Sophie Sandor: It costs very little to get a culture right (Part I)

In 2010 Eton sent more students to Oxford and Cambridge than the total of pupils admitted who had received free school meals. Two-thirds of 16 to 24-year-olds cannot name the year in which the First World War ended, and twelve per cent believe that Waterloo was a battle of the same war. 1 in 20 Brits are functionally illiterate in their native language- more than in any other developed nation. Research by the Sutton Trust has revealed that just 10 per cent of teachers surveyed reported that all their students had adequate devices, and it is estimated that it could take a decade to reach pre-pandemic levels of social mobility among.

In the midst of this grim forecast for schooling and social mobility in Britain, our Assistant Editor Georgia Leatherdale Gilholy sat down (virtually) with filmmaker Sophie Sandor about her newly released project “Teaching The Poor to Fail” that skilfully pins down some of these big questions.

Georgia: In the opening section of the film, you state “I always loved school, but I could tell something was not right…” What in particular did you feel was “not right”?

Sophie: That was just a way of putting succinctly how I felt that the education system was not right. I also wanted to express that just because I went to a certain type of school, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I think possibly that I was always going to enjoy school. Some people like school, some people don’t. I loved every moment of it, but I did go to a very badly performing school. I think I would have enjoyed it if I go to a good school as well. But as soon as I got to school it was clear to me that something was not right. The discipline was out of control. It was clear that we were in a very bad school, and yet we were all from the poorest catchment areas, from the poorest households, so economically we were the most deprived. It was weird to reflect in hindsight how all these badly behaved kids needed the stability at school more than anyone, and yet they are the least likely to get it.

All the kind of issues that are you don’t want are common in low-performing schools in this country. Low aspirations and this idea that you’re doomed and you’re going to remain in circumstances and into which you were born and the system is stacked against you. Some people claim it’s easier that way because then kids feel that there’s nothing they could have done and they simply don’t succeed, but they feel it was always going to turn out that way. But this is an incredibly toxic idea.

Georgia: An interesting point that was made in the documentary is that when you discuss these issues, many people take it as an attack on teachers, which is not the intention at all. It’s also about just the system. But, why would many teachers want to change things when having low targets means that most of the kids are going to get those targets. So officially, they’ve reached the targets and they are not going to get disciplined. Of course, achieving these targets doesn’t mean that the kids or the teachers have objectively they’ve improved, but there is no incentive to change that.

Sophie: I told one of my GCSE teachers that I wanted to get straight A’s and I was told “No, given your circumstances, I would only predict Bs”. That’s just a small example and I’m not scarred by being told that, but I think its an anecdote that resounds with many people who have attended these kinds of schools.

Georgia: Absolutely, I had many of those types of things said to me too. It might have simply spurred yourself and me on, but overall it’s a very dangerous situation to put children in, especially if they are from a vulnerable background, or their personality is a bit more demure and less motivated. This kind of attitude is dangerous enough to teenagers, but if you’re saying things like this to someone who’s nine, ten or younger, they’re not going to know any different. Maybe if they’re from a household where the parents aren’t necessarily encouraging them, that’s it, they may never achieve their potential. Obviously not everyone wants to be an investment banker or an academic or whatever, which is absolutely fine. But if you have those skills and you have those passions, then your teacher should be doing everything they can to prepare you. It’s the job of schools to educate and to help children achieve as best as they can. And that is simply not happening.

Sophie: Exactly. These standards need to be in place, even more so for pupils whose home lives may be hectic. They need it more than anyone else.

Georgia: One of the other things I was going to ask you is about the massive gap between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Whenever you have a debate about this on primetime news or in parliaments, it’s generally brushed off as an issue with funding rather than the structure of schooling. What’s your perspective on that?

Sophie: Well, it’s definitely not about funding. Thought leaders are needed on this issue. We know it’s not about the money because, well, it costs very little to get a culture right. Billions are being spent and yet there’s been no improvement in performance in absolute or relative terms.

All over the world, there are low-cost private schools that educate the poor to very high standards. And we know the humongous amounts of money that are being spent on frills in state schools, and a one size fits all policy while children are leaving school functionally illiterate and innumerate.

Georgia: Yes, In 2010 20 per cent of kids were leaving school functionally illiterate, and that was after we had increased spending massively relative to previous years.

Sophie: Even featured in the film agrees that this is just not about the money, it’s about the ideas and the culture. You see performance improving massively when you have the right discipline structures and teaching methods compared to other schools when they’ve got exactly the same amount of money.

Georgia: Definitely. In Melanie Phillips book “All Must Have Prizes” from the early nineties, she evidences how the kids being admitted to the top universities for essay-based subjects can’t do basic grammar. She talks about some of the stuff that happened in teaching colleges from like I believe from what, the 60s in terms of like I guess it’s kind of like the Jean-Jacques Rousseau approach is just let the kids run around with it. You know, they’re going to teach us.

One of the things that bothers me the most and that struck home with what you’ve already said today in the documentary is when, you know, you have all these politicians and media elites banging on about how teaching children traditional subjects is terrible and worshipping the comprehensive ethos while making sure their kids are sent to the best schools in the country. What would you say to those people who, in my opinion, patronise working-class families with the idea that we don’t need to learn those things or attend the schools they did?

