Our History

The history of the John Berne School is not a long story. The John Berne School officially started in 1998. To understand why the John Berne School started in 1998 it helps to understand three other quite important parts of history. These three parts of history are:

  1. The person of John Berne
  2. The man Marcellin Champagnat
  3. The Marist Brothers

Origins of The John Berne School

The John Berne School has grown out of other educational efforts and experiences.

In 1942 the Marist Brothers started a school for boys in Auburn, Sydney. This school, called initially Marist Brothers Auburn, was later known as Benedict College. More recently, January 1995, the merger of two other schools created Trinity College Auburn. One half of Trinity College continues on the original Auburn site. Trinity College is a secondary Catholic school for boys and girls incorporating the spirit of Marcellin Champagnat and the Marist Brothers with that of the Josephite and Presentation Sisters, who had administered the other two merging schools which were for girls.

In 1975 a number of teachers at Benedict College, as it was then known, were concerned that the traditional secondary subjects and timetable did not meet the needs of a number of boys. These boys lacked interest in the mainly theoretical subjects of the school in those days and so the boys experienced problems with teachers and parents over attendance, motivation and school performance. These teachers dreamed of an alternative school that was less structured, focused on practical subjects and the gaining of employment. A class was formed. Soon, this class was moved to a nearby site in Silverwater to enable this special school program to operate without conflict with the standard school day of secondary schools.

After some time, this small and special part of Benedict College the Berne Education Centreame independent of the main school and administration, and was known as the Benedict Community School. Both Benedict College and Benedict Community School were funded by the Catholic Education Office Sydney, and operated by the Marist Brothers.

Benedict Community School

In 1976 Benedict Community School moved to a small light industrial area in the nearby suburb of Silverwater. Here BCS conducted classes that emphasised basic skills and job readiness, access to day work placements and work experience, along with life skills. In 1979 BCS instituted double shift classes. This innovation allowed students to attend school classes in either the morning or afternoon and then also attend work placements during the alternative part of the day. For some time this program admitted boys Years 7 to 10 who found convention school not meeting their needs.

In 1983 BCS evolved to specifically meet the educational needs of boys in Years 9 and 10, and not accepting the younger students who were not able to access the same work opportunities due to their younger age and legal requirements of workplaces. In 1987 students attended BCS at Silverwater from as far away as Campbelltown, Sutherland, and Hornsby. The program of BCS catered for two cohorts of students.

Group A attended classes at BSE from 8am to 1pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, with work experience all day Wednesday. Group B attended classes 10.45am to 3.45pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, as well as 8am to 1pm Wednesday, with work experience all day Friday. This program gave the students some freedoms that were found to be helpful for this group of at-risk students and at the same provided a full day of work experience once a week. Additionally, all the school students attended together on the Wednesday morning.

In 1988 BCS moved to Hurlstone Park. This move was necessary as the Silverwater property was required for commercial purposes. This change of location resulted in a number of changes to BCS, including the weakening of links with Benedict College Auburn. Societal changes were also changing the nature of the students who attended BCS. There were perceptions that the students of BCS had a number of problems that made not only their attendance of regular schools problematic, but also inclined their behaviour toward unsociable and unacceptable outcomes.

In 1996 CEO Sydney was actively looking at different ways to cater for the BCS students. The resources, particularly financial ones, to run a small dedicated school were considered increasingly difficult to justify and these resources could be better utilised among mainstream schools to fund special needs services. A report of BCSnoted that the students were characterised by one or other of:

  • mild to severe learning difficulties
  • functional illiteracy
  • inability to participate in mainstream schooling due to a mismatch of school and home values
  • students caught in family dysfunction
  • personality disorders and developmental problems.

In 1994 the Hurlstone Park parish notified BCS that the property used by the school would be needed for other purposes. At the same time, in the inner western suburb of Lewisham, the painful decision was made to close St Thomas’ secondary school due to falling numbers of enrolments. Negotiations between the Marist Brothers and CEO Sydney ensured that BCS could move to the Lewisham site. This move was a short term strategy. CEO had decided to no longer support and fund BCS. The two years of 1995 and 1996 were to allow current students to complete their schooling, and no new enrolments would be accepted. At the end of 1996, BCS closed at the Lewisham site.

