Matters of principal
By Valerie Lawson
When the elite Sydney school, Ascham, faced its last media blitz, the principal, Louise Robert-Smith, told one of the school parents: “We seem to be a target”.
“No,” he replied. “We’re a lightning rod.” He was right. The independent girls’ school, perched on 3.7 hectares of prime eastern suburbs land at Edgecliff, exerts a magnetic force on the media. Any drama, big or small, tends to end up on the front page, just because it’s happened at Ascham.
For 31 years, the school was led by Rowena Danziger, a prominent player on the Sydney stage. “D” as she was known, was a lightning rod herself, attracting attention for her iron grasp on every aspect of the school but also for her life outside, as a director of arts organisations and her personal and professional links with the Packer family.
Louise Robert-Smith, by comparison, is a backstage woman, spending the past seven years at Ascham out of the spotlight. Almost every evening she has dinner with the Ascham boarders and is never, if ever, seen at art gallery openings, the theatre, or parties.
“That was part of the brief when I came here. We didn’t want to be part of the papers, we’d had enough of that … it was a conscious decision from the school that I would keep a low profile. I’ve been asked to be on panels on TV shows and always said no. I haven’t done self-promotion.”
At the end of this year she will leave the 125-year-old school, which was named after Roger Ascham, tutor to Queen Elizabeth I. Ascham retains tangential ties to Britain through its connections with British private schools. Rowena Danziger forged close links with St Paul’s Girls’ School in London and her successor, Susan Preedy, came from there. Robert-Smith’s successor will be Dr Helen Wright, the principal of St Mary’s Caine, a girls’ boarding school in Wiltshire.
Robert-Smith, 64, is the odd one out. After graduating from Sydney with a BA and Dip Ed (’69 ’70), she spent her entire career as a teacher and principal in the public school system until 2005, when the headhunting firm, Korn Ferry, asked if she was interested in moving from the selective school, North Sydney Girls High, to Ascham.
It was a tumultuous time at the school, with a revolving door of principals, and parents in revolt. “I had been reading about what was happening at Ascham,” said Robert-Smith. “We all had. But it was a completely foreign concept for me. I wouldn’t have believed I could move systems, from the public to the private ...
I was flattered, but I just said ‘No, why would I do that?’”
Eventually, “I thought I could make a real difference here. One of my strengths is building community and building morale. Ascham wanted a safe pair of hands, someone who was Sydney based, knew about Sydney, knew how things ran and who was an experienced head.”
Public and private divide
Nevertheless, “I knew the change was not going to be easy because there’s such a divide between the public and the private systems, in New South Wales particularly. I was anxious that people would see this was a defection to the private system and there were people who did.”
Robert-Smith’s own education was in public schools. Having been born in Kempsey, where her parents managed a pub after her father’s return from the RAAF in Britain during World War II, the family moved to Sydney where she attended Pennant Hills Public and then West Ryde Public School prior to completing her education at Cheltenham Girls’ High School, in Sydney’s north-west.
Her mother, who described herself as a homemaker, told her daughter: “You’ve got to have a career. I’ve had four lovely children but it’s not fulfilling enough.”
Robert-Smith became the first in her family to attend university, supported by a Teachers Scholarship from the NSW government. She studied French, English and Indonesian at the University of Sydney where she also met her future husband, Dr Geoffrey Robert-Smith, then a medical student.
Her time there seems brief in retrospect and she remembers most vividly the lecture rooms full of students and the day a first-year lecturer announced: “Look to the left and right of you and only one of you will get through first year.”
Robert-Smith made a strategic choice with her decision to study Indonesian. “I didn’t go into teaching passionate about being a teacher. I was passionate about the subjects I was doing,” especially Indonesian, “a new thing then, the Mandarin of the ’70s.
“I wanted to stay in Sydney although technically I could have been sent anywhere in the state, but there were schools vying for Indonesian teachers and I got Pennant Hills High School.”
During her seven years at the school she led two student excursions to Indonesia and “it was very exciting. It was a total love affair with the country and the language”.
"I adored teaching. You were actually entrusted with professional responsibility, because while you’re in the classroom, you’re it. I loved that autonomy"
But in the last 10 years, she says, the popularity of Indonesian studies has declined rapidly, due to the Bali bombing – “it tainted it”.
As for teaching itself, “I adored it. You were actually entrusted with professional responsibility, because while you’re in the classroom, you’re it. I loved that autonomy … I really found my vocation.”
After a short stint at Strathfield Girls High School as relieving head teacher, Robert-Smith was appointed head teacher of languages at North Sydney Girls High in 1978. (The following year her son Michael was born.) Her appointment at North Sydney Girls entailed a laborious process involving advanced paper work, and Department of Education inspectors who shadowed her and quizzed staff and students.
“In 1989, the department changed the way they did promotions and merit selections and you could apply for anything you liked. I got Willoughby Girls High School as deputy head.”
Robert-Smith used her persuasive powers to build up the comprehensive school’s student numbers.
Through this relatively new system of interview and merit selection, Robert-Smith returned to North Sydney Girls High in 1997 as principal. “That was a defining moment in my life, the jewel in the crown as far as I was concerned.”
“I adored teaching. You were actually entrusted with professional responsibility, because while you’re in the classroom, you’re it. I loved that autonomy.”
Selective schools, however, have changed dramatically during her career. In the 1970s, students were offered places on the basis of their potential and IQ tests.
All about the timing
“I don’t think people realised in those early days you could actually coach for those tests and particularly multiple choice tests.”
Student coaching took off in the 1990s, she said, “but a lot of families don’t want to play that game. They don’t want their children to go to coaching colleges in order to access the schools, so in fact you are disenfranchising quite a number of bright children who would otherwise have gone to these schools.”
“Having said that, I think North Sydney and other selective schools are wonderful places to be and teach … students spur each other on.”
The Ascham offer came at the right time. Robert-Smith, who was planning to leave North Sydney within two years, had recalled the words in a farewell speech by Dr Ken Boston, former director general of the NSW Department of Education: “Everyone has a bag of tricks and you’ve seen all mine. It’s time for me to take my bags of tricks and move on.”
In the future, she believes, “tenure [for principals] will be five to 10 years max. Renewal is good”.
At Ascham, she faced the challenge of balancing continuity with the need for change, avoiding the enmity of the school community by saying “it’s all going to be different now”, and the adjustment to living on the campus.
This “identity merge”, as she called it, “was brought home to me forcibly when I went into the Motor Registry and said I am changing it [her licence address] to 188 New South Head Road and they punched it in and it came up as Ascham … it was really confronting”.
No doubt there were other challenges, such as the high expectations of fee-paying parents.
But Robert-Smith found the private system had major benefits too, not least its administrative resources such as a finance department, maintenance staff and an IT unit.
Although she has a Master’s of Education (Sydney ’85), she says that after leaving Ascham in December: “I wouldn’t mind going back to university” (In one sense, she already is back, as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board in the Faculty of Education and Social Work). She is also considering a couple of full-time jobs.
“Ascham has been fantastic but it’s been all-consuming. I would be out five or six nights a week at school functions.” But it was, always, all about the school. “I haven’t sought an outside profile and that has been deliberate.”
And now she can? “Yes, watch this space!”