Celebrating 135 Years of Exceptional Girls' Education 1886 – 2021

At a time when the majority of people held rigid and limiting ideas about the nature of women and their capacity to engage in social and public life, MLC School was starting a revolution in girls’ education.

From the early days of the Wesleyan Church in Australia, the higher education of women and girls was considered an important objective.

MLC School (Wesleyan Ladies’ College as it was then known), opened on the 27 January 1886. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) advertisement announcing the imminent opening, included that the School would: ‘make provision for those who wish to prepare for University honours’.

This radical statement was only five years after women had, for the first time, gained admission to The University of Sydney.

In December 1886, with an enrolment of 54, MLC School held its first Speech Day in the Burwood School of Arts. Delivering his first Principal’s Report, Rev Prescott said he believed: “that between the mind of a boy and a girl there is no great difference… for mental discipline much the same course of study is the best.”

MLC School was fortunate in its early years to have exceptionally progressive leadership. Under Rev Prescott and Headmistress Minnie Wearne it was not long before an ever-growing number of MLC School girls distinguished themselves both at school and university, and the School quickly gained a reputation for scholastic excellence.

In November 1892, Rev Charles Stead—a Methodist Church Minister for 50 year and the President of the Methodist Conference in 1893--—delivered the main address during the Schofield Hall opening celebrations. The SMH reported on the events of that day, including Rev Stead’s speech where he stated that the ambition of the Wesleyan Ladies’ College was that its graduates would: ‘possess a store of knowledge and breadth of view, and a reliance upon their own acquaintance with things … which would fit them for any position in the world’.

At the end of his speech, Rev Stead said that women were entitled to take their place: ‘as the co-equals of men, in every avenue of human activity’.

For the late 1800s, these ideals – the core of MLC School’s foundation – were revolutionary. For 135 years, MLC School has continued to challenge preconceptions of women’s roles by preparing girls to be ‘fit for any position in the world’.

A HISTORY OF FIRSTS AND BREAKING BARRIERS IN GIRLS’ EDUCATION

Rather than following education trends, MLC School has created them. From the time of its inception, there was a clear intention to provide a superior level of education for its female students.

For 135 years, MLC School has aimed at excellence in every field with a philosophy to provide, as Rev Prescott stated, “a balanced offering”. Rev Prescott’s aim that music, creative arts and sports have an important place in the curriculum alongside academic pursuits, continues to this day.

SPORTS AT MLC SCHOOL SINCE 1886

Developing the ‘whole person’ with a ‘mens sana’ (healthy mind) as well as a ‘corpus sanum’ (healthy body), as Rev Prescott stated in 1886 in his first Speech Day report, has always been at MLC School’s core. It reflects a commitment to building leadership skills and developing within our girls a strong sense of fair play and resilience.

In the second year of the School’s existence a gymnastics teacher was appointed and in 1890 a fully equipped gymnasium was built.

Our Sports Field also holds an important place in the history of girls’ sport in Australia: on 3 November 1906, MLC School held Australia’s first Athletics Carnival for girls on our Sports Field. Old Girl, Marguerite Cooper (Henry,1913) reminisced that “we were considered very ‘modern’ because we had a Sports Day and ran races like our brothers.”

A LONG AND PROUD TRADITION OF MUSICAL EXCELLENCE

Right from the beginning, when MLC School was conspicuously successful in academic examinations, Rev Prescott was careful not to praise scholarship at the expense of other aspects of education. Prescott, in particular, highly regarded the results of music exams and they always took precedence in his annual Speech Day reports.

Until 1887, when Rev Prescott spearheaded the establishment of the Trinity College (London) Examinations in musical theory in Australia, Music was not an examinable subject in Australian schools. Prescott wanted his students to have the opportunity to compete against others and achieve tangible recognition for their achievements. The first MLC School results in the Trinity College exams are noted in Examination Results in the Speech Day of 1887.

The first MLC School String Ensemble formed in 1904 and the group enjoyed immediate popularity. To meet the growing demand for music, a wooden building was erected in 1905 to house three music rooms. By 1930, the School magazine ‘Excelsior’ published a School music column which featured competition results and reported on musical functions, and by 1939 all the girls were learning music in one form or another.

The enormous growth in popularity of music instruction throughout the 1930s and 1940s meant that the School experienced difficulties catering for the increased demand, however this was overcome with the donation of music scholarships from the School’s community.

The importance of Music at MLC School was such that School’s Council chose to build the Centenary Music Centre to celebrate the School’s 100th year. This monument to the great musical successes of the School has provided many opportunities for musical talent to flourish. 

