Opinion by Nathan Rees, Chief Executive

SBS documentary Struggle Street provided a strong reminder of just how essential a good public school system is. Life for William, Bob and Billy Jo may have been very different had they been better educated, writes Nathan Rees.

Earlier this week I had lunch with a good friend of mine for 30 years, Wayne. He was born and bred in Mt Druitt, and inevitably we spent some time talking about Struggle Street, and growing up in the area. I asked him if he’d be OK if I quoted him for this piece. Here’s what he said:

“Everything I did to that point to my life, as a teen in Mt Druitt, my motivation was solely focussed on how to get out of that place.”

We’ll return to Wayne later.

Last night SBS aired episodes two and three of Struggle Street. The voiceover of episode one, for which SBS was rightly panned, sounded like it had been redone. It was less elaborately ocker, less patronising, more nuanced. So, good start SBS.

These episodes challenged the viewer to examine our own prejudices, and try to walk a mile in the shoes of some of the subjects. Unlike episode one, in which the subjects were largely likeable, Bob and Billy Jo are hard work. We had a brief introduction last week when they were trying to break a door down to get a device for their bong. This week, things took a turn for the worse. Billy Jo is 21 and expecting her third child. Her first two were placed in care.

Bob has been using hard drugs for 30 years, and we watch the dysfunction and loathing between the two descend into pathos. Ultimately, Billy Jo has the child, it is removed from her at birth, and she tells Bob he may not be the father. That’s the end of the relationship, for want of a better word. At least it wasn’t done by text message.

It’s unnecessary to add that neither were in employment. There are few excuses for leading such lives, but there are explanations. Billy Jo was born a drug addict, addicted to methadone. No doubt some viewers believe she presents a strong case for being counselled in the benefits of contraceptive implants.

Bob’s former love has been in a nursing home for eight years after an aneurism. He explains how he dealt with this: “… by burying it deep in my mind.”

He adds of Mt Druitt, “You can never get out of here.”

Our other drug user, Ashley’s son Corey, has distinguished himself early in the episode by refusing to go to Ashley’s sister’s funeral. Ashley is deeply upset. The deteriorating relationship between Ashley and Corey is contrasted with the strengthening relationship between Corey and ice.

The upside in this dynamic is that Shantelle, Corey’s partner and mother to his child, has had enough. She must have heard the several hundred thousand voices across the country yelling “punt him!” at the TV. She ends the relationship with Corey. She does the obvious thing… and moves in with Ashley and St Peta.

New entrants to the show, sisters Cheryl and Michelle, are at each other’s throats. Cheryl’s son Chris is cared for by Aunty Michelle, exacerbating the friction. In one of the juxtaposed scenes of tenderness, Chris puts on a surprise party for both sisters, in an attempt to thaw relations. It’s a genuine and heartfelt gesture … and a reminder that in many relationships, the child has to be the adult.

Every viewer has a keen interest in the intrepid William, who has been living rough and stoning birds for food. This week, we got a window into a little of his background. After his parents split when he was an adolescent, his schooling was disrupted. He is not explicit about it, but when he says he blew his chances, he acknowledges that he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity schooling presented.

William has no personal identification. None. Linguistically, he’s an interesting bird; with a helicopter hovering overhead, he urges the photographer to move away in case something happens, “… and I have to flee…”.

Ask yourself: when was the last time you, or anyone you know, used ‘flee’ in a sentence ? We might bolt, run, maybe even scarper, but flee? This spoke to me of a rich aural life, and it struck me that, despite his cleverness, William may struggle to read and write.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, some Australian states have levels of adult illiteracy in excess of 40 per cent. Almost certainly, each of us knows an adult who has serious difficulty reading and writing. Sadly, we may not know that’s the case, as they hide the situation and bat on.

If ever we need reminding of how essential a good public education system is, Struggle Street does it. The ability of an education system to turn a life around is immense. Youngsters are born into poverty or dysfunction through no fault of their own. Each child deserves a chance to escape that landscape, and the single biggest thing we can provide as a community is a good education.

Life for William, Bob and Billy Jo may have been very different had they been better educated. People aren’t born as dysfunctional kids; when their families let them down, we need to pick them up, and good schooling is an essential element.

Bob and Billy Jo emptied my reservoir of empathy. The only way for me to top it back up is to imagine myself in their shoes. Let’s say I’m toothless, without ID, broke and unable to read and write. Do I move into the wide world, or do I stay put, knowing that I at least have somewhere to sleep, a social circle of sorts, and a familiarity with my surrounds? Most of us would go with the latter.

The last word goes to my mate Wayne, of whom I’m deeply proud. Wayne did get out of Mt Druitt. He now runs his own very successful event management business and lives the dream on Sydney’s northern beaches. He also represented Australia as a distance runner, and was an Australian champion. Don’t underestimate the qualities it took to get him to the top. He’s a man of incredible determination, discipline, focus, and resilience – and it took every bit of each for him to make his escape.

That’s worth thinking about.