Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Whitehead, Dorothy Eleanor (1908–1976)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Dorothy Eleanor Whitehead (1908-1976), headmistress, was born on 9 August 1908 at Geelong, Victoria, elder child of James Whitehead, clerk, and his wife Jessie, née Brown, both Victorian born. Educated privately until the age of 10, Dorothy then attended Alexandra College, Hamilton. She completed her schooling at the Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Ballarat, where she appreciated the staff's attentiveness to the needs of individual students. Inspired to become a teacher, she took the course at the Associated Teachers' Training Institution, but, after studying at the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1932; M.A., 1945), worked as secretary to the manager of a woolbroking and pastoral company.

On 19 January 1942 Whitehead enlisted in the Australian Women's Army Service as a stenographer. Commissioned lieutenant in April, she performed staff duties at the headquarters of the Victorian (1942-43) and New South Wales (1943-44) Lines of Communication areas, and at Land Headquarters, Melbourne. In May 1945 she was promoted temporary major and appointed assistant-controller, A.W.A.S., at L.H.Q. She transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 11 December.

Miss Whitehead taught English and history at Toorak College, Mount Eliza, before spending a year in Britain, visiting schools and doing a little teaching. In 1949 she was appointed headmistress of Ascham School, Sydney. Instead of the overbearing major they had anticipated, the staff found a quiet, dignified woman who 'could be strict but also humane'. She proved herself an excellent administrator. Under her supervision, an extensive building and renovation programme was completed. A new science block enabled the school to add physics and chemistry to the curriculum. With her abiding commitment to an education which met individual needs, she wholeheartedly supported the Dalton plan, introduced to the school by her predecessor Margaret Bailey.

While at Ascham, Miss Whitehead was a member of the Teachers' Guild of New South Wales, State president of the Association of Headmistresses of Independent Schools of Australia, a founder (1959) of the Australian College of Education, and a member of the education committee of the Australian National Advisory Committee for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 1961 she was appointed headmistress of Firbank Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Brighton, Melbourne.

At Firbank she showed the same administrative ability as at Ascham. During her term a new boarding school and physical education centre were constructed. In accordance with her own philosophy of education, she abolished streamed classes, introduced a flexible choice of subjects, replaced examinations with tests, encouraged innovatory teaching methods and initiated a counselling and remedial service. She defended the value of independent schools as providing choice and diversity, and applauded the increasing number of bursaries and scholarships available to prospective students. In 1964 she was the sole woman member of the Advisory Committee on Educational Television Services, chaired by W. J. Weeden. Continuing to serve the Headmistresses Association (as State secretary), she also sat on the Victorian Curriculum Advisory Board. She was a delegate to the National Council of Women, and a member of the Lyceum Club, Melbourne, and the Macquarie Club, Sydney.

Although only 5 ft 1 in. (155 cm) tall, Miss Whitehead had presence and could be intimidating. She was always immaculately groomed and conservatively dressed, often in shades of blue to match her cornflower-blue eyes. An exceptionally private woman, reserved and perhaps shy, she was nevertheless approachable to students and staff, who appreciated her support and incisive advice. They respected her efficiency and firmness of purpose, and admired the serenity that weathered crises and instilled confidence. Her teachers valued her trust in them, her willingness to delegate and her insistence on their professionalism. If she lacked the pedagogic passion of some of the State's pioneering headmistresses, her cool-headed, practical approach was well suited to the consolidation and growth of established schools. Retiring from Firbank in 1970, she taught for short periods in two girls' schools and maintained her interest in theatre, music, art and literature. She died of cancer on 1 July 1976 at Malvern and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. F. Simpson et al (eds), Ascham Remembered 1886-1986 (Syd, 1986)
  • Firbank Log, 1962-64, 1970, 1976
  • Pride, Nov 1969
  • Australian College of Education, Unicorn, 3, no 1, Mar 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Mar 1949, 15 Aug 1955
  • Age (Melbourne), 3, 5 July 1976
  • private information.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Whitehead, Dorothy Eleanor (1908–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitehead-dorothy-eleanor-12016/text21551, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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