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A Biography of John Laurence Lambert 

to seek beyond the known cover

John Lambert was a remarkable figure in the life of New South Wales education, both state and independent, for over half a century. He contributed energy and vision as few others, if any, have done. 

This life of John, commencing in Wilcannia in the heat of far-western NSW, traces the development of that vision, through senior positions in the state Department of Education through to his time as foundation President of the Board of Studies and to his influential role in the creation of many low-fee Anglican schools.  

Through it all, the phrase “To seek beyond the known” encapsulates the forward-looking approach of a man who was determined to make fresh and enlivening opportunities in education available for all. 


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Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 146
Genre: Non
Fiction Biography

Cover: Clive Dalkins

John Goddard
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published:  2017
Language: English


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by Jim McAlpine 


It is a privilege to be asked to write the foreword to this book on the remarkable life and contribution of John Lambert.

We were fortunate to have John and Jan as next-door neighbours when Lorraine and I rented a cottage in Florabella Street in Warrimoo when we married in 1971. As a novice teacher, I learnt much from the relatively young school inspector who knew so much about education, and who willingly shared his knowledge. John engaged me in conversations about teaching and schools that continued for four decades. We were invited in for a game of 500 about once a month for several years, but the conversation always turned to education, not cards, politics or sport.

Every few weeks, John and I would partner for a game of golf at Springwood, but it was impossible to score well because of the distraction of education discussions. John did not know how to relax in the normal sense; I suggest his relaxation came from thinking through the challenges of improving schools and education. John was an expert in practising the peripatetic method.

A consequence of being a neighbour was becoming a ‘Departmental Convenience’; John had me transferred from Nepean High to Springwood High, as it was a rapidly growing school with difficulties in holding experienced staff, to teach English and History. This gave me the added bonus of teaching the Lambert children whom we had seen growing quickly as our neighbours, even if young Geoffrey took pleasure in throwing weeds through the fence at me on one occasion. Denise and Christopher were more circumspect.

We stayed in touch with the Lambert family when we moved to Western Region. John became the Western Region Director and we were able to continue the education discussions, sometimes at our home in Orange, at other times in the Bathurst flat that John and Jan visited between driving vast distances in the Region.

Our working relationship was enhanced further when I became a Board Liaison Officer for the Region when John was Director of the Statutory Boards in North Sydney. His leadership in that role was superb, and his monthly meetings with the regional field officers were deep-thinking discussions that engaged all of us in working out more intelligent ways of ensuring high-level curriculum and assessment being the norm in all schools. Several past Board Liaison Officers visited John in Florabella Street in the last few months of his life, and we all marvelled at his mental strength at that time. We paid to have a star named after him, and he was delighted that he had a permanent place in the firmament.

John was instrumental in the selection and training of the Leading Teachers (referred to in this book), and I had the opportunity to play a role as one of the facilitators in the training program. John was not a hands-off leader as far as this was concerned, as he could see the importance of a leadership role in schools that could keep the focus on education and learning. It was an intense course for a total of ten days in three bites, and John provided ‘fireside chats’ every evening that caused all participants to think through their role in schools rather than just learn skills. Most of those initial Leading Teachers became great school leaders in a very short time, and John’s impact can’t be understated.

The many things I learned from John stood me in good stead when I became the Principal of Tumut High in 1990. We stayed in touch, and when John became President of the Board of Studies he was an honoured guest speaker at an Education Week dinner for the South West Slopes Principals’ Collegial Group. John and Jan stayed at our home, and education discussions ensued. A picnic on the beautiful Goobragandra River meant sitting on a large boulder mid-stream, talking about how to maintain the benefits of a centralised system while ensuring that local decisions could be made based on local circumstances. There was no time to go trout fishing.

Our friendship continued after John was no longer President of the Board (the details of that sorry episode are in this book), and although we didn’t see each other in person on a regular basis, we stayed in touch. A dinner in Leichhardt in 2001 to celebrate his being recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) was a wonderful occasion. John invited quite a few of the people he had enjoyed working with over many years and in many different roles, and we all felt very honoured to be there with him. We did have chats at the Wyndham dinners of the Australian College of Educators in subsequent years, and he still had the same youthful enthusiasm for educational improvement that I had been privileged to be a part of since 1971.

No book can capture all the contributions that John Lambert made in so many ways, but I am pleased that this book has been written so that those who knew John can reflect on the contributions that he made to them, their schools and their lives. Those who didn’t know John personally will be able to read about a man who put so much into his profession and his life, and who had a huge impact on schools and education systems.







The readers of this life of John Lambert deserve some explanation of how it came about. In one sense, of course, no explanation, certainly no justification, is needed for producing an account of one of the most visionary and remarkable and influential educators that New South Wales has ever seen. Nevertheless, this account is not true biography, not true autobiography, and not quite a personal memoir.