Sophie: Well, first of all, these people are taking for granted all the knowledge that we have. I’ve never understood people who, for example, went to Oxford or Cambridge, and then talk it down after they’ve lived a life with benefiting from what they’ve learnt and who they’ve met at these institutions. They have their knowledge, and they apparently forget how they acquired it but they simply couldn’t get by without it. And then they say not everyone needs to know these things.

They’re misunderstanding. Why are traditional teacher teaching methods are important? Because it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you’ve not been given certain forms of knowledge. Let’s say you and I are just as smart as each other and I’ve been playing board games all my life, and you don’t even know what a board game is, and then we’re presented with a brand new board game. And because I have a long-term familiarity with board games, and generally know what to expect I am already advantaged. Meanwhile, you’re you’re thinking what does board game even mean? You know, you’ve heard the word before and I’ve got all these processes, content, long term memory. So even though it’s a brand new game for both of us, I’ll be able to approach it far more easily. And I’ll almost definitely win because I know what you do when you’re playing a board game and what’s expected and what’s probably going to have pieces and dice and things like that. #

So these people simply don’t understand the brain, the working memory and the long term memory. They’re both functioning. And if you don’t have a lot of stuff contained to long term memory, you’re working twice as hard as everyone else. Your memory is overwhelmed and you can’t take part in a debate or write an essay or form a sentence or learn new things because your working memory is just overwhelmed. You need to know lots and lots of stuff forming the schema, as it’s called. To draw on when you’re conducting your life, so it’s just it’s a misunderstanding of the brain works and also then that’s why it’s particularly damaging when these progressive teaching methods, as in child-centred learning, learn by doing this over, and the idea that kids are simply innately creative or wise. The reality is that almost anyone who’s achieved anything has a lot of self-contained knowledge to long term memory.

This kind of approach is very worrying and definitely worth fighting against, as progressive teaching methods already permeate he whole system. I’m a libertarian, so I do not want Montessori schools to be closed down. However, I want parents to be able to send their children to whatever schools they want, but I do not want a completely progressive system, which is pretty much where we are at.

Georgia: I think that’s a great insight into how this kind of learning by skills sort of nonsense is really damaging. Let’s say you are studying history, which I did at GCSE and A-level then at University. What happens is, you’re a child and you probably don’t know much about history beyond maybe watching Horrible Histories or documentaries. You arrive at school, you will probably study for an exam on the Second World War and maybe the Cold War. Then for A-level you will do a coursework essay on another topic picked by the school, and a few modules on randomly connected things like American Civil Right, the 19th-century spring of nations and even something as recent as the Tony Blair government. When you leave school or arrive at university, you don’t know anything about the scope of history. You probably don’t know much about anything before the twentieth or the nineteenth century. How can you possibly aspire to be a well-rounded historian or even a history undergraduate, if you don’t understand the massive cultural, economic, political currents that have shaped world civilisations? How can you understand anything?

You could probably ask the average person who graduates from history nowadays: what were the main events that led up to the French Revolution or what were the main components of medieval society? Or ask them anything about ancient history? Guess what? They’re probably not going to know anything because the topics available to history undergraduates are generally as poor as at GCSE and A-level?

We should also mention that the study of Classics essentially does not exist in state schools. If you’re interested in art or you wish to read Shakespeare or Milton, or even twentieth century literature, it is full of classical allusions. The only thing I did in relation to Classics in my schooling was building a playdough Colosseum in year three. You don’t get many Mary Beards out of that kind of schooling.

Sophie: Right, it’s the Montessori way of “Let’s learn just to spell through dance etc”. Everything is madness. You’re not learning anything. You need to sit there, memorise the rote learning teacher-led instruction, which a lot of teachers who are pro discipline and helping poor kids. They were concerned about this for years of studying this, too. I know there’s not as bad an improving a lot with Ofsted, but the problem will just return, of course, and still, System-Wide, which is what my whole documentary team is taking it. When I was making this documentary, a lot of people assumed I was going to be discussing policies and saying we talk about this policy or that policy. Free schools of course had to come into it because that was two of the speakers’ (Toby Young & Katherine Birbalsingh) experience with school policy.

But I deliberately did not want to promote any particular policies because this film was all about taking a step back and saying: it’s not about the money. The main issue is that the system that exists is not providing the right incentives. At the moment, those who are entrusted with the education system and those who are working for the government and in various educational positions, their motivation a lot of the time seems to be propping up the current system and sustaining it and moving around a bit of the policy.

Funnily enough, when I was speaking at the research conference organised by Tom Bennett (who features in the film) someone, rather ironically asked if ethical cost, private schools do take off, will that mean that the bad schools in the local area will be closed if they’re worse than the new one that is set up? But obviously my point is that this would be a good thing because it signals an improvement. You see a lot of the teacher’s unions talk about preserving jobs, but so much money is being squandered on these positions that aren’t working and these broken systems within the already broken system.

Georgia: Absolutely, the reason why private schools are so expensive and elitist is because the barriers to entering the market are so high because of the state monopoly. And of course the reason why grammar schools are so middle class and mostly in the Southeast is because the government got rid of most of them. The poorest are losing out, and education has become a question of post code rather than potential.

“Teaching The Poor to Fail”, Directed & Produced by Sophie Sandor, is available on Vimeo.

You can read the second half of this interview on Monday 1st February.

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