Starting The John Berne School

The decisions of 1995 and 1996 revealed that CEO Sydney would no longer fund this type of special school of students with behavioural problem. CEO considered its resources better used to help its mainstream schools to better cope with their students’ problems rather than fund a separate school for students with these problems. The Marist Brothers thought differently.

The Brothers’ Provincial Council meeting in 1995 and 1996 was concerned that the needs of these vulnerable students would be overlooked. The Brothers’ Council was not opposed to mainstream schools: quite the contrary since most Marist Brothers, in Sydney and throughout Australia, were directly involved teaching and in administration in mainstream Catholic schools. Original ideas thought of a new school under the auspices of Marist Youth Services to serve the needs of behaviourally disordered students in Sydney. This school was to be called the Berne Education Centre.

The Marist Brothers negotiated with CEO regarding this new school. The CEO agreed to a minimal rent for the Lewisham site and also to provide some support services, so long as the Marist Brothers were to be financially fully responsible to the school. In other words, this school was to be a private school run by the Brothers, and would not receive CEO subsidies, apart for building maintenance the Brothers were responsible to all costs of the school including wages.

In 1996 Br Michael Flanagan was the first Principal of the Berne Education Centre to take up this appointment at the beginning of 1997. Br Michael took two initial crucial decisions. Firstly, he decided to spend the first term of the 1997 year selecting the founding staff of the Berne Education Centre and developing programs for the future students. His second decision had significant ramifications: the Berne Education Centre was not to operate under a welfare services model, as originally envisaged, but was to be a school in its aims and processes and to operate under an educational model, albeit with a special cohort of students.

The model for Berne was a school for students who were not able to access mainstream schools. While not only for students form Catholic schools, the students predominantly had Catholic school backgrounds. From the beginning, students both male and female were accepted, but due to the incidence of behavioural disorders being mainly amongst male students, most students were males. The majority of students enrolled for Years 9 and 10, and the aims were to both prepare the students to achieve the School Certificate and to acquire a post school position that would be useful employment or further study.

Berne’s Vision

The Berne program concentrates on what the staff consider the educational essentials. Literacy and numeracy are of the highest priority, and special lesson are designed to help those students with low reading skills to access the curriculum. The award School Certificate has been the goal of all students. In 2011 the School Certificate will be awarded for the last time, and Berne will continue to provide the motivation to achieve full time employment or a place in further or vocational study after graduating from Berne.

The John Berne School today

The school program includes the provision of counselling for all students as they arrive and ongoing counselling as students adapt, often for the first time, to the disciplines of learning and getting on with peers and adults. School excursions, camps and other activities are designed to develop social skills and the habits of relating in productive, non aggressive ways to others. Lessons in life skills, from cooking to access and use of public transport are designed to allow students to better participate in our society. Work experience every term for Years 9 and 10 students builds expectations and habits of the workplace, and well as widening the students’ experience of the workforce. Some Berne staff are full time counsellors or work experience coordinators; all staff are multi skilled in their subject, working with troubled adolescents, extra curricula activities, and working collaboratively for their students.

In 2007, Br Michael Flanagan finished his role an inaugural Principal, and Br Darren Burge was appointed. One step Br Darren made early in his role was to change the name of the school—a change that Br Michael wanted to make but felt that the initial name needed to prevail while the school was being established. The school was renamed The John Berne School to better characterise its primary role of education.

Today The John Berne School continues to operate at Lewisham, and is a private school operated by the Marist Brothers. Students pay the standard CEO school fees, while no one is turned away due to inability to pay fees. A student usually is referred to Berne by their mainstream school when it is clear that a mainstream school is not meeting the student’s needs. An interview precedes enrolment to determine if a ‘fit’ exists between the student’s needs and what Berne can offer. Berne offers a number of programs for students, parents and families, all designed to achieve the best development of the young person.

A ‘transition program’ introduces the new student to the Berne community. This community operates differently from mainstream schools. Students and staff are on a first name basis, there is no school uniform or homework, and school rules, although few, are designed for the best functioning of the community; and school rules confer rights and responsibilities. At Berne, young people learn to accept responsibility and the consequences of their actions.

Many challenges face John Berne School. As a small school principally for Year 9 and 10 students, enrolments are a constant process as half the school graduates each year. Furthermore, as students enrol at Berne due to unfavourable circumstances at a previous school, enrolments continue throughout the year rather than just at the beginning of the year. With a maximum size of 50 students and employing some 25 staff the school experience is personal where individual differences are known and accepted, while requiring a focus on the aims and programs of John Berne School.

