Nelson College headmaster Gary O’Shea is preparing for a life outside of schools after 40 years in the industry. Photo: Charles Anderson.

Headmaster to step down from Nelson College


After 40 years in education, Nelson College headmaster Gary O’Shea says he will never lead another school when he steps down next year.

Gary announced his retirement last week after 14 years at the helm of one of New Zealand’s oldest schools. But he says his legacy will be the change in the school’s conservative culture.

Gary says a few things recently collided leading to him making the decision. He and his wife had hoped to retire to Kenepuru Sound but they realised their autistic son, who they hoped would eventually transition to independent living, needed to be with them.

They have been living in Motueka where they have space and where Gary has become involved with the local community gardens.

Gary has overseen a transformation in the school which he hopes will be his legacy.

“Fundamentally it is a caring culture.”

The prefect system is gone, and Nelson College has undergone an identify shift from a pure “bully boy, rugby school” to “a school for every boy”.

“It is about trumpeting the male values of loyalty and strength but not violence.”

While Gary says that the school boarding rates are still suffering from a bullying scandal several years ago, he believes Nelson College has all the hall marks of a co-education school. He says that the board should consider moving towards including girls at some stage.

He says that many boys’ schools are becoming more conservative as they look for simple answers, but believes Nelson doesn’t want that.

“Nelson is eclectic, it’s refugees, it wants its arts and drama. It wants its boys’ school to be compassionate, it wants diversity. That’s the sort of boy’s school we want to be.”

Gary has also helped the college transform its business practice, updating and modernising two of its boarding houses which it now rents out year-round. While that resulted in a hefty debt, he says that the gambit is paying off.

“It’s a business model that is working.”

However, he lamented an ongoing dispute with a former employee and his brother which has dragged on for three years.

“That has been disgraceful … there is no doubt it’s been a drain on school resources and on me. It’s been like running two jobs.”

In among that dispute, however, the Education Review Office (ERO) 4-5 year reviews placed Nelson College in the top 10 per cent of New Zealand schools in both 2012 and 2016.

Gary will step down at the beginning of next year with the school board thanking him for his exemplary service.

However, he is not leaving the profession completely, having set up a consultancy business to help mentor school principals.

“The profession doesn’t hold its repository of knowledge well. It’s a lonely job and it’s not very collegial because schools are competitive for kids.”

He says that he aims to be a “sounding board” for school leaders who might benefit from his years of experience.