In this four-part SBS television mini-series, Alex Demitriades plays the newly appointed principal at a Sydney High School burdened with a reputation for violence, criminality, drugs and poor educational outcomes. In fact, the main thrust of the narrative revolves around the death of a student. Putting the murder mystery to one side though, The Principal serves as an accurate portrayal of the myriad systemic problems that exist within state education systems that only serve to hinder educators in their efforts to maximise the educational outcomes of their students. Yes, the whodunit aspect of the story is engaging enough to satisfy casual viewers and the performances are generally solid. However, as a teacher, the most interesting part of the series is the way in which the production team has been so spot-on in capturing the realities of public education. In fact, not since Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High have the failings of our education bureaucracy been so effectively rendered on screen.
Matt Beshir (Demitriades) arrives at Boxdale Boys High determined to turn things around, naïve in the eyes of many but shaped by his own experiences as a student at the school. His approach to education emphasises connection; both with the students themselves and the broader community. As such, he makes himself available to his students and takes a genuine interest in their physical and emotional well-being. Matt understands that the immediate problems that many of these students face cannot be alleviated simply by behaving in class or, for that matter, being at school at all. He realises that school has a much bigger role to play than simply delivering a curriculum that may, or may not, have any relevance to the lives of the students. He is desperate to see his students maximise their opportunities and he realises that there needs to be significant changes in the way the school is run. When a student high on drugs runs amok in the classroom, the response from the teacher is typical in that he seeks to enact some kind of punishment – in this instance refusing to allow the student to undertake work experience – until Matt intercedes and poses a most logical question: What would such an action actually achieve? Of course, his common sense (i.e. unconventional) approach doesn’t necessarily sit well with many of his teaching staff or the bureaucrats who appointed him in the hope that he would fail so that they can proceed with their plans to close the school altogether (because, apparently, moving the students somewhere else will miraculously alleviate all the hardships they endure).
Yes, these students can be violent, disrespectful, dishonest and unreliable, but Matt is determined to ensure that they are afforded every opportunity to succeed, even if this means challenging the hegemony of an education system that is more about appearances than outcomes. The Principal also takes aim at the way teachers, and male teachers in particular, are burdened with a presumption that they are predators. Throw in the fact that Matt is homosexual and it goes without saying that his appointment to a boys’ school must make him a threat to the students, such is the ignorance and fear that permeates the educational realm, perhaps even more so than in the wider community. I mean, schools should be bastions of tolerance and acceptance, not purveyors of hate as is sadly so often the case. Having been the subject of a complaint at a previous school (by a female student) that was vexatious and ultimately proven to be unfounded, Matt is unable to shake the shadow that lingers, putting him in the sights of police as a potential suspect, despite the lack of any logical reason for him to commit the crime. Unfortunately, too many teachers are burdened with tarnished reputations as a result of rumours, innuendo and false accusations that remain with them forever.
Throughout the police investigation, Matt never loses faith in the potential of his students, even when it looks as though one or more of them may have been involved in the killing and other criminal activities. These kids (for want of a better word because it is a term used patronisingly by educators) have myriad social, familial and cultural complications that go beyond what many of us (and those running our education system) can possibly understand, which makes it so frustrating that we have such a rigid system of educational practice that makes few allowances for such diversities in circumstance and need. I mean, when Matt gives his mobile phone number to a student, I couldn’t help but image the collective gasps of shock and mutterings of outrage that would have swept throughout the education establishment, an indignation represented here through Deputy-Principal Ursula Bright (Di Adams), the type of person we see in every school and whose only sense of self-worth comes from the authority they wield.
At a time when the locally-produced dramatic pickings on free-to-air television are very slim indeed, The Principal is a welcome, albeit fleeting, addition to the schedule. Director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) gets good performances from a cast comprising a surfeit of young talent and plenty of familiar faces. Rahel Romahn is particularly impressive as Tarek, an angry, alienated student in whom Matt takes a particular interest. Aden Young, Andrea Demitriades, Robert Mammone, Salvatore Coco and Deborah Kennedy all appear, but it is Mirrah Foulkes who really resonates as Kellie Norton, a lonely police officer whose loyalties are torn between her desire to solve the case, her friendship with Matt and the students with whom she has developed a rapport. It is a subtly effective performance from Foulkes that might just prove to be the springboard for bigger things to come. With lots to say about all manner of important issues The Principal is a mostly engaging and engrossing drama that serves as a sadly accurate indictment of the state of public education administration in this country.