I have just been reading ‘The Search for Marie Wallis’ by Gerri Nicholas; Miss Marie Wallis was the founding principal of Ascham School, Sydney, Australia, and I shall be following in her footsteps in January 2013, when I become Ascham’s 10th Head in its history. Miss Wallis founded the school in Darling Point in Sydney in 1886, and grew it carefully and astutely, establishing it as a place of learning for young women, until ill health in 1902 led her to pass the school on to its next Head. Since this time, the school has continued to thrive and develop, but I was struck in my reading by the strong resonances that Ascham today has with its early days; the education of girls and young women is a passion that has survived with vigour through the decades and that is alive and well today.
The 1880’s were a very different time from our current decade – and the difficulty that the author of ‘The Search for Marie Wallis’ had in tracking down records about Miss Wallis bears testament to this. Pre-technology, pre-jet engine, pre-penicillin, pre-birth control … life was altogether far more hazardous and far less secure, and yet we would be wrong to imagine that this past is so different from our present day. LP Hartley’s famous words at the start of his 1953 novel ‘The Go-Between’, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ are not entirely true when applied to real-life history. For a start, I – like you – know people who knew people who lived in that day and age (think: grandparents of grandparents), and their values live on to some extent in ours; more importantly, the 1880’s, like now, were a period of turmoil in education and gender awareness, and the mission to educate girls and young women was as strong then as it is now.
Many of the great girls’ schools in the UK and Australia (and elsewhere in the world) were set up in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (St Mary’s Calne was founded in 1973); social change, too was afoot. In Australia, the passing of Henry Parkes’ Public Instruction Act in 1880, which enabled all girls as well as boys to benefit from a free and compulsory education, meant that education was high on the agenda for parents, who began to expect more of their daughters’ education than they had perhaps previously done. The first two women students graduated from the University of Sydney in 1885, well ahead of their counterparts in many of the leading universities in the UK. Women’s right to vote was enshrined in Australian law in 1902 (again, far ahead of the UK), soon after the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. It was a turbulent time, and although the ambitions of girls and young women were still often subject to, and dampened by, the social expectations of women of the time, girls’ schools had an enormously important role to play in releasing women to think, develop themselves and to become accomplished in all manner of intellectual activity which would enable them to become more authentically themselves.
Fast forward a century and a quarter, and we find ourselves still in a period of social turmoil. Despite the enormous advances made in women’s rights and gender equality over the intervening years, there is much we still have to do as a society to ensure that people have fair access to opportunities, regardless of their sex. It is unsurprising that pockets of unawareness or resistance remain; after all, so much has changed in such a short space of time. Girls’ schools, I believe, continue to have a role not only as experts in girls’ education, to develop individuals to make the most of themselves, but also to ensure that the passion for the education of women and girls, ignited by our ancestors, is not lost, and that our young women go into the world ready and prepared to help make it a fairer and more equal place. Only with a concerted effort will we change the world – and education is the answer.
I feel very optimistic that we will, indeed, soon make the world a better place. Onwards and upwards!