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Margaret Ann Bailey (1879–1955)

by Margaret Lundie

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Margaret Ann Montgomery Bailey (1879-1955), headmistress, was born on 9 June 1879 at Toowoomba, Queensland, eldest child of John Bailey, farmer, and his wife Jane, née McCurdy. Educated at the Newnham School for Girls, Toowoomba, she won an exhibition to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1900), then taught at Rockhampton Girls' Grammar School in 1900-03 and 1908-11 and at Girton College, Toowoomba, in 1903-07. In 1912-14 she studied abroad. Unable to make herself—an honours graduate in French—understood in Paris, Margaret Bailey became interested in modern methods of language teaching; she gained the International Phonetic Association (University College, London) diplomas in English, French and German, as well as the diploma of education from the University of London, while studying at the London Day Training College. She also studied German at the famous 'Institut Tilly' in Berlin, run by William Tilly, an Australian.

In 1914 Bailey joined the staff of Ascham School, Darling Point, Sydney, and in September with Kathleen Gilman Jones, another staff-member, bought the school from the retiring headmaster H. J. Carter. In 1916 Bailey became principal and sole proprietor of Ascham, and committed the girls to a khaki uniform by buying material from army disposals. Interested in overseas educational developments and able to enlist the enthusiastic co-operation of her staff, in 1922 she introduced a modified version of the 'Dalton plan' into the senior school, after learning about it from a staff-member Eva Fry, who had been sent a copy of a letter and an article describing the scheme in the Times Literary Supplement (20, 27 May 1920). This plan, evolved by Helen Parkhurst, an American admirer of Maria Montessori, took its name from the high school at Dalton, Massachusetts, where it was applied in 1920. At Ascham there were from two to four lessons a week in each subject and assignment-work was done in free periods or at home. Although pupils were encouraged to work ahead if they wished, the week's work in all subjects was generally expected to be completed within the week. The plan, with some modifications, has been carried on by her successors; the self-directed method of study and individual assistance available in free periods has benefited both the quicker and slower learners.

A gifted and enterprising teacher, Bailey taught classics to senior classes and was an early exponent of the direct method of teaching French. Known to her pupils as 'Mab', she treated each girl as an individual. In 1937 she incorporated the school as a non-profit-making company with a council of governors. A life-governor herself, she resigned as principal in 1946. The school had become one of the best known in Australia and the 74 pupils of 1914 had increased to almost 400. An excellent businesswoman, she had financed by her own efforts the purchase in 1930 of The Knoll (now called Macintosh House after her colleague and dearest friend), as well as the construction of three new buildings. Sir Edward Knox's house, Fiona, was bought in 1948. No financial appeals were ever made to parents.

Bailey was active in the Headmistresses' Association of Australia and the New Education Fellowship. She was also vice-president and president of the Sydney University Women Graduates' Association, an executive member of the Australian Federation of University Women and a councillor of the rival Kambala Church of England School for Girls. A practising Presbyterian, she showed her eagerness for exact knowledge and openness to new ideas in her keen interest in critical work on biblical texts and the controversial reinterpretations of Dr Samuel Angus. She died peacefully in her sleep on 5 June 1955 at Roseville and was cremated. She left her estate, valued for probate at £26,629, to her sister and eldest niece. Her portrait by H. F. Abbott is at Ascham.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Flower (ed), The Story of Ascham School (Syd, 1952)
  • M. D. Roberts, 50 Years of the Dalton Plan (Syd, 1972)
  • Ascham School, N. Weekes papers (State Library of New South Wales and University of Sydney Library)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Margaret Lundie, 'Bailey, Margaret Ann (1879–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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