In the middle of 2014, over a cup of tea at Florabella Street, Warrimoo, John, who had been unwell with developing lung cancer for a year or more, revealed to me that he had written a brief autobiographical sketch of his life, taking it as far as the year 2000, and that he was looking for someone to develop it into something like a regular biography. I took away with me the sketch, read it and agreed to take on the writing of the life of John. Thus it is that some of the material you will read in this life comes almost totally in John’s words, as he told anecdotes about his experiences and as he answered my endless stream of questions; some should be seen as my re-working of and adding to that material; and some has arisen as the result of interviews I have had with those who knew John’s work at first hand. My own personal acquaintance with John did not begin until the mid 1990s, and so I have been particularly dependent on John’s own account and on the interviews with others in order to give a reasonably full account of all that time until his association with the Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation.

After the commencement of this task in mid-2014, John’s lung cancer developed rapidly and he died in November of that year. He saw drafts of some sections of this book, chiefly the early sections, and he was adamant that, in telling his story, I should not cast too critical an eye over other characters in the tale. Sometimes that has been easy – and at other points much less so. I can only hope that John would have approved of the way in which both he, and others with whom he interacted, have been presented.

It has been a great privilege to put together this material in what I hope is a coherent way. But more than that, it has been a privilege to talk to and to work alongside a man whose every endeavour has been to see to it that education should be as lively and stimulating as possible for all involved in it.

The help of the following, who have given of their time in interviews or in providing written material, is most gratefully acknowledged: Grant Prowse, Robyn Prowse, Jim McAlpine, Barry Roots, Peter Fowler, Laurie Scandrett, Bill Clarke, Vanda Gould, Shirley Lambert, and, of course, John’s immediate family – Denise, Christopher and Geoffrey, Phillip and Jennifer. These and others have contributed in significant ways; for errors or omissions, if they occur, I alone can be responsible.




The story I am going to tell is of a remarkable life. It is remarkable in its fullness, in its variety and in its energy. It is an account of John Laurence Lambert, a man much loved by many and very highly regarded by a wider circle than most of us can begin to imagine. Like the story of most lives, it is a story of high points and low points, but one cannot but notice how, in John’s case, a low point serves generally as a prelude to the next high. It is also a story that contains many vivid pictures: John going barefoot to and from Carlton South Public School, his feet scorched by the pavement until they toughened up to be the leather he didn’t have; John inserting an electric radiator under the bonnet of his ancient Morris so as to heat the engine in winter before starting the car for the trip from Woodford to Penrith; John doing all the excavation, the concrete surrounds and the block walls for the pool at Warrimoo; John and his colleague taken in to a difficult meeting about the possible closing of the school at Tullibigeal – taken in, via the back door, past a gum tree with a horse underneath it and two nooses slung over a high branch above the horse; John chairing “fly a kite” meetings at the Board of Studies, encouraging all his key personnel to dream and to be visionary (his departure and the loss of those meetings was described by one of his inspectors, Wendy Michaels, as “a light going out”); John presenting, cogently and skilfully as always, the case for the funding of new Anglican schools to the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and the Minister for Education, Dr Kemp; becoming a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2001 for his vast contribution to education. The list could go on – but that is, in fact, the purpose of the book, to tell the larger story and to present something of the essence of a remarkable man.

The account given here is more or less chronological and I have not wanted to interrupt the story to reflect for too long on recurring themes. But there are three which, to my mind, keep coming back into the narrative and which, separately and together, are the heart of that narrative. They may be termed:

John the family man – Any story will begin with the family into which the subject is born: but parents, siblings, wife Jan and second wife Jennifer, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren whom he loved, advised, nurtured and watched over, animate many incidents throughout John’s life.

John the educator of vision – There has been a love of learning shown from the outset. Ally that to great organisational ability, and to a way of thinking that refuses to be bound by existing systems but seeks out fresh ways of doing old things as well as new things to do, and you have a man whose impact on education throughout New South Wales for over half a century has been enormous.

John the Christian– Throughout this story, a willingness, indeed a determination, to serve is evident. Nowhere is it more evident than in the determination to serve Christ, whether as a maker of music, a re-builder of his church at Springwood or in breathing life into a fleet of low-fee Anglican schools. John has summed it up thus: “And in that realm we cannot see, but which is so very real, Jesus has walked with me in a very wonderful way.”

Readers of this story, those who have known John Lambert well, and those who have known him personally, or little, or not at all, will make their own judgements on how those aspects of his life show out. But it seems to me (and I do not want to place all the emphasis on John the educator here) that they may be summed up in the motto John offered to his Board of Studies colleagues as they planned and dreamed: “To seek beyond the known; to achieve beyond all standards.” We are looking at the story of one who, right up until his death in November 2014, did not rest content with learning how to take a lesson on intransitive verbs with 2C at Sydney Boys’ High (though even in the 1950s that must have been no mean achievement!) but who developed his own ways of planning, and envisaging new possibilities in education, and contemplating the eternal questions. And all from a beginning in Wilcannia in 1936. 





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