Girls can do anything

Issue: Volume 100, Number 9

Posted: 21 July 2021
Reference #: 1HANSZ

Education Gazette visits Whanganui Girls’ College, one of the oldest single sex schools in New Zealand, finding a rich history and a bright future for today’s students.

Grace, Taina and Te Manawa say a girls’ school has given them confidence to follow their dreams and aspirations.

Grace, Taina and Te Manawa say a girls’ school has given them confidence to follow their dreams and aspirations.

Founded in 1891, Whanganui Girls’ College has had some strong women at the helm. Headmistress Miss Isabel Fraser introduced the first kiwifruit seeds to New Zealand from China in 1904, making her responsible for generating an industry that forms a key platform in the New Zealand economy. Some impressive names feature on the school’s alumni list, including the more recent additions of entrepreneur Victoria Ransom and cricketer Emily Travers.

Fast forward to today, and principal Sharon Steer, who took the role at the beginning of 2020, encourages her students to follow in the footsteps of great Kiwi women role models and become wāhine toa themselves.

She says that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a respected role model for the school’s students, as she is not only strong, but also shows compassion: awhi (support) is one of the school’s key values.

“At girls’ schools the tall poppy syndrome doesn’t seem to be as prevalent. The students celebrate each other’s success and provide each other with support when needed. For example, last year when the Year 13s were finishing their art portfolios, the ones who had finished, stayed behind with the others to encourage them to achieve. A younger girl, who was the sister of one of the girls, was busy cleaning up. They were there with, and for, each other,” says Sharon.

Principal, Sharon Steer.

Principal, Sharon Steer.

Sharon has taught at both co-ed and single sex schools. “My feeling is that the single sex environment creates a kind of cocoon for them to flourish as young people. They can just get on with it.

“I think it can take longer for girls to find their place in a co-ed school, whereas in a single sex school, they often find their niche a lot faster,” explains Sharon.

Strong voices

Te Manawa Pinnock (Ngāti Porou) is head girl this year and has spear-headed a group called Te Korimako (the bellbird) which has helped grow tikanga and the voice of Māori students in the school.

“My mum had a hard life raising me and my brother on her own, so I think I always wanted to make her proud, show her she did do a good job and raised good kids; and that all the hard work and things she had to put aside meant something.

“Being Māori growing up, society puts a mentality that they’re not going to do well. That’s always been in the back of my mind to not let that be a barrier; to push past that and prove them wrong – just to show you can do it,” says Te Manawa.

She hopes to join the Police or be a doctor or nurse when she leaves school.

“In the past couple of years, I have wanted more to join the Police, just seeing the difference that police officers do in the community. It’s important for me as a young Māori woman.

“I would rather be in a job that didn’t make much [money], but I was happy. I think I just want to get voices out and let young people, old people, anyone – let their voices be heard and just be a beacon. The voice is to get rid of those stereotypes that Māori are living off a benefit, don’t look after their kids, aren’t going anywhere. I think they just need support to help them,” she says.

Diverse career opportunities

Whanganui Girls’ College works hard to create pathways for students so that, no matter what happens, they can plot their future and know they have options.

Nina Barbezat thinks girls from a girls’ school feel empowered to try different career pathways.

Nina Barbezat thinks girls from a girls’ school feel empowered to try different career pathways.

Nina Barbezat is the teacher in charge of pathways/careers and says that as a small school (roll 360), one-to-one support and guidance can be provided to each student, whether they follow an academic or vocational pathway.

“When our students are in Year 11, we have lots of options to start sending them out on little tasters with Whanganui UCOL (Universal College of Learning). They have tasters in the traditional female roles such as hair and beauty but also around things like forklift safety, electronics and automotive engineering.

“Then when our students are in Year 12 and 13, we can start sending them out on one or two day a week courses. Last year I had two students out on mechanical engineering and one student out on automotive engineering and while that is normally a male dominated industry, now our girls are doing it. They probably feel quite empowered to do the boy things because there are no boys here to tell them they can’t,” says Nina.

High goals

Nina is involved with Whanganui’s careers advisory network 100% Sweet Whanganui(external link), which aspires to have all of Whanganui’s school leavers meaningfully engaged in education, training or employment.

“I’ve got some students who are employed in fast-food outlets. That is awesome for now, but they know that we are going to contact them again in a year’s time to make sure they have their next plan in place.

“Working in fast-food is 100 per cent better than doing nothing. But in my conversations with students, I will say: ‘I know you might have a goal to get into tourism or further training – so can I contact you in a year and see if you’ve still got that goal to go further and if you have done something about achieving that goal? I remind them that unless you plan to climb the ladder at your fast-food job, you will sit at that level for a long time,” says Nina.

“Whether a girl is going to go straight into work, or whether she is going to go into a tertiary course, we have given them the tools to be successful wherever they are going,” concludes Sharon. 

Whanganui Girls' College proudly displays its history in the school's foyer, with displays like these old school uniforms.

Whanganui Girls' College proudly displays its history in the school's foyer, with displays like these old school uniforms.


Students past and present

Debra Tunbridge sometimes pinches herself and touches the walls at Whanganui Girls’ College, as she remembers her school days there in the 1970s.

