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Educational Equity

Barwon South West



Theatre program helps to divert student paths to a better future

28 Mar 2023

At 13-years old, Hayley Wallace rarely attended school, had extreme anxiety, and was starting to develop a drug habit.  

Now 20, Hayley has no doubt she was on a trajectory to prison or an early death. Instead, she is off drugs, graduated secondary school, is in her second year of an arts traineeship, is studying community services, and is a keen mentor to young people facing the same types of challenges.

“I never thought the day would come that I would actually finish high school,” she says. “I still can’t believe it.”

Hayley, a proud Palawa woman (from Tasmania), grew up around Geelong and Werribee and is one of the many success stories of the innovative education program, Nobody’s Fool Theatre. The initiative, which has been running since 2016, is a partnership between Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company and Newcomb Secondary College in Geelong. 

Hayley joined the program after a local Koori education support officer identified the problems Hayley was facing.

“I had a lot of things going on, including looking after my mum, who has mental health problems, and doing shopping for food, so school and learning just weren’t priorities,” Hayley says of that time in her life. “I realised the program could probably help me, so I went from 13 onwards, then graduated in 2021. I fell off the rails a few times, but the support around me made it a lot easier.

“Some days I didn’t want to leave the house, but then somebody would come to the front door and knock so I would force myself to go. They made me feel that I was safe, and I felt able to get on with the schoolwork and the creative work.”

The Ross Trust has just committed to providing $120,000 over three years to support the program, which offers students a safe and inclusive learning environment where they work on English, mathematics, and drama, and on individual learning plans and personal projects. The Trust has a long partnership with the theatre company and has provided more than $1.2 million in grants since 1994, including for workshops in women’s prisons Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Tarrengower.

“Nobody’s Fool is very experienced in developing arts-led solutions to address complex issues,” Ross Trust Senior Program Manager, Meghan Weekes says. “Many of the teenagers who go to the Nobody’s Fool Theatre program have histories of abuse, trauma and multiple suspensions and expulsions from mainstream schools - or have simply not attended for some time.”

Maud Clark, who began Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company more than 40 years ago, says that 13 students – many with mental health issues including severe anxiety and PTSD - were enrolled in the program last year. 

“The school provides a full-time teacher, but the classes are held at The Old Woollen Mill, which is an arts environment,” Maud says. “Many of the young people in our program would not go anywhere near a mainstream school. Some of them are crippled by anxiety and have grown up in extremely traumatic circumstances, so a standard school environment simply does not work for them.”

Students are picked up for school each day, are provided with healthy meals, and have wraparound support. 

“I remember being startled one day by how ferociously a 13-year-old girl was eating her food,” Maud says. “I later learnt that her parents were addicts and she was often left alone to look after her little brothers in a house with no food, no heating, and a kicked-in front door. It’s the kind of life most of us can’t imagine.

“The prognosis for most of these kids is prison, death, or life in the shadows, but this program really can change that path, as it has for Hayley.”

Maud says the arts provide young people with opportunities to express themselves, and gain skills and confidence. As well as completing traineeships and finding work, Maud says several former students were now studying nursing, drama, and communications. 

“We also saw extraordinary results from the 2022 program, with every student saying they felt more confident, happier, and cared about since coming to the theatre. They saw improvements in their teamwork abilities, and felt they had a better future.”

Meghan Weekes says the program aligns with The Ross Trust’s desire for change by improving educational outcomes for extremely disengaged young people with complex needs, as well as supporting a regional cohort.

“Nobody’s Fool Theatre is an example of a tailored, alternative and flexible program that is clearly working very effectively for a proportion of disengaged young people that don’t fit into existing mainstream,” Meghan said.

Trainee Hayley is optimistic about her future, although not sure where she wants her training and work experience to lead.

“I know I want to continue studying and to grow,” she says. “I’ve met women who have been in prison, and they say to me they wish there had been a similar program when they were teenagers. They said it would have changed their lives.”

Read more about Nobody’s Fool Theatre.