Another International Women’s Day passes and leaves us to reflect on what it means for a community, in fact communities all around the world, to continue to need such a day….

Begun well over a century ago when the position of women as inferior to men was generally accepted, enshrined in law and lived out in countless restrictions and suppression by women everywhere, this symbolic day has been a powerful marker of action and achievement over the years.

These days our society as a whole makes big claims for gender equality. However, some schools hang on to many of the traditions and conventions of that earlier time when schools were, quite simply, for boys only. This unquestioned assumption meant that there was no need to identify schools as being for boys only – a convention that continues; only girls’ schools need to include what began as a novel idea in their school’s title, hence the many Grammar Schools and the Girls’ Grammar Schools.

Private schools were set up for boys based on society’s two major male hierarchies – the Church and the Military. The local ‘dame schools’, closely modelled on the idea of the family and run by women, were all right for little boys and girls but the great work of educating future leaders was the preserve of men.

The values and conventions of these schools, naturally enough, were modelled on similar authoritarian hierarchies of power and unquestioned obedience.

Unthinking obedience to the chain of command in times of war, or reverential obedience to the representatives of a Divine Being, might make sense but suppressing the capacity to question in children and young adults translates very oddly as pedagogy! Respect for those above and compassion, or at least noblesse oblige, for those lower down the pecking order might work in a society that accepts the medieval notion of a ‘chain of being’, but it is astonishing that such systems of beliefs continue to underpin schools and dictate behaviour today. A deeply ingrained sense of entitlement without legitimate agency leads to rogue power plays; leadership is driven underground and entrenched systems of ‘us and them’ are rigidly supported by the all too prevalent support for bullies embedded in the knee-jerk adherence to ‘no dobbing.’

Crucially, unthinking obedience to power structures supported by the threat of punishment, shame or even damnation, cannot possibly ensure the safety of children.

The challenges facing schools still steeped in the adherence to authoritarian structures make change very difficult indeed. Power is just as hard to cede as it is to wrest it from the grasp of those who have it.

For our society’s claims to gender equality to be realised, schools need to be coeducational – even this term is a product of the time when it was a novel idea. But for as long as our claims of equality exceed the reality, it is not hard to understand why many parents want their daughter to be protected from the casual misogyny, harassment and domination that too often characterises ‘boys being boys’.

That is not to claim that coeducational schools have not failed in their duty of care of children, but they have a much greater capacity to change, to evolve and to mirror the changes as they occur beyond the school gate.

In particular, coeducation has been significantly influenced by the recognition of women and the imperative to educate them. Girls have flourished and now actually dominate numbers of graduates in tertiary student institutions. The feminisation of education must not represent an over-reaction where boys’ needs are discounted or where we make simplistic assumptions that prevent individual needs being attended to, regardless of gender.

But coeducation remains difficult. Assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour for both boys and girls and crippling stereotypes that hamper everyone are alive and modelled daily by the adults in our society. While we know that boys flourish, as we want them to do, in coeducational schools, girls still need advocacy and the affirmative programs to ensure that their needs, both individually and collectively, are recognised and met in coeducational settings.

Whether we teach boys or not, they will need to develop their capacity to work alongside or for women as traditional roles make way for new skills and contributions. Our society pays lip service to equality but the power of male-dominated systems still dictates so many of the power systems of our world, from politics, to access to news, information to financial institutions, international relations and pretty much every aspect of our lives.

Preshil is a very fortunate school. As an entirely secular ‘progressive school’, change and adaptation is in our bones and, having evolved from a school based very deliberately on the organic model of a family, flexibility and strong relationships are at our core. We have not had to break free from stifling conventions, crippling allegiances or ancient rituals. We do not tolerate sexual harassment or any of the manifestations of misogyny; we look to both students and parents to bring it to our attention where necessary.

With women’s equality enshrined in all the mission statements, legislation and lip service of men who tell us they are fathers and husbands and brothers and sons, and they get it, we can look forward to celebrating International Women’s Day for many years to come.

Marilyn Smith – Principal