AT THE FOREFRONT OF EDUCATIONAL PRACTICE

Rev Prescott firmly believed in the importance of educating young children. To that end, in 1889, he persuaded the School Council to establish a coeducational kindergarten, placing MLC School in the forefront of educational practice. The importance of this innovation cannot be understated; the Kindergarten Movement, based on ideas developed in Germany by Friedrich Froebel, was in its early days in Australia and was struggling to gain support.

The success of our kindergarten was evident within the first year, leading the School Council to approve the building in 1890 of a ‘one-storey wooden structure with a wide verandah’ to house the new Kindergarten. It stood at the corner of Rowley and Grantham Street in the corner of the existing School grounds. (It was demolished in the mid 1920s to make way for Potts Hall.) This was the first building constructed in Australia specifically for the purpose of providing a Kindergarten.

Although Kindergartens today are ubiquitous, it is not well known that the Kindergarten movement owes a lot to the support it received in the 1890s from MLC School.

THE HARD SCIENCES FOR GIRLS

Old Girl, Mabel Sutton (1896) graduated from MLC School and went on to complete an Honours degree in Mathematics at the University of Sydney. She returned to the School and became a much-beloved Headmistress for 28 years (1912–1940).

Mabel Sutton was a strong, forthright and determined Headmistress and a renowned and highly respected educator. She strongly believed that girls should have the same educational opportunities as boys and this proved very popular amongst parents.

Mabel Sutton organised the construction of our first Science Laboratory which opened in Term 1, 1924. Around the same time, she added Physics to the MLC School curriculum to accompany Chemistry, Biology, Botany and Geology. This enlightened decision led to MLC School becoming the first school in Australia to have girls sit the Physics exam in the Leaving Certificate (precursor of the HSC/IB). Many Old Girls who enrolled into Medicine and Science degrees reported that even into the 1950s, they were the only girls at University who had Physics offered at their school.

Another MLC School science teacher who also underscores the importance of schooling in determining future careers was MLC School Headmistress, science teacher, and former student, Dr Alice Whitley MBE (1930). Dr Whitley was Dux in 1930, completed a PhD in Chemistry at the London University, and taught Science and Mathematics at MLC School prior to her appointment as Headmistress (1960–1972).

Dr Whitley had a strong personality and spoke plainly and honestly and with common sense. In her 1962 Speech Night report she stated that too much importance was placed on examination results and not enough on the continuing process of learning.

In an interview with CSIRO, MLC School Old Girl and eminent scientist, Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Dennis AC (1960) stated: “I went to MLC School which was very good, and unusually supportive of women. Its philosophy was that you shouldn’t not do anything because you’re a woman, and so it provided courses for us like Physics honours and Chemistry honours, which were unusual then… at MLC School we had a very good chemistry teacher (Dr Whitley) – she had a PhD in chemistry, and was outstanding and gave us a real interest in chemistry.”

Today’s Principal, Lisa Moloney, follows in those early leader’s footsteps as a scholar in science and geology.

PIONEERS IN INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY AND LEARNING

MLC School has consistently challenged boundaries to improve the outcomes for our girls. The factors that are key to continuing this tradition are tailoring learning to individual needs and the integration of technology into learning.

At the beginning of the computer age, MLC School was again at the forefront, embracing the challenge and opportunity of change. The School’s involvement with computer technology commenced in 1978 when the School’s first Apple Macintosh computers were purchased. By the following year the students established a Computer Club.

In early 1982, a room in the primary school, Kent House, was equipped with Apple Macintosh desktop computers and a Year 5 computer class was established.

Although computers are ubiquitous now, this innovation was so extraordinary in 1982 that in August that year the current affairs program ‘60 Minutes’ visited MLC School to record a segment on the use of computers in education.

Reporter Ian Leslie said that “When computers find their way into classroom, as they have done at MLC School, there’s a revolution… This computer class is the first of its kind in Australia, and possibly the world.”

The 1983 publication ‘60 Minutes The Book’ included the MLC School ‘Computer Kids’ story. It stated: “The establishment of the computer class at MLC School highlights a whole new concept of learning, and, as far as Australia is concerned, signals the beginning of an educational revolution.”

By the early 1990s, MLC School has invested heavily in hardware and software. The computer technology facilities at MLC School were of such a high standard that external ‘technology in education’ groups, such as The NSW Computer Education Group, used the MLC School computer labs to run workshops for teachers across Sydney.

For 135 years, MLC School has challenged the norms and set new benchmarks for girls’ education, this was an integral part of the School’s founding DNA and is as true today as it was in 1886. The School’s motto, Dare to be More, is not mere lipservice, but a genuine attitude that continues to drive how we approach the teaching girls and young women at the School. In turn, as each girl graduates, she is charged with taking forth that courageous attitude into the rest of her life.