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‘A misguided sense of vocation’: Teacher who inspired was hired on lies

Professor Sharon Lewin, the Doherty Institute’s director who has played a leading role in Victoria’s fight against coronavirus, was one of nine successful former students to write character references in support of Lennie, in tribute to the positive influence he had on their lives.

Professor Sharon Lewin is one of Neil Lennie’s former students.

Professor Sharon Lewin is one of Neil Lennie’s former students.Credit:Jason South

“He was one of the most inspiring teachers I have had,” Professor Lewin wrote of her physics teacher at Mount Scopus in the late 1970s.

“He was able to teach complex concepts, provide his students with appropriate skills to solve problems and also make the learning fun.

“I remember him very clearly telling me that I was capable of doing anything in life and to shoot for the stars.

“As a young woman in the 1970s, I now understand that this kind of encouragement for women in science was most unusual.”

Other former students – among them a neurologist, doctor, dentist and engineer – wrote Lennie was an outstanding educator who found creative ways to teach and motivate them.

Actor and director Pip Mushin – best known for his role as cameraman Stu in Frontline – had Lennie for maths at Mount Scopus but also remembered him stepping in to oversee rehearsals for a school play.

“I remember Mr Lennie showing us how to approach a particular section of the script and how, as an actor we should ‘feel and act’. It was the first time I had an insight into an actor’s technique and as an impressionable young actor, I remember to this day how inspired I was by this,” he wrote.

Neil Lennie outside the County Court on Wednesday.

Neil Lennie outside the County Court on Wednesday.Credit:Nine News

He was a man of many talents. He directed musicals for the Sandringham Light Opera Company and played piano, singing at various live music venues. He even umpired VFL games in regional Victoria, according to a June 1988 interview with The Age, which marked the start of his tenure as headmaster of Caulfield Grammar School, the pinnacle of his career.

He arrived at Caulfield amid a swirl of rumours about his reasons for leaving his former school, Mount Scopus.

“There was considerable confusion about my reasons for leaving,” he told the Jewish News in March 1988.

“Any who wish to discuss the matter should seek out my fellow teachers who know the truth. However, rumours are destructive and I would prefer that the discussion does not continue. Suffice to say that my leaving had nothing whatsoever to do with my performance as deputy headmaster.”

Lennie grew up in Bahrain where his parents were teachers. After finishing boarding school at Haileybury, he enrolled in several courses at Victorian universities but never finished them.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s he used his father’s teacher registration number to gain employment at three state high schools, at a time when teaching didn’t require tertiary qualifications.

His offending began in 1976 when he falsely claimed to Mount Scopus he had tertiary qualifications and was a registered teacher, lies that secured him roles at the Burwood college and subsequent schools.

While prosecutors wanted Lennie jailed because of the serious and prolonged nature of his offending – which, they argued, was motivated by greed – judge Patricia Riddell has indicated she won’t impose a prison term.

Lennie’s crimes, lead prosecutor John Dickie argued, struck at the heart of the systems in place to ensure specialist roles are filled by people with the correct qualifications.

Regardless of whether he was a good teacher, Lennie’s career was built on lies, Mr Dickie said.

Prosecutors also want Lennie to repay $843,000, part of the salaries paid to him between 1976 and 2000.

Two of Lennie’s schools said on Thursday they were disappointed by his deceptions.

Mount Scopus principal Rabbi James Kennard said: “Some people do remember him as a fine teacher but obviously the fraud he perpetrated was unacceptable”.

Neil Lennie (right) established a teaching career on the back of criminal lies to schools that employed him.

Neil Lennie (right) established a teaching career on the back of criminal lies to schools that employed him.Credit:Nine News

Overnewton said in a statement: “The school community was extremely disappointed when they learnt of Lennie’s actions”.

Caulfield Grammar declined to comment and Haileybury would only confirm Lennie’s appointment at the school in 1988.

The Victorian Institute of Teaching, which conducts annual audits of teacher and school records to ensure staff are qualified, identified discrepancies in Lennie’s case in 2008 and ultimately alerted police.

The institute said on Thursday it investigated 23 registrations in 2019-20. Most cases involved teachers working before registrations were approved or early childhood teachers being hired without the right registration.

Australian Parents Council president Jenni Rickard said such a deception was very unlikely to happen now.

“The regulatory requirements are pretty strict today for teachers,” she said.

“Parents can have faith that teachers are well-trained and regulated.”

Lennie’s lawyers say he is remorseful, has apologised to family and friends for the embarrassment caused and wants to say sorry to his former employers.

His barrister, Ian Hill, QC, told the court on Wednesday his client was never motivated by greed but “perhaps a misguided sense of vocation” borne out of his Christian upbringing under parents who were teachers.

Lennie drew satisfaction from helping students, said Mr Hill, who submitted there was never anything nefarious about him never gaining qualifications.

Consumed by his work and married with a child in his early 20s, Lennie never had the time to study at a tertiary level, his lawyer said.

Judge Riddell has had Lennie assessed for a community correction order.

Lennie is on bail and will be sentenced on March 18.

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