Jean-Baptiste Berne

John Berne was a young man who lived in the times of Marcellin Champagnat in France. In his own language his name was Jean-Baptiste Berne. An introduction to Jean-Baptiste is here and an Information Sheet is available to more fully describe the life of Jean-Baptiste.

In brief, John Berne was a very troubled young man. When Marcellin met him, John Berne was in terrible trouble, an orphan with no one to care for him and facing life on the streets. Marcellin took him in, cared for him and provided an education. For much of this time in the care of Marcellin and the early Marist Brothers, John Berne was a difficult youth. He was rude, rebellious, used abusive and insulting language to those who cared for him, he stole, ran away, and was ungrateful and unresponsive to efforts to help him. Eventually, the care and love of Marcellin and the early Brothers for John Berne broke through his barriers, overcame his past experiences and distrust. John Berne the Berne Education Centreame a caring and generous person, who sadly died while quite young—which was fairly common in 19th Century France.

The John Berne School takes the story of John Berne, Marcellin Champagnat, and those early Marist Brothers as its inspiration. The John Berne School exists to help and reach out to young people, just as Marcellin and the early Marist Brothers did to Jean-Baptiste Berne in 19th Century France, and as the Marist Brothers strive to reach out to young people all over the world, since 1817 and through the recent centuries, and still strive today.

Saint Marcellin Champagnat

A recent sculpture of Marcellin at Marist College Kilmore, Victoria, Australia.

Marcellin was born in a relatively poor and under developed part of rural France. The life of Marcellin and his contemporaries were lived in the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789 to 1799). Marcellin was born in the same year as the French Revolution (1789) and Marcellin died 6th June 1840, with the 6th of June being celebrated around the world as the feast of Marcellin. He was canonised as a Saint in the Catholic Church in 1999. The French Revolution destroyed most of the social services of France, especially in the countryside.

The destruction of schools, hospitals, orphanages and support of poor people was not deliberate but a consequence of much anti-Catholic Church sentiment that arose with the revolutionary ideas in France at the time, and the Catholic Church had been the one group that provided most of the schools, hospitals, orphanages, and poor houses. At the same time, the Revolution decreased the productivity of farms and factories. The Napoleonic Wars, which followed the Revolution. These Wars, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, resulted in conscription of able bodied men into the armies. Men of working age left fields and factories to train as soldiers; injured soldiers could do little work and yet needed to be cared for, many families were left without husband, sons and fathers. This period was one of huge social upheaval in France, great poverty and the collapse of social support structures, people’s hopes and family connections. Into this society Marcellin was born and lived most of his life.

Some Sources of More Information About Marcellin Champagnat.

These links will help you to explore more and learn more about Marcellin Champagnat.

Champagnat’s SignatureThis is a copy of Champagnat’s signature, which he used to sign each of his thousands of letters to his Brothers. Marcellin was a prolific letter writing and used letters to keep in contact with Brothers, who in his lifetime had spread to missions across the world, including the Pacific areas of Melanesia. The Marist Brothers first came to Australia in 1872. The Brothers’ first school was in The Rocks in Sydney.

The Marist Brothers

The Marist Brothers are a world-wide religious order of the Catholic Church. The Marist Brothers are an Institute of religious men. Marist Brothers do not marry, and they devote their lives under the vows of Poverty, Celibacy and Obedience to living a community life and serving God’s people in educational works. The Marist Brothers’ work can be schools or universities, in developed countries and in developing countries, working with young people, young adults and older adults.

Marist Brothers live in communities. Each community has Brothers appointed to it who conduct their work for the good of the Church and God’s people. Marist communities are organised into Provinces, which are geographic collections of Brothers. Provinces elect a leader, the Provincial who is responsible with his council for the management of the works of the Brothers and Brothers’ lives. In Rome is the General Administration of the Marist Brothers which coordinates the international efforts of the Brothers as well as relates to Church structures and the Roman Congregations of the organisational structure of the Catholic Church.

Some Sources of More Information About the Marist Brothers

In the last few years, the Marist Brothers have been organised in several Provinces in the area of Oceania. These Provinces in 2012 will form an Australian wide Province, with the areas of Melanesia and New Zealand forming semi-autonomous Districts. In 2011 there were some 340 Marist Brothers in Australia and Melanesia.