Leading scientist tells court former teacher who faked qualifications was ‘outstanding’ educator

One of Australia’s pre-eminent scientists who has helped steer the nation through the coronavirus pandemic has told a court that one of her former teachers was an “outstanding” educator, even though he faked his qualifications for decades.Key points:Neil Lennie spent nearly a quarter of a decade as a teacher, despite having no formal qualificationsFormer student and current Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin says he was an “outstanding” teacherHis lawyers and the prosecution have asked for Mr Lennie to be fined over the deceptionNeil Lennie, 72, has pleaded guilty to four deception charges in the County Court of Victoria after investigators uncovered his scam at some of Melbourne’s most prestigious schools, including Mount Scopus Memorial College, Haileybury College and Caulfield Grammar School.Between 1976 and 2000, Mr Lennie swindled the schools into thinking that he was a qualified teacher, before eventually taking the job of headmaster at Caulfield Grammar.All of the schools now say they would not have employed Mr Lennie had they known.Prosecutors estimate that over his career, he was paid $843,567.But in a pre-sentence hearing today, the County Court heard that the 72-year-old was well-loved by his former students, who now know the truth. Leading infectious diseases expert Sharon Lewin says the teacher had a profound impact on her career.(ABC News: Billy Draper, file photo)Among them is Sharon Lewin, a leading infectious diseases expert and the director of the Doherty Institute, who credited Mr Lennie with instilling in her an “enduring love of science” in a character reference.Professor Lewin knew Mr Lennie between 1977 and 1979 while she was a student at Mount Scopus Memorial College.”I remember him very clearly telling me that I was capable of doing anything in life and to shoot for the stars,” she said.She said he was “one of the most outstanding teachers I had ever had”.”As a young woman in the 1970s, I now understand that this kind of encouragement for women in science was most unusual,” she said.Professor Lewin said that she had been asked on many occasions to reflect on teachers or mentors, and had always named Mr Lennie as someone who had a “profound impact” on her career.”He not only provided me with knowledge to ultimately be the top student in the state of Victoria in physics with a perfect score, but he instilled in me a lifelong love of learning and of science … I couldn’t think of a greater gift from a teacher,” she said.Scam uncovered by registration bodyProfessor Lewin’s comments have been echoed by other students, who described Mr Lennie as exceptional.”Clearly Mr Lennie had the genuine and universal respect of his students,” his defence lawyer, Ian Hill QC, said.The court heard that Mr Lennie’s con started in 1976, when he applied for a teaching job at Mount Scopus.Want more local news?We offer tailored front pages for local audiences in each state and territory. Find out how to opt in for more Victorian news.Read moreHis father was a teacher and he used his registration number on the application, in addition to claiming that he had a degree from RMIT and experience as a teacher at a number of public schools.But the court heard that had the school taken a closer look at his claims, they would have found that Mr Lennie would have been just 16 when he claimed to have his first teaching job.Mr Lennie stayed at Mount Scopus for 12 years before taking a job at Haileybury College where he was the director of music, but this time claiming that he had a degree from the University of Melbourne.In 1988 he moved to Caulfield Grammar School where he was the headmaster of the Caulfield campus for five years.Mr Lennie’s scam was only uncovered in 2008, when the Victorian Institute of Teaching uncovered discrepancies in his records and asked for evidence of his qualifications.The institute charged him and took him to court where he was convicted and fined. The case was then referred to Victoria Police.Defence lawyer describes ‘teacher of the highest order’Today his defence lawyer, Mr Hill, said his client had a “profound sense of humiliation”.”He considers his conduct to have been without excuse,” he said.But Mr Hill said that despite his bogus qualifications, his client was a brilliant teacher.”Putting aside those deceptions as to registration and qualifications … he excelled in his position at the schools, rendered outstanding service,” Mr Hill said. The scam took Mr Lennie to Caulfield Grammar School, where he served as headmaster for five years.(Caulfield Grammar School)”Academically, despite the lack of formal qualifications, he was a teacher of the highest order,” he said.”He was appointed because of his teaching, not because of his qualifications.”Mr Hill said his client was motivated by a genuine but “misguided” sense of vocation.”Having obtained employment, having got his foot in the door, he worked particularly hard to make certain that every student under his tutelage prospered,” Mr Hill said.”He recognised those, not for their sex, but for their talent.”And they prospered, and as a result, the community has prospered.”Mr Lennie’s lawyers urged the court not to send him to prison and instead impose a community corrections order with a fine.Prosecutors have also asked for a fine to be imposed.The hearing continues.

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