number of times as it grew to meet increasing demand. SMS has been at its current location at 1080 Lucas Avenue in the North Quadra area since 1970.  Throughout this long history our aim has always remained the same: to help girls become powerful learners with the knowledge, attitudes and courage to thrive – in their studies and careers, and in life.

Question 2: Could you elaborate on your STEM Learning Goals please?

Yes! We really think the world could use more women in research, leadership and innovation, don’t you? It’s worrying to hear some of the stats, like how women greatly outnumber men on university campuses, but make up only 39 per cent of undergrads in math and physical sciences and only 17 per cent of undergraduates in engineering and computer science, according to data from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. So yes, among the academic goals of the school is to promote, educate and support interest and confidence in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) among girls. A new study just released from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax suggests that girls are six times as likely to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics when they have exposure to these subjects in early grades. At SMS this starts from the earliest levels: our Early Learning program for girls 3 – 5 integrates play, art-making and outdoor exploration to tackle STEM-learning goals starting with the ability to ask “how” questions: how can you tell the difference between conifers and deciduous trees, how do birds fly… “how” questions are really the springboard for making connections and understanding the world around us.   As our students move up through the grades the methods of teaching may change but the emphasis in these subject areas only grows: technology is integrated into the classroom at all levels starting with our tablet & laptop program at the elementary level, specialist instruction of science and math starts in Grade 5, girls are encouraged to dive deeper into areas of personal interest with science fairs and self-directed projects, our Tech Girls Club has girls developing skill in robotics and AutoCAD, and guest speakers from the local professional community and University of Victoria are invited in to expose girls to new ideas when the girls aren’t out “in the field” themselves on off-campus trips. And there is a difference in environment: studies show that graduates of girls’ school not only perform better in STEM courses than coed peers, but are as much as 3 to 6-times as likely to then choose careers in these areas.

Question 2: Thank-you for elaborating- really interesting! I have heard a lot about your experiential learning opportunities, please tell us a bit about those and what benefits they offer to students?

It always comes down to what’s best for our girls. We seek to provide as many opportunities as possible for our students to push their skills, discover new passions, and explore ways to improve themselves. All educators are constantly challenged to remain relevant in order to provide the best possible outcomes, not only in terms of achievement at the school but in preparation for the future; the student’s life after school. Integrating experiential learning into our curriculum helps to create strong connections across subject areas and address the whole girl, not only for strong skill development but also their emotional and moral development.  Some unique aspects of our curriculum include complementary relationship between our gorgeous natural setting outside and our high-tech classrooms inside; our Big Sister/Little Sister program that pairs up students of different ages for mentorship & collaboration; our annual Outweek that sends girls on an outdoor adventure to push their boundaries by exploring new activities from sailing to kayaking, scuba to rock-climbing, and more; our community service activities that happen throughout the year both locally & internationally that are largely student-driven and help develop a strong sense of citizenship and social responsibility; and our newest addition, a Middle Years program to better address the specific needs of girls in Grades 5 to 8.

Question 3: Why only Girls?

The benefits of a girls’ school do not come from separating girls from boys, but from the ability of a girls’ school to focus entirely on the education, development and well-being of girls.

As an all girls school we are focused entirely on the education, development and well-being of girls. This small scale, single-gender environment offers tremendous advantages to be able to customize individual learning experiences. We know girls. We know how to spark their imaginations, cultivate their curiosity and raise their expectations of themselves. Our teachers have the flexibility to adapt how they teach to draw on girls’ strengths, capture their interest, and actively engage them in learning. As such, we are uniquely positioned to provide them with opportunities and experiences they simply won’t have anywhere else.  Students arrive at the school often as very shy young girls but invariably leave as confident and poised young women.  The transformation is amazing to watch throughout their years with the school and is such a notable change that it is often remarked upon by the students themselves.  A strong emphasis on leadership development has been a major draw over the past century for local and international families to open doors for their daughters as they move through life and get them ready for challenges yet to come.

Question 4: Can you describe your OWL program and how it hopes to foster active participation in the outdoors?

The concept at its core is very simple: to get kids outside. Our Junior and Senior Kindergarten classes spend three afternoons together each week exploring our natural surroundings. St. Margaret’s is located on 22-acres of park-like land which includes swaths of pristine west coast forest, access to Blenkinsop Lake and views of Mt. Doug. But time outside isn’t just unstructured play. The girls trek around our campus with backpacks of investigative tools and clipboards to explore various units of study through hands-on activities. STEM learning outcomes are supported through outdoor exploration. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to which we add a strong emphasis on Art to help make meaningful connections to promote understanding and develop critical thinking skills). Some might wonder about engineering for four-year-olds, but starting STEM early sets a strong foundation for students to advance into grade school and OWL provides a natural venue for understanding foundation concepts. In fact, last school year all science units were completed outdoors.  Though themes and activities are led by our instructors, students are encouraged to direct the pace and course of activities, and lead the line of inquiry – which is challenging because girls at this age are still learning how to ask questions, so we start there. If something sparks their curiosity the opportunity is seized to fully investigate. We see the girls becoming increasingly attuned to their surroundings and make huge leaps in their ability to observe and draw connections. Experts in tree identification, one four-year-old memorably turned to her parent to say, “Mummy, we have more Garry Oaks than conifers at home.” So all of a sudden from this very simple idea comes profound discovery and learning.

Question 5: And what are some of the specific activities children will participate in with the OWL project?

Because of our location we are able to offer an incredible variety of activities on campus: exploring the woods, walking the trails, doing activities in our outdoor classroom, and so on. However, field trips to local nature reserves are also a key component to explore the riches of our coastal region. Expert visitors are invited into the classroom regularly to introduce the children to new ideas: last year a representative of the Victoria Natural History Society visited, and members of the University of Victoria’s Science Department led a unit on the Five Senses. The natural world is used as inspiration and springboard for all kinds of projects and discussions: nature art, nature math (pattern and counting), identifying trees and animals… the possibilities are endless.

Question 7: What is your advice for parents trying to encourage outdoor play and interaction outside of school hours?

Partly it’s just about providing opportunities to be outside together – it doesn’t have to be a structured activity.  Follow your child’s lead, follow their interest. We find these young girls have such intense focus on minute detail.  Out for a walk, we as adults might try to make a fuss about an eagle flying overhead or the gorgeous view from a lookout point, but meanwhile the children are clustered around an ant on the ground and are totally engrossed – and so we encourage it! Let their curiosity lead the discussion and they’ll be hooked.

Question 7: If I were interested in finding out more information about your school or academic programs how would be the best way to get in touch? 

To start, you’re in luck because our winter Open House is coming right up on Friday, February 21. All interested families are invited to take a student-led tour to see the campus in action and meet with staff to have their questions answered. I would also encourage you to check out our website which is of great resources like testimonials from students and parents, our blog including lots of photos, video and articles written by the Head of School herself, and links to research about the benefits of all-girls education. We also welcome girls to come experience a “Day in the Life” of an SMS student to see if the school is a good fit.  The Admissions Office is happy to meet and answer all inquiries from new families: 250-479-7171 or

I must say you have me convinced Jennifer!! Thank-you for sharing your amazing programs with our community!

Francesca Stahl
By Francesca Stahl
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