Theme Independent Schools


Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University

As principals and headmistresses of private and corporate girls' schools and members of educational organisations, women were educational leaders in the early 20th century. In the independent sector, women continue to dominate as principals of girls' schools. Leadership opportunities increased over the last century in the expanding independent schools' sector but women have not benefited from this overall growth as much as men. Numbers of women principals in the sector as a whole have recently decreased and, in 2012, there were no women on the Independent Schools Council of Australia's (ISCA) board, the peak body for independent schooling. Nevertheless, the substantial achievements of women in the sector should be noted and the following is an historical account of those who have been leaders in this field.

Trail-blazing, entrepreneurial women established private-venture schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though many closed, others thrived, and those that were successful incorporated and continued into the 21st century. South Australia's Wilderness School is one example. Margaret Brown established Wilderness in 1884, and she and her sister, Mamie, were the headmistresses for almost seventy years (Berry, ADB).

New leadership opportunities for women developed from the mid-1870s when church and corporate girls' schools were first established. From the 1870s and 1880s, when Australian universities allowed women to sit entrance exams and then welcomed them as students, attitudes towards girls' educational needs changed. The Methodists and Presbyterians opened their 'ladies' colleges' (MLCs and PLCs) with male principals and headmistresses. The Anglicans tended to appoint women principals. Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School (SCEGGS), for example, employed Edith Badham as foundation principal in 1895, and, in 1916, she also became the inaugural president of the Head Mistresses Association (now the Association of Heads of Independent Girls' Schools NSW) (Burns, ADB). Gradually, more women became principals, though Victoria's MLC only gained its first woman principal, Rosa Storelli, in 1997. Brisbane Girls Grammar School opened in 1875 as a non-denominational corporate secondary school. One of its early principals, Eliza Fewings (Clarke, ADB; Lemon, 'Fewings', AWR), was contentiously dismissed by the school's board in 1899 after three years in the position. She took students with her and established Brisbane Girls High School as a private venture; it was soon the largest girls' secondary school in Queensland and continues today as Somerville House.

These corporate schools were heralded as providing a new secondary education for girls 'like their brothers', even though educational historians Marjorie Theobald, Noeline Kyle and others have found that private schools run by women continued to lead girls' education well into the 20th century, providing successful candidates for university entrance from the earliest opportunity (Kyle, 124; Theobald, 1996, 93). As astute business women, the heads maintained a range of traditional subjects but added university entrance subjects to their 'accomplishments' curriculum. Homecrafts subjects were included and, when office work opened up for women, they added commercial courses. Teaching was seen as one of the few appropriate careers for educated middle-class women. Thus independent schools benefited from the opportunity to employ outstanding Australian women scholars as staff; among them were Vera Summers and Gladys Wade, who won Hackett postgraduate scholarships from the University of Western Australia, gained overseas PhDs and were appointed, respectively, principal of PLC, Perth, in 1934 and headmistress of MLC, Burwood, NSW in 1941.

Women were activists in educational associations from the 1880s, when teachers organised to foster their professional status as state governments increased their control over schools and teachers, ceased funding denominational schools and introduced 'free, secular and compulsory' government schooling. A Teachers' Association began in NSW in 1891 (Teachers Guild NSW from 1909). Its early members included the feminist and educationist, Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) (Kingston, ADB; Lemon, 'Anderson', AWR), foundation registrar of its central registry, which placed hundreds of teachers in non-government schools in the 20th century. Others were Maud Stiles, principal of her school, Normanhurst, the first woman president of the Teachers' Association in 1889, and Louisa Gurney and Augustine Soubeirian (Sherington, ADB), principals of their school Kambala, who established a retirement fund for needy women teachers in the early 1900s (Fletcher, B., 50).

