Toronto’s Branksome Hall School Exporting Respected Teaching Brand

By Marjo Johne

South Korea’s Jeju Island is home to the world’s most impressive lava cave system, long stretches of white sand beaches, and the legendary haenyeo – female deep-sea divers who forage for abalone, conch and sea urchin with no breathing apparatus of any kind.

Three years ago, this island also became home to an international, all-girls school established by Branksome Hall, a Toronto private school that’s been empowering girls for more than 100 years. In opening its first school outside Canada, Branksome Hall Asia joined the growing group of Canadian schools successfully exporting their unique brand of education to other parts of the world.

“The opportunity came through the invitation of the South Korean government, which had as a strategic priority for the country to establish an English-speaking city on Jeju Island,” explains Karen Jurjevich, principal at Branksome Hall in Toronto. “A key component of this would be a global education city.”

To find the right schools for its global education city, the South Korean government had turned to the Boston Consulting Group, which presented a shortlist of institutions in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Branksome Hall was among the eight schools ranked as the world’s best by the management consulting firm.

In October 2012, Branksome Hall Asia ushered its first cohort of students into a state-of-the-art campus that marries the natural elements of Jeju Island, including volcanic rock, with Canadian-inspired elements such as timber. Facilities on the site include an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a 350-seat perfoming arts centre, a golf academy, and a state-of-the-art Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) and Visual Art Centre.

The first year of operations saw 300 students coming into Branksome Hall Asia. Today, the school has about 700 students – just 200 less than its Toronto counterpart – and expects its student body to grow to 1,200 over the next six to eight years. About 75 per cent of Branksome Hall Asia students are Korean, with the rest of the student body made up of girls from China, Australia and Canada.

“Korea is the third largest source of students for Canada and education as a service is one of our top exports to Korea,” notes Eric Walsh, Canada’s ambassador to Korea. “Branksome Hall Asia is one example of a successful education exporter, and its success underlines the Korean government’s desire to really work with the best.”

Building a 21st-century campus on a century-old foundation

As it set out to build its first school outside Canada, Branksome Hall gave considerable thought to how it would transplant its well-known brand and approach to teaching – which had taken over a century to build and evolve – to a far-flung location so geographically and culturally different from its Canadian roots.

From the outset, says Ms. Jurjevich, the goal was not to clone Branksome Hall Toronto – a city school whose heritage-meets-modern campus straddles a busy downtown street. By comparison, Branksome Hall Asia’s location is a remote, UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts tourists looking to get close to nature.

Ms. Jurjevich and her team worked with a Singapore-based MKPL Architects to design a campus that integrated the physical qualities of the greenfield site with Branksome Hall’s history, values and program requirements.

“The architect, who has an extensive architectural background in educational institutions throughout southeast Asia, travelled from Singapore to Canada and spent several days at the school to really understand girl school culture and the traditions of Branksome Hall,” recalls Ms. Jurjevich. “This allowed us to form a vision for what our students need in terms of the new campus and what would open the door for 21st-century education at Branksome Hall Asia.”

Two campuses, one mission

While Branksome Hall’s two campuses are world’s apart in location and architecture, both are built on the same key pillars, says Ms. Jurjevich.

“Branksome Hall’s strategy is based on our International Baccalaureate (IB) advantage, our focus on wellness and our focus on global engagement,” she says. “We believe that the intersection of these three strategic priorities opens the doors for leadership of Branksome Hall graduates, and we’re defining ourselves in Korea with this mission.”

At the Jeju Island campus, Branksome Hall’s international curriculum is taught within the context of Korean culture, notes Peter Kenny, director of Branksome Hall Asia. All students have daily mother tongue language lessons, for Korean or Chinese, with all instruction in English. The teaching methodology is inquiry-based and matches the educational programme of Branksome Hall.

But there are distinctly Canadian aspects to studying at Branksome Hall Asia, says Mr. Kenny. These include an emphasis on sports and outdoor activities. In October 2015, a group of Grade 9 students from Branksome Hall Asia came to Canada for four weeks.

In addition to spending time at Branksome Hall Toronto and visiting a number of universities, the students from Korea spent a week camping and canoeing at Algonquin Park. This “Living and Learning” exchange is a unique component of the Branksome Hall Asia project.

“In March, we have 60 Grade 9 students from Branksome Hall Toronto coming to us,” says Mr. Kenny. “Starting in 2018, these exchanges will be compulsory for all Branksome Hall students – the Toronto students will come to us and we’ll go to them.”

Poised for growth and greater impact

In May 2015, Branksome Hall Asia saw its first cohort of Grade 12 students graduate from the school. Each of the 32 graduates left with a bilingual IB diploma and an offer of acceptance from at least one university. The group also boasted an overall grade point average of 35.2, more than six points higher than the world average of 29, says Mr. Kenny.

“It’s great to see a well-entrenched Canadian institution reborn in Asia, with the same uniforms, the same philosophy but in an entirely different campus and culture,” he says. “As a result of our success, I’m now constantly inundated with requests from investors and entrepreneurs who want to build a Branksome Hall in China, Hong Kong or Singapore. Whatever Branksome Hall decides to do, I know its international presence is going to grow even more and have a greater impact.”

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