Sophie Sandor: Most kids are trapped in schools they wouldn’t choose (Part II)


Georgia: You so often get parents who live in the catchment areas of better-performing state schools or grammar schools praising non-selective education and yet what they are really supporting is a postcode lottery, which is ultimately a financial one. I think everyone remembers the the the whole kerfuffle with Diane Abbott, meanwhile, her and Shami Chakrabarti (who also privately educated her children) have regularly called for private schools to be abolished. Whatever their twisted logic is here, the message regular people received is that these politicians think the current system is good enough for us, but not for them. 

Sophie: Her argument was that she would not have sent him to a private school now, as there have been more schools built in the area since. But she was speaking from Hacknet which is in the middle of London. There are state schools everywhere. What she really meant was that she didn’t want her son attending a run-of-the-mill state school in Hackney that other parents in the area have no choice but to send their kids to.

Georgia: These are generally the same politicians and talking heads that are very keen to bring an end to exclusions. There was a big report in the summer of 2019 And it was basically to go about we must reduce exclusions. But would any of the middle-class civil servants and MPs involved in that report be willing to send their children to a school with a no-exclusion policy, even in the event of the most appalling behaviour?

Sophie: No, precisely. That’s another way in which these people are preserving system. Most kids are trapped in schools they wouldn’t choose while the education establishment makes sure their families are best off. Walter E. Williams, the economist who just passed away, said that ‘In keeping Americans ill-educated, ill-informed and constitutionally ignorant, the education establishment has been the politician’s major and most faithful partner. It is in this sense that American education can be deemed a success.’ The case is much the same in Britain.

Georgia: In the film, you interview Katherine Birbalsingh, the headteacher of a major free school in London. She talks in general about some of the local authority push back against her work to start the school and how there was even a protest in which certain political groups deliberately funnelled in people from outside London because local parents were happy with the development. She even talks about having to hire a bouncer for a parents evening because of the vitriol they were getting for setting up this school, that ultimately was about helping disadvantaged kids.

Do you have any opinion on what motivates that kind of extreme backlash? And what do you think, if anything, can be done about it at this point?

Sophie: They think it is evil. And so about firing to be a beat, you know, these free skills for disadvantaged kids, they realise the importance of high standards. And so they want perfection, discipline and to aspire to do to tell every child that the country is theirs and that they have a claim to it and they can be as successful as anyone else up to in this country and that their history is theirs and that the culture is theirs and that they are going to expect as much of themselves as people to have expected of them. So there’s this idea that the elite is evil. 

Georgia: Do you think the ideology of these schools such is conservative? Or at least perceived as such?

Sophie: It is very conservative, even socially conservative because of their traditional teaching methods, high discipline, absolutely no excuses. They see this ideology as a threat to the education system. And then there’s also embarrassment. There’s an embarrassment I would say because so many of the schools in these areas of London had all the same resources, the same amount of money, and yet their performance ended up paling in comparison (to the free schools set up by Katherine Birbalsingh and Toby Young in Wembley Park and Hammersmith respectively)

Georgia: Are free schools operating on this more ‘traditional’ model the solution?

Sophie: State schools are able to take up buildings first, plus the planning restrictions in this country still make free schools comparatively difficult to set up. Maybe we just need a whole lot of activism to make politicians do it, because every time a new policy set up, new and innovative policies are instituted, they the whole thing just ends up being subsumed into the state. 

We need there to be less regulation so that entrepreneurs can come in and set up schools more easily. James Tooley is one of the only people doing something extremely revolutionary right now with his independent grammar schools in the Northeast. We need to stop making it impossible for entrepreneurs to set up schools.

Georgia: It’s so difficult to push back against that, but I agree that that is probably the most realistic solution.

Sophie: Lockdown is just one demonstration of this issue. If you go to a lower-performing school you’re far less likely to receive any support at home school, which is ridiculous because those children often need the most support. So if you went to a good state school, you were far more likely to get home learning and more of it if you did get it and if you went to private school, you are more likely to get it. So again, there’s this huge mismatch exacerbating inequality in all, the research shows that children are many months behind. 

There was a big Sutton Trust report earlier in the year after the first lockdown, I think its something like two-thirds of kids basically didn’t have any teaching for like weeks and months, which is really shocking. 

Sophie: And of course there was the situation with the A-level grade allocation which was disastrous and totally random. But in many ways, it didn’t surprise me because the exam system itself in the UK is so inefficient and unaccountable.

Georgia: Yes, it’s quite odd how in the UK we do one big set of exams at the end of the year and then wait forever for the results. In so many other countries there are tests all throughout the year and the system is much less centralised.

Sophie: There’s so much literature teacher assessment too, which a lot of the unions are now calling for outright. It’s just not accurate whatsoever.

Georgia: So you studied Law at University and worked with a few different thinktanks. How did you transition from that more ‘academic’ path to getting into filmmaking, and have you faced any barriers in that sort of sphere as a result of your politics?

Sophie: I have definitely faced a lot of difficulties which I want to start talking out about more, but fortunately I have found like-minded people at the National Film Academy, which kind of saved my film career. And now I’m working on those films. 

I have been interested in film since I watched a film called Ned’s Night when I was 15, and it was about to turn my life around because I was deliberately doing badly at school. 

The same time I saw this film, which is a part autobiographical film called Ned by Peter Mullan, the Marxist filmmaker, and he worked with Ken Loach. Loach is Scottish and he got into gang violence in the 70s, but he turned his life around and he went to the University of Glasgow to study the economic. And when I was 15, I didn’t agree with his politics or anything because I was already getting quite political at that point. But I still thought this film in this genre was amazing. I hadn’t like films, television, and it kind of reminded me of what was going through at the time. I just thought, well I can turn things around (because I was on a similar trajectory). Then I got into all of the British social realism directors. I particularly recommend ‘Fish Tank’. all of Ken Loach’s stuff, and of course, Shane Meadows. 

Georgia: I couldn’t really put my finger on the music in the film, but I felt that I recognised it. Was there any reason you picked that music in particular? 

Sophie: The music is by Zuby. In the actual version, there’s going to be a classical rock mixture because I like the contrast between the two of equipment. I always like to use art to have some kind of meaning to the film, which is really not what you should give people. And I just like to create music, the documentary. I like to have, like, some story behind it, and Zuby was probably one of the only people in the music industry who was happy to feature!

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

You can read the first half of this interview here.


Photo Credit.

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