Published: 13:42, 26 January 2021
| Updated: 14:10, 26 January 2021
The co-founder of an online teaching school has expressed his frustration at backlash from a story published about the project in the national press.
Stephen James, who launched Invicta Academy in 2020 along with Sevenoaks Conservative councillor Anna Firth, was the focus of a Mail on Sunday feature about the online teaching resource, which offers free maths and English lessons to children aged six to 16.
In the piece Mr James, who lives in Folkestone, criticised teaching unions, who he said were discouraging union members from offering live lessons to pupils.
But soon after being published, the academy began to face questions around funding and its relationship with government ministers.
A list of ‘sponsors’ on the Invicta Academy site included Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins and South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay.
Prior to a change in the site the list was prefaced with the following: “Listed below are the individuals who have given significant public, personal and financial support for the initial set up of the Invicta Academy.”
Following questions over the involvement of the Education Secretary, the list was updated to instead use the phrase ‘supporters’ with an additional list below of people who had donated to the project.
As reported in Schools Week, Mr Williamson had clarified his involvement with the academy in September - that he had praised Invicta’s work but did not have any ‘further involvement’ with Invicta Academy.
There is also no link to Invicta Academy in the Education Secretary’s register of interests - a requirement under the ministerial code.
Speaking to KentOnline, Mr James confirmed that Mr Williamson has no monetary link to the project: “There is no financial involvement, which is why we changed the word from ‘sponsor’ to ‘supporter’.
“Certainly none of the members of Parliament have given us money, none of the ministers have given us any money - other than their support, be that moral support, praise, encouragement.
“No money has changed hands, we’re still a community interest company (CIC) and both Anna and I are working for free."
“Certainly none of the members of Parliament have given us money, none of the ministers have given us any money..."
He clarified that the original list had been written to highlight those who had given personal support as well as monetary donations, but was not meant to signify that every person on the list had given the project financial support.
Mr James said the use of the phrase ‘sponsor’ had been blown out of proportion by people who wished to ‘politicise’ the goal of the project.
He said: “The disappointing thing for us is people are arguing about the semantics of the words sponsor and supporter, when the reality of it is 1,000 children every day are getting a free education.
“If you want to go down the route of the semantics of the word, a sponsor is also somebody who gives encouragement and supports something.
"If you have a bill going through Parliament for example you need a sponsor. They’re not financially contributing towards that piece of legislation, it’s just a word used for somebody that’s supporting something.”
“We’re doing something really positive which is giving free lessons to children every single day.
“If people want to politicise it and undermine what is a positive endeavour, then that’s their business - I think that says more about them than it does about people doing something good for their community.”
Mr James left his job as a teacher at Sandgate Primary School in September to work on the Invicta Academy project full time.
He is also a founder of the Conservative Friends of Education group and the deputy chair of Folkestone and Hythe Conservatives.
Amidst the backlash, a number of people on Twitter accused Mr James of politicising education himself - both he and Mrs Firth are Conservatives, and all MPs listed as ’sponsors’ before, and now ‘supporters’, are Conservative MPs.
But he played down the Tory links. “In terms of politicising it that’s not our intention, it’s just they’re the people in the position to deliver that message," he said.
“If we track back to last summer we had Labour councillors supporting us in London, we had a Lib Dem councillor supporting us in Oxford. The politics don’t matter to them because ultimately you’re helping children, and it’s a shame when politics are brought into everything as a motivating factor.”
Conservative county councillor Rory Love defended the Academy, saying that it fulfilled an important role and he had been happy to donate part of his member's grant to it.
He said: "I think it is serving a really important role to help get some kind of live education during a time when things are not looking good for children and for education. I know there are are those in the teaching unions who are not quite as favourable to the idea of live lessons. Obviously it is not going to work for everyone, we know that there are limitations to the whole concept of online learning but I think what the Invicta Academy is doing is really important, to ensure some kind of live teaching.
"I don't see it as trying to promote the reopening of schools. It is an important contribution to some kind of solution, which might not work for everyone but it's a help."
The academy currently delivers lessons to around 1,000 pupils, 97% of whom are in state schools and 3% which are believed to be home schooled.