Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Terence John O'Connell (1916–1977)

by Barry Price

This article was published:

Terence John O'Connell (1916-1977), educationist, was born on 14 February 1916 at Scone, New South Wales, second of seven children of Australian-born parents Timothy Edward O'Connell (d.1932), labourer, and his wife Kathleen Mary Agnes, née Felan. Terry attended Aberdeen Public School and St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, Sydney, entered (1935) Teachers' College, Armidale, and studied as an external student of the University of New England (B.A., 1961; Litt.B., 1964). His early teaching posts were in primary schools at Bendemeer (1937-38) and Brackendale (1939).

On 11 October 1939 O'Connell enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He gave his religion as Catholic and was recorded as being 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with hazel eyes and brown hair. In 1940-42 he served in the Middle East with the 2nd/2nd and 2nd/33rd battalions. At St Luke's Anglican Church, Scone, on 7 May 1942, Lieutenant O'Connell married Nancy Aline Barwick, an organist. Transferred to the Reserve of Officers on compassionate grounds in July 1943, he performed part-time duties with the Volunteer Defence Corps until 1945.

O'Connell taught at Tamworth (1943-47), Wagga Wagga (1947-49), Bungwahl (1950-54) and Yass (1954-57). As founding headmaster (principal) in 1958-74 of Ainslie North Primary School, Australian Capital Territory, and as an acting inspector, he gained a national reputation for his methods and ideas. His initiatives included flexible staffing, language development, closed-circuit television, school boards and open-plan education. He saw the role of principal as that of an 'educational catalyst, the one who keeps the professional pot bubbling in the staff-room discussions'. In 1961-65 he presented a schools' radio programme, 'The World We Live In', for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He also contributed a chapter to Primary Education in Australia (edited by G. W. Bassett, Sydney, 1974).

In 1973 O'Connell joined the Commonwealth Teaching Service and the Commonwealth Teachers' Federation (A.C.T.). Next year he played a major role in an inquiry which led to improved salaries for teachers. Having been influential—as a member of Sir George Currie's committee—in setting up an independent education authority in the A.C.T., he joined the office of the Interim A.C.T. Schools Authority in 1975 as acting-head of the curriculum and research branch. He became head of the student services branch in 1976, but retired in January 1977 due to ill health.

An active member of the Australian College of Education, O'Connell was a fellow (1968), national councillor (1968-72) and chairman (1972-73) of its A.C.T. chapter. Through the college, and his membership (1969-74) of the Australian Unesco Committee for Education, he participated in conferences on Aboriginal education, and on the teaching of English and music. He belonged to Legacy and the Canberra Workers' Club. A youthful oarsman, he later played tennis and golf, and enjoyed landscape painting. He died of cancer on 15 November 1977 in Canberra Hospital and was cremated; his wife, daughter and son survived him. The O'Connell Education Centre, Griffith, A.C.T., was named (1979) after him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Price, 'Mr ACT Education', Canberra Historical Journal, no 39, Mar 1997, p 29
  • Canberra Times, 16 Nov 1977
  • private information.

Citation details

Barry Price, 'O'Connell, Terence John (1916–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 February, 1916
Scone, New South Wales, Australia


15 November, 1977 (aged 61)
Acton, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.