Debra returned to her old school in 2017 and is SENCO and HOD of the school’s Learning Centre.

“I came from Kawerau College in the Bay of Plenty in the 1970s. It was a complete culture shock, because some of our teachers still wore black capes in class. You’d sit at an old wooden desk that someone had scratched their name on in 1942. Just the sense of history here was quite overwhelming to start with.

“But I just relaxed into this school because we didn’t have boys here and it was so much easier. We used to go swimming and if you didn’t have your togs, you had to go swimming in your gym rompers! I formed really lovely relationships with girls that I’ve had all my life,” she says.

Debra graduated as a teacher when she was 40 as, while she had been in an academic stream, she initially didn’t want to follow in a sister’s footsteps.

“Really when I left school there were only three options: teaching, nursing or the commercial/secretarial sector. When I was at school you didn’t have big dreams. I spent 10 years working in the finance/banking sector and then had a family,” she says.

After setting up an alternative education programme in Whanganui for the YMCA, she taught at schools in Dunedin and Whanganui before getting her dream job at her old school.

Better, but same

While Debra loved her school days and thinks that today’s school students have more weight on their shoulders, she believes that things are better for today’s girls and young women.

Whanganui Girls’ College Old Girl Debra Tunbridge is happy to be back at her old school as HOD of the school’s Learning Centre.

Whanganui Girls’ College Old Girl Debra Tunbridge is happy to be back at her old school as HOD of the school’s Learning Centre.

“It does feel better because, to be honest, when I was at school, the academic girls all went off to university and the rest were the hoi polloi. Nowadays you are valued for whatever pathway you choose. I have had students at other schools leaving because they are having babies. In the past people would say ‘you’ve ruined your life’ but those girls have gone on to run beautiful families, run businesses etc.

“Family dynamics are still there – even though we think they have changed – and the girls are still navigating that at the same age we did. They are still finding a valid place for themselves in the world and we were doing the same thing,” she says.

Reaching for the stars

Taina Bauleka comes from a high-achieving family in Fiji and while she wants to make her parents proud, she also wants to be successful on her own terms. A Year 13 Whanganui Girls’ College student in 2020, she is studying health science at university and ultimately would like to return to Fiji and establish a company.

“My hope is to make a name for myself – to always carry my parents’ surname but to also make a name for myself. If I was in Fiji, it would be a little difficult because I would be working under their name; they are quite successful – especially in the (medical) field I want to work in.

“I have never allowed limitations to stop me. I have always tried to reach for the stars as much as I can. I don’t feel there’s a glass ceiling that will stop me,” she says.

While Taina is confident and assertive, her classmate Grace Souness is more softly spoken and says she wasn’t very confident when she started at the school in Year 9. The 2020 Head of Academia plans to study veterinary science and ultimately wants to work in rehabilitation centres in Africa to help save animal species.

“When I came in Year 9, I didn’t think I was going to become a vet. This school has made me more confident. Being with only girls and having such small classes means I can have my own individuality and that made me realise who I am. The small classes mean you can bond with all the other girls and get one-to-ones with the teachers and that really boosts your confidence,”
she says.

 Whanganui Girls' College

‘Why should they have girls’ high schools?’

When it opened its doors in February 1871, Otago Girls’ High School was the first secondary school for girls to open in New Zealand – in fact in all of ‘the Australasian colonies’. Christchurch Girls’ High School was opened in 1877.

In the early 1870s, the women of the extended Richmond Atkinson family in Nelson felt strongly about higher education for girls and pressured Nelson College’s governors, who said they had “long and ardently entertained a wish…to erect a high school for girls in the province”, but in the end they found the project was “neither prudent nor legal”.

Nelson College for Girls finally opened in February 1883, 27 years after Nelson College for Boys. There was no formal opening and when the first contingent of girls arrived, they found a large unfinished building set in a rough paddock surrounded by piles of timber and bricks.

While there was a desire for young women to be able to achieve and gain some power over their lives, secondary education for girls was still very much ahead of its time.

Miss Beatrice Gibson, principal of Nelson College for Girls from 1890–1900, wrote: ‘The time had come when educationalists realised that it was not enough to give girls an education quite identical to that given to boys. It was the life of the woman for which it must prepare; and this was just the stage in the College history when we were trying to bring this ideal into effect; mindful that all sides, the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and all womanly qualities needed guiding.”

In 1884, an article in the Otago Daily Times asked the question: Why should they have girls’ high schools? It was suggested that “the richer classes wished to save the expense of governesses” and educate their daughters at the expense of the State.

“A good deal was nowadays heard of what was termed women’s rights and if society was to be established on a firm basis, they would have to look to higher education of women as well as men.” (ODT, 19 April 1884).

A search of the Papers Past website shows there was little fanfare when Wanganui Girls’ College opened in February 1891. Principal, Miss E C M Harrison (MA) was announced along with an assistant principal, art master and a staff of visiting teachers.

“The College is a fine and commodious building, containing a Boarding Establishment under the immediate supervision of the Lady Principal and her Assistants, and is situated in a salubrious part of the Suburbs of Wanganui,” reported the Wanganui Chronicle, 3 December 1890.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:25 AM, 21 July 2021

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