The impetus for the establishment of the Headmistresses Association Victoria (later the Association of Heads of Independent Girls' Schools Victoria (AHIGSV) was the 1905 Registration of Teachers and Schools Act, which introduced government inspection for all schools and teachers (Hansen & Hansen, 5). The association's inaugural president was the inspirational principal of private schools, Isabel Henderson (Theobald, ADB). Her name lives on in the Isabel Henderson Kindergarten and one of her schools is recognised in the title of Clyde House, Geelong Grammar School. Henderson was often the only woman member of early influential organisations, including Victoria's first Teachers Registration Board, and she was one of the visionary founders of the Incorporated Association of Secondary Teachers, now the Incorporated Association of Registered Teachers of Victoria (IARTV).

The 1920s and 1930s saw independent schools increase in size and number, and many embraced educational reform and innovation. Women often led the way. Sydney's Ascham School continues Dalton-inspired learning, introduced in 1922 by headmistress Margaret Bailey (Lundie, ADB; Meyering, AWR). The IARTV established the Associated Teachers Training Institute (later Mercer House) in Melbourne in 1921. The innovative Dorothy Ross (Falk, ADB), the Institute's head (1928-1938), incorporated New Education Fellowship (NEF) philosophies into its curriculum. Then she implemented progressive programs at Melbourne CEGGS when headmistress there from 1939. Similarly influenced by the NEF, Mabel Jewell Baker (Jones, ADB) introduced innovative methods as principal at Walford House School, South Australia. The AHIGSV established its Homecrafts Hostel in Melbourne in 1929 and, until 1973, it trained fee-paying students from all over Australia. In 1933, the AHIGSV was gifted the mansion, Invergowrie, by the McPherson family for the hostel (Gardiner, 57). In 1992, the association sold the mansion and established the Invergowrie Foundation to fund educational and leadership opportunities for Victorian women and girls (Tideman, Interview).

Educational historians Dorothy and Ian Hansen reviewed the Association of Heads of Independent Girls' Schools Australia's (AHIGSA) conferences, held from 1945 until 1985 when they amalgamated with the Headmasters Conference of Independent Schools of Australia (HMCISA) and formed the Association of Heads of Independent Schools Australia (AHISA). The Hansens' account of women educational leaders in conference over four decades showed that they were often ahead of their time in their practice (Hansen & Hansen, x, 139, 145). In the late World War II reconstruction period, which heralded educational change and opportunities, Monica Millington, the prescient principal of Woodlands CEGGS, South Australia (1938-1963), saw the benefits of federating the headmistress's state professional organisations into AHIGSA (Hansen & Hansen, 9). In 1945, AHIGSA's first meeting was hosted at Invergowrie, with foundation president, Mary Neilson, PLC Melbourne's first woman principal, presiding.

Many Australian and overseas educational experts spoke at AHIGSA conferences. One of these was Elsie Annie Southwell, author of best-selling textbooks, particularly the classic, Working with Words. In 1950, she was executive officer to the Victorian Headmasters Association (now Independent Schools Victoria), making her 'the earliest of such appointments' (Hansen & Hansen, 30). Another was the eminent English educator, Dame Diana Reader-Harris, in 1973 (Hansen & Hansen, 67, 289). In the 1960s and 1970s, a period of educational turmoil and challenge, the headmistresses discussed matters of ongoing significance. These included the practicality of having Asian students as boarders, the poor salaries for women teachers (which discouraged applications from the best science graduates), co-education, student leadership, fundraising, preparing their students to be mothers and also continue their careers, teacher training, educational administration, and working with school councils (Hansen & Hansen, 65, 81, 90, 92, 109, 141, 182, 234). The Hansens' review introduced many leading women educators. One of these was principal and owner of Fintona for twenty-nine years, Margaret Cunningham, who pioneered superannuation for independent teachers (Hansen & Hansen, 106). Another was the matriarchal Dorothy Knox (Teale, ADB), PLC Pymble's principal (1936-1966), who, reflecting upon her single status and its effects on her leadership role in 1952, stated, 'I always feel that headmistresses, should, like headmasters, be provided with wives' (Hansen & Hansen, 36). Her take on school leadership was confirmed decades later in 1973 by HMCISA's chairman, Basil Travers, who admitted: 'To be a headmaster that was successful, a man must be "supported strongly be his wife and family"' (Hansen & Hansen, 179). Significantly, since AHISA was formed in 1985, women have been national chair four times while men have occupied the chair ten times (AHISA).

