Chris Bonnor Vale Bernie Shepherd

Jun 27, 2017

Every profession has them: those people with an extraordinary range of interests and talents who change the lives of others and sometimes the profession itself. Bernie Shepherd, who has just lost his battle against cancer, was one of these. He was a science teacher with great interest and ability in English and the arts, a school principal who established a different type of school, a consultant who carried a new method of assessing students across NSW – and a retiree who pioneered analysis of our school system by tapping into the data behind the My School website.

To readers of Pearls and Irritations Bernie Shepherd’s name is best known for our work in the analysis of My School and our published findings.

Over the last two years we have been fortunate to join with the Centre for Policy Development in the publication of Uneven Playing Field in 2016 and Losing the Game, the latter released last week – just two days before Bernie died. He kept contributing to Losing the Game until his final few weeks, always making sure that it met high standards. His command of the English language and his endless pursuit of accuracy in analysis guaranteed accuracy in reporting what we found. On only one occasion did we have to amend a published article – and it certainly wasn’t Bernie’s mistake.

Bernie was a quite undemonstrative person, which meant that when something really raised his eyebrows you knew it was significant. After the first couple of years I suggested that the data might show what changes were occurring, over time, in our framework of schools. He insisted we wait two more years; only politicians and the tabloids get excited by changes in just one or two years. Then in 2014 his analysis showed that in the years following our non-implementation of the Gonski recommendations equity and achievement in our schools was worsening. The rest is recent history.

Bernie’s career initially followed a common trajectory for many teachers: classroom teacher at Liverpool Boys High School, head teacher at Drummoyne Boys High, then Deputy Principal at Seven Hills High. He then became the foundation principal of the newly created St Mary’s Senior High School – the first state senior high school in NSW.

In between those appointments he was a curriculum consultant and also led syllabus development in science. He became a foundation member of the NSW Board of Studies and for years was an indispensable part of curriculum, assessment, scaling and standard setting in NSW. He served on the executive of the NSW Secondary Principals Council. He was an elder statesman among his colleagues long before he became elder.

He would do all this, occasionally revealing, again in that understated way, his wide range of other talents and interests, whether it be photography or the magic of the theatre. Bernie was truly a Renaissance man in the digital age. Technology and computers were among his tools. He could make a spreadsheet sing!

Bernie Shepherd made a difference at all levels, from individual students up to the movers and shakers….or maybe as he saw the priority, from individual students down to the movers and shakers.

He didn’t seek the limelight but it sought him out. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia and a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators as well as of the Centre for Policy Development. He seemed to gather life memberships, including from the NSW Secondary Principals Council, the New South Wales Parents and Citizens Federation and the Australian Education Union. Given the politics of education this was a remarkable recognition from such diverse organisations.

We’ve all seen remarkable people in our lives. Bernie Shepherd’s name is up there in lights. I’m proud to have been able to share parts of his life with so many others.

A gathering to celebrate Bernie’s life will be held in the second half of July. Details, when available, will be posted on

Chris Bonnor

[This is a link to the most recent article by Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd, on Pearls & Irritations, on 10 May 2017:]


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