United Kingdom

Ex-soldier gives free lessons to 1,000 pupils per day as he slams teaching unions

A soldier who fought in Afghanistan before becoming a teacher is providing live online lessons for more than 1,000 children a day after he was appalled at the quality of remote teaching by state schools during lockdown.

Stephen James, 37, a former lance corporal in the Intelligence Corps, is co-founder of the Invicta National Academy, which offers free live English and maths lessons for children aged between six and 16.

Many of the parents of the children who log in for the lessons are unhappy with the pre-recorded lessons or worksheets provided by their own schools. At least 15 state schools have directed their pupils to Invicta's live lessons, rather than providing their own.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson last week told MPs that 'live' education was the 'best way' to deliver online teaching.

Stephen James, 37, a former lance corporal in the Intelligence Corps, is co-founder of the Invicta National Academy, which offers free live English and maths lessons for children aged between six and 16 

But an alarming survey by the Sutton Trust, an education charity, found that only half of state school teachers are providing such lessons during this lockdown, compared with 86 per cent in private schools.

Mr James last night railed against the Left-wing teaching unions, which he accused of discouraging members from offering live lessons.

'The unions are basically saying 'do not live teach', and they are not for it because they see it as extra workload for teachers,' he said.

'It just seems that for every solution, they come up with a problem, which is a real shame. The profession deserves better than the unions.'

Mr James fought in Afghanistan

The father-of-two from Folkestone, Kent, set up the virtual school with Anna Firth, a Tory district councillor, over the summer.

The pair were shocked at how few state schools were offering any live lessons. In contrast, Mrs Firth's son Piers, who attends the £6,730- a-term King's Rochester school on a music scholarship, was receiving four or five live lessons a day.

Invicta has a national network of about 80 qualified teachers who take it in turns to provide online lessons after raising £100,000 from donors. Five different maths lessons, for various age groups, start every day at 10am. At 11am there are five different English lessons. In the afternoon, children can log in for a 25-minute story session.

Class sizes can be large. About 250 Year 3 and Year 4 children regularly log in for individual lessons. While pupils cannot interrupt during lessons, they can send messages to a teaching assistant, who alerts the teacher if they do not understand something or would like a recap.

Online education is a world away from Mr James's former Army career, which included two tours of Afghanistan. In 2009, he had the task of identifying Taliban bomb-making networks.

Invicta's data shows that children from 1,294 different schools across the UK have logged in, with at least 15 head teachers encouraging their pupils to use the live lessons. Mr James said he was happy to help, but he is frustrated more state schools are not offering live lessons.

Tamara Brooks, 51, from London, whose nine-year-old son uses Invicta, said: 'He does maths and the English every morning, and although they are big classes it is very well managed and he feels challenged.'

Despite Invicta receiving a letter from Boris Johnson in September praising its efforts, it has only enough funding to continue free lessons until February half-term.

Earlier this month, Mrs Firth and Mr James met Schools Minister Nick Gibb and appealed for £40,000 – but were rebuffed. They believe the Department for Education is wedded to the Oak National Academy, which offers recorded lessons and won £4.3 million of funding last year.

'The Government should be funding this for every child,' Mrs Firth said. 'The Secretary of State has said every child deserves the best remote teaching – this is the best teaching.'

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