The Australian College of Education (now the Australian College of Educators (ACE) began in 1959 as a professional association with membership from the three school sectors and the tertiary sector. Women were founders and have won ACE fellowships and awards for their leadership over subsequent decades, though not as often as men. Outstanding members included Ruth Gibson (Fletcher, ADB; Heywood, 'Gibson', AWR), the first woman inspector of secondary schools in South Australia (also a president of the National Council of Women of Australia and Australian delegate to the UN Status of Women Commission in 1956 and 1957), Judith Hancock, head of Brisbane Girls Grammar School (1977-2001), Helen Reid, principal of Walford Girls' College, South Australia (1973-1992), and Sylvia Walton (Heywood, 'Walton', AWR), principal of Tintern Girls Grammar School for twenty-three years, chancellor of La Trobe University and the recently appointed principal of St Catherine's School in Melbourne.

Governments returned to funding non-government schools in the 1960s with universal science facilities and, from 1973, successive national governments increased their involvement in Australian schooling through direct funding to non-government schools. The numbers and diversity of non-government schools grew and included the establishment of independent Aboriginal schools. The Worawa Aboriginal College in Victoria was founded for girls in 1983 by Aboriginal leaders, particularly Hyllus Maris (Manning, ADB; Kovacic & Lemon, AWR). New teachers colleges were established, including the Guild Teachers College, NSW. The Guild College trained hundreds of secondary, primary and sub-primary teachers for non-government schools in the 1970s. The indefatigable Phyllis Evans chaired the Guild's Teacher Training Committee, which oversaw the college, while also working as principal of Ravenswood School for Girls (Fletcher, B., 54-60).

The 1970s provided new opportunities for women's membership of national education bodies. Violet Baddams, head of Woodlands CEGGS, South Australia (1964-1980), was a member of the Multicultural Education Co-ordinating Committee in 1979 (Lofthouse, 53), and Faye Morris-Yates, head of PLC Armidale, NSW (1971-1978), was appointed to the Schools Commission (AHIGSNSW). The National Council of Independent Schools, now known as ISCA, was established as the peak body and national advocate for independent schools in 1970. Its first executive committee included only one woman, Elizabeth Butt, who was the principal of Fintona Girls' School, Melbourne, for twenty-nine years (Hansen & Hansen, 275). Since 1970, independent schools have increased from four hundred to over a thousand today, of which 88 per cent are co-educational with 5 per cent and 7 per cent being for boys and girls respectively (ISCA). Though the independent sector has a workforce of over 70 per cent women teachers, there were no women on ISCA's board in 2012. And, in its forty years, the board has consisted of eighty-eight men and twenty women (ISCA). No woman has ever been chair.

Towards the end of the century, there were further changes for headmistresses. Men were increasingly becoming heads of girls' schools and, as the single headmistresses retired, they were usually replaced by married women (Hansen & Hansen, 295). Co-education was introduced into former single-sex schools, with Geelong Grammar being one of the first in 1976, and most of the new independent schools were co-educational. Today there are no women heads of boys' schools and women are seldom selected to be heads of co-educational independent schools. In 2013, of the forty-eight members of the Heads of Co-educational Independent Schools NSW, only one-fifth were women (HICES). Where women have been appointed as heads, the schools are usually small. Helen Drennen, principal of Melbourne's Wesley College, one of Australia's largest co-educational schools, is an exception. Women are, however, heads of the largest girls' schools, such as MLC Melbourne with over two thousand students. The Alliance of Girls' Schools (Australasia) was started in 1997 by Roz Otzen, then principal of Korowa Anglican Girls' School. Today it has 140 members from independent, Catholic and government schools (AGSA). The members are as passionate about single-sex girls schooling as the women heads of a century ago.

