Culture

‘It’s a huge crime’: the explosive play tackling Australia’s abandonment of its public schools

When thousands of teachers from public and Catholic schools joined forces for the first time in June to stage a mass strike over workloads, salaries and staff shortages, the playwright Angela Betzien marched with them. For a homemade sign made of recycled cardboard, she filched a line from her new classroom comedy, Chalkface, and wrote: “Pedagogy, not pedadogy”. Her six-year-old son, Wylder, using his experience as a pupil in a small government school in inner-western Sydney, wrote: “My favourite teacher is Miss Cusack and I support more pay for teachers.”

Chalkface is set in West Vale primary, an “entirely fictitious” school with a list of fundraising priorities that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the poverty in Australia’s public school system: decaying stairwells, asbestos requiring removal, concrete cancer, unflued heaters, threadbare carpet, flaking paintwork, dodgy wiring, leaking toilets, ancient air conditioning and unstable demountables.

In writing the play, Betzien has partly drawn on her research interviewing teachers from public schools, as well as her life experience and fury at the “massive inequality” between public and private schools. “We have a public school system that’s literally decaying under our feet,” she says.

She believes the system must be “revolutionised”, starting with a shakeup in how schools are funded: in February it was revealed that government funding for private schools – including Catholic and independent – has increased at nearly five times the rate of public school funding over the past 10 years.

“If private schools want to operate as a for-profit business, then, well, go for it, but I don’t think those private systems should be propped up with government money,” she says. “I believe in access to resources for all students, no matter their background. When our public schools are so deprived, I think it’s a huge crime.”

The Melbourne-based actor Catherine McClements plays fiftysomething West Vale teacher Pat Novitsky. Pat is armed with a wry humour about her underpaid and under-resourced vocation: she jokes that West Vale’s principal, obsessed with key performance indicators, was “caught having a wank over an Excel spreadsheet”.

McClements is also a stalwart of public schools: “The public school system has been under attack for quite a few years, and the wounds are in the teachers, no matter how incredibly smart and resilient they are,” she says. Australians have “swallowed the pill” to accept inequality in education, she says, as well as the lack of money and support for public teachers that has been “slowly chipping away at the profession”.

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Being an actor, she hastens to add, she doesn’t have answers to solve the “systemic” inequality. “People who take their kids to private schools, of course it’s amazing [for them],” she says. “The private schools near us are like fucking resorts. They have swimming pools, and I just think, why? I think it’s wrong on so many levels.”

Catherine McClements, actor in the 2022 play Chalkface
‘I have been so happy with the people that have taught my kids in the public system’ … actor Catherine McClements. Photograph: Jessica Zeng

McClements attended Catholic schools as a child, and her parents were both active members of the Labor party. Her father, Frank, was a public high school principal engaged in school and community life, calling bingo to raise funds for the school bus and annual play. Her mother, Pamela, left school at 15 but ended up becoming a teacher, too: “That was the Whitlam years – they paid for her to go back to school.”

McClements and her partner, the actor Jacek Koman, sent their two children – Clementine, now 21 and travelling overseas, and Quincy, 15 – to an inner-Melbourne public school. “I have been so happy with the people that have taught my kids in the public system,” she says. “They are really dedicated.”

Betzien was almost entirely educated in Queensland public schools, apart from part of one year in a private school in Rockhampton. Her father, Paul, worked his way up to becoming a public high school principal, completing his teaching degree “under the whole Whitlam initiative of getting teachers scholarships and being sent to remote places to pay back that scholarship”. Her mother, Helen, put herself through university as a mature-age student and became a high school drama teacher.

The playwright says she values her son’s teachers so much, “especially after the pandemic and homeschooling, we realised how incredible they are. It’s a small miracle they manage to teach little people how to read in a year.” The school is “brilliant”, she says, but she agrees with what one teacher in another school told her, about the Australian system’s “obsession” with testing: “You don’t fatten the pig by measuring it.”

Teachers and supporters rally in Sydney
Teachers and supporters rally in Sydney after the state government’s offer of a 3% pay rise in June. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

“My six-year-old got his report card back yesterday and I was really surprised to see that there was grading of different areas, from A to D,” Betzien says. “Obviously, I want to know areas where he should improve and areas that he’s doing well at, but I think that grading builds up a narrative in a little person’s mind about whether or not they’re good at school, and it’s really hard to shift those narratives once they’re set. I think it’s absurd. The Scandinavian countries don’t even start to assess until much, much later in schooling. Why are we doing this?”

Australia has blindly followed the UK and US models of educational inequality, she believes; she cites the education expert Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, where there are no private schools. In Australia today, such a system feels impossible: “The lobbyist groups have such influence on politicians that they’re afraid to actually revolutionise our system.”

In her research, Betzien found that inequality had caused some schools to become “toxic”, a legacy of the “commodification” of education she says began in the 1980s. She mentions the New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet’s suggestion of introducing performance pay for teachers. “That’s proven globally not to work,” she says. “It’s pitting teachers against teachers, and you can’t measure good teaching, you can’t quantify it.”

The NSW and Victorian governments have announced that both states will add a pre-prep year into schooling, but Betzien questions where the extra teachers will come from. As the mother of a two-year-old as well, she says, “that was quite funny to me, as a parent paying crippling daycare fees – I think, ‘Oh, great, a free year of play-based learning.’ I worry that that’s a smokescreen. If it’s genuine play-based learning, that’s fine. But if it’s about just getting kids prepped for school even earlier, at the age of four, then I worry enormously about that. I don’t want my child sitting down at a desk and learning formally at four.”

But with the change in federal government, Betzien sees some “refreshing” hope on the horizon, particularly in the form of Jason Clare, the new education minister, who attended a public school in Cabramatta in Sydney’s south-west.

“He’s the first of his family to finish high school, let alone go to university, and when he recently returned to his old school, he greeted his old teacher and there were tears,” Betzien says. “I really hope that that lived experience is going to translate into empathy for what teachers are enduring and the state of our system. Hopefully he’ll push to revolutionise our system – because that’s what it needs.”

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