Mac.Rob is the only selective government school in Victoria offering single sex education and generations of former students tell us how grateful they are for the education and the confidence it gave them to continue on to a tertiary qualification. Many tell us that they realised only in retrospect the advantages they experienced by attending the school and they look back now with great affection at their time here.

One of the aspects of the school about which former students are very clear is the value of experiencing membership of a culturally diverse school. Enrolment patterns at Mac.Rob have followed the pattern of migration to Australia. During the years prior to the first World War, many European migrant families were represented here, especially Italian and Jewish families.

In the post war years there were even more European countries represented including a large number of students from Greek families. Following the Vietnam War, Mac.Rob enrolled many students from Vietnamese families. We currently also have a large number of students from families migrating from China and the Indian Subcontinent.

None of our students are International students; they are all Australians or permanent residents. What is most striking things about multicultural Mac.Rob is the way in which it is part and parcel of everyday life in which acceptance of difference is taken as the norm. Indeed the differences are celebrated with an annual student initiated and organised multicultural week, which invites everyone to recognise the diversity – which is taken for granted most of the time. Students from different backgrounds interact naturally and collegiately in an inclusive and friendly environment which we value enormously and which prepares them to be active citizens of Australian society.

The arguments for single sex education of girls have been put forward many times but one of the most cogent reasons is, I believe, that it enables girls to strive for excellence unimpeded by the presence of boys who can be physically and socially dominant in many educational settings. This effect is enhanced in a selective girls’ school by the fact that it is “cool” to excel in such subjects as physics and mathematics where such classrooms are a welcoming environment, often managed by female teachers who are passionate about their subjects. When there are eight classes of chemistry in Year 12, it is impossible to feel that this is not a subject that girls should be studying. Mac.Rob students are characterised by a strong sense of where their careers might lead and seek to gain entry to university courses which will enable them to take advantage of the best opportunities available.

Many of our students are blessed with a delightfully ironic sense of humour and love to make jokes about ‘embracing your inner nerd’. They are ambitious, hardworking, focussed and keen to experience success in a wide range of fields. They enjoy collaborating with students from our brother school, Melbourne High School, and often form friendships through joint activities but many of them deliberately limit their social life to enable them to focus on their work.

I enjoy the fact that most of our girls don’t bother trying to incorporate makeup into their school appearance and are happy to don a range of practical sports outfits which enable them to throw themselves into activities or wear ‘daggy’ costumes as part of house activities for effect. They wear the school uniform well and take pride in their appearance but they are not focussed on attracting male attention. This businesslike approach is part of a culture which encourages them to support each other and to work together to achieve outstanding educational outcomes.

They genuinely celebrate each others’ successes and take pride in the reputation of the school as one of the top achieving schools in the country. When you are accustomed to the energy, drive and joi de vivre that characterises our students’ everyday endeavours, it is very difficult to take seriously the charge that they will not be able to function adequately in post school society because they have not benefitted from the presence of boys in the school.

Our students are offered places in Year 9 on the basis their performance in the entrance examination conducted by the Department of Education to select students for the four selective schools in Victoria. The examination is designed to test intellectual potential rather than what they have learned. Only five per cent of the Year 8 cohort of any Victorian school can be offered places at a selective school, so that the students come from a large number of other schools, many travelling significant distances.

There are some schools which resent the loss of these students but I wish those people could experience the joy that is expressed by so many of our students at finding themselves, usually for the first time in their school lives, among like others.

Many highly able students have been isolated by other students previously, regarded as suspect because of their abilities. Others have experienced more overt bullying or sought to hide their intellectual capacity in order to be accepted by their peers.

It can be daunting for our students, sometimes, to find themselves no longer the top of the class but they quickly discover that a class of highly able students is able to work through material and ideas at a speed which seems to be about four times that of a mixed ability group and that the challenges they meet ensure that they are extended and classroom boredom is a part of the past.

Mac.Rob Girls’ students have topped the state in VCE achievement in seven of the last eight years. In 2010, 44.3 per cent of VCE study scores were over 40 (out of 50) with the next school listed achieving 39%.  An amazing 49.6 per cent of student grades were A+ with more than three quarters in the A–A+ range.

Girls are usually found by researchers to be more collaborative in their work styles than are boys and when you combine this with the fact that at Mac.Rob they are also highly able students with a personal vision, enabled to extend, enrich and challenge themselves by teachers with a passion for their subject who understand how to stimulate curiosity and support their learning experiences, it is a powerful mix which magnifies the outcomes for everybody.

There are always sceptics who are inclined to state that if a school’s student intake is selected, then the outcomes are guaranteed. This ignores the fact that although our students are highly able, they are not always gifted across the board. Many of our students have particular abilities along with some weaknesses. What we have attempted to develop is a highly personalised education for each student, where teachers know the preferred learning styles, strengths and weaknesses of each of their students and are able to support each individual to maximise her development. In our outstanding VCE results last year, it was really pleasing to see that in addition to those students expected on the basis of their previous performances to excel, the whole cohort of students lifted their performance to achieve a general excellence even higher than in previous years. This result is made possible by the combination of factors described and provides a compelling reason for the selective nature of the student cohort.

I cannot conclude this article without reference to student leadership and the co-curricular program. We encourage young women to take on leadership roles in every sphere of endeavour and provide training in the skills needed including public speaking, running a meeting and being consultative. The co-curricular programs and activities are a vibrant and important part of school life at Mac.Rob and build on or extend the school curriculum by enhancing personal growth and development and encouraging the students to embrace citizenship through involvement in volunteering and social service activities.

Co-curricular activities are usually student initiated and run and include house activities such as the choral and drama competitions, sport, drama/stage crew, music and music performance, special interest groups e.g. animé, debating and public speaking, subject competitions and community involvement. We try to balance academic studies and the co-curricular activities to provide the best educational experience possible and build the wellbeing of the whole person.

The school recognises excellence in every aspect of student activities and we regularly give awards and recognition of individuals and teams at school assemblies and publish achievements and prizes in the weekly newsletter, culminating in the many awards made at Speech Night each year. Even so there is the problem that so many of our students achieve such great results and so many prizes and awards throughout the year that it is impossible sometimes to recognise the outstanding work of the students who are just behind the award winners and in other schools would have been at the top. We encourage each student to aim for her personal best in everything and are pleased that there is a strong history of participation and commitment to the school. I am privileged to be principal of such a vibrant, dynamic student body as I have described and I think that the women who fought for the survival of the girls’ school in the 1930s would be equally proud of what its students are achieving in 2011.

 Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the work of Ms Sue Sherson, Head Prefect in 1958, for the historical research I have used in writing this article.

About the Author: Jane Garvey has been principal of The Mac. Robertson Girl's High School since 2004, prior to that she worked in four other state high schools as a teacher of English Literature and History and as an assistant principal. This year she celebrated 40 years with the Department of Education.