An Association of Independent Schools represents the independent sector in each state, and four have women executive directors; these are Valerie Gould (NSW), Michele Green (Victoria), Carolyn Grant (SA) and Gail Baker (NT). However, the numbers of women principals in independent schools have decreased, particularly at secondary level where they were 44 per cent in 2007 but only 29 per cent in 2010 (McKenzie et al., 28). In a response to the dearth of women principals, Annette Rome, president of the ACE, Victorian Branch, and director of staff and learning at MLC Melbourne, recently organised the seminar, 'Women in Leadership: Journeys to Success', which explored women in educational leadership (ACE, Sylvia Walton Event 2012). Educationist John Collard's recent study of women principals rendered 'a complex picture of female leadership in schools' (Collard, 87). In particular, he noted: 'There is no one, distinctive, female leadership style in schools' (Collard, 87). Significantly, however, he made a specific comment on the strength of early women heads of Australian independent schools 'in establishing schools or in working with marginalised communities' (Collard, 79).

In independent schooling, women have continued to show strong leadership. Ruth Tideman (Heywood, 'Tideman', AWR), the visionary principal of Lauriston Girls School in Melbourne (1983-2000), recently stated, 'I valued the fact that I had control' (Ruth Tideman). To mark the 25th anniversary of AHISA, past national chairs were asked to reflect on issues relating to school leadership. Barbara Stone, principal of MLC Burwood, NSW (1990-2010), and AHISA national chair (2007-2009), wrote: 'My view is that the role of Principal hasn't changed so much in independent schools'. She added, 'However the context for education has changed dramatically. There is now a high degree of accountability to governments and to parents'. She concluded, 'The greatest change in my 20 years as a Principal is, I hope, in me. Our job, after all, is about building learning communities and learning entails change' ('25 Years of Principalship', 9, 10). Women leaders in independent schools have consistently demonstrated their success in providing the educational environments for their students to thrive. In Victoria, Lauriston Girls School, under principal Susan Just, recently (2012) topped the state's VCE results (Topsfield & Butt).

Women teachers have provided successful and visionary educational leadership to independent schooling for over a century and their numbers predominate in the workforce. However, they have not been chosen as often as men to be principals or representatives on state and national organisations and have received fewer professional and public awards than men. This may be because women continue to miss out on 'public recognition in the same way as the headmasters', according to Dorothy and Ian Hansen in their history of the AHIGSA (Hansen & Hansen, 139).

Additional sources: Maher, Aine, Director, Independent Schools Victoria, North Melbourne, August 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Tideman, Ruth, Principal, Lauriston Girls College (1983-2000), Hawthorn, September 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Rome, Annette, President, Australian College of Educators, Victoria; Manager of Staff Learning, MLC Kew, Kew, September 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns).

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Barcan, Alan, A History of Australian Education, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1981. Details
  • Falk, Barbara with Trioli, Cecile, D.J. : Dorothy Jean Ross, 1891-1982, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details
  • Gardiner, Lyndsay, A Woman's Place: A History of the Homecraft Hostel 'Invergowrie', Hyland House, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Hansen, Dorothy E. and Hansen, Ian V., Feminine Singular: A History of the Association of Heads of Independent Girls' Schools of Australia, Hyland House, Melbourne, Victoria, 1989. Details
  • Kyle, Noeline, Her Natural Destiny: The Education of Women in New South Wales, 1880 - 1920, The University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details
  • Lofthouse, Andrea, Who's Who of Australian Women, Methuen Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982. Details
  • Maslen, Geoffrey, School Ties: Private Schooling in Australia, Methuen Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982. Details
  • Theobald, Marjorie R, Knowing women: origins of women's education in nineteenth-century Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1996. Details

Book Sections

  • Collard, John, 'Steel Magnolias in Velvet Ghettos: Female Leaders in Australian Girls' Schools', in Collard, John and Reynolds, Cecelia (eds), Leadership, Gender and Culture in Education: Male and Female Perspectives, Open University Press / McGraw Hill Education, Maidenhead, United Kingdom, 2005, pp. 73 - 89. Details
  • Theobald, Marjorie R., '"Mere Accomplishments"? Melbourne's Early Ladies' Schools Reconsidered', in Prentice, Alison and Theobald, Marhorie (eds), Women Who Taught: Perspectives on the History of Women and Teaching, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 1991, pp. 71 - 91. Details


Newspaper Articles


Online Resources