Linden Kemkaran is a writer, broadcaster and was the Conservative candidate for Bradford East in 2019.
In just three short weeks, a group of parents and teachers from Kent has achieved what most schools struggled to do in four months of lockdown: create from scratch, a free, daily, online, live, fully interactive tuition service for children aged six to 16, accessible via laptop, phone or tablet.
It’s not designed to get children ahead, its purpose is simply to plug the gaps in the core subjects and go over work that our children would have been doing, had they been at school.
Our aim is to use the next five weeks to get them ready and confident for September. It’s called the pop-up Invicta Summer Academy and we’ve tried our darndest to reach those children who need it the most. On our first day, Monday of this week, we educated 1199 children and on day two, 1250 joined our live lessons.
We did it without any help from government, local or national, and we built everything from scratch including our website and social media presence.
During the 21-day planning phase we’ve been meeting regularly via WhatsApp and Zoom while simultaneously working our day jobs either full or part-time, and juggling childcare; some of the team have used up precious annual leave. The level of hard graft and commitment from the founders and team members has been nothing short of extraordinary.
We raised funds, recruited a team of volunteers that included Zoom and tech experts, project managers, barristers, teachers, journalists and community champions, and set about organising timetables, and writing press releases.
We began with a simple idea and now, at the start of the first week of live lessons, we are totally over-subscribed – our scheduled 20,000 spaces went within days of our booking page going live – and are turning away desperate parents on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
Wanting to educate hearts as well as minds, we are also running a weekly Wednesday “aim high” live showcase session featuring stars such as Lizzy Yarnold, the double Olympic champion, and, Mark Sargeant, the Michelin-starred chef, to encourage kids to ask questions and never give up on their dreams.
Even after extending our lesson capacity to 25,000, 600 parents are currently on our Zoom waiting list. The fact that a very ordinary, if hardworking, bunch of local people has pulled this off from a standing start, begs the question, why wasn’t this level of interactivity and learning happening anyway?
It all started in mid-June with a simple conversation over a socially-distanced cuppa in my friend Anna Firth’s garden. She told me how every weekday morning during lockdown, her privately-educated son had been up, dressed and at his desk at 8.20am for registration, followed by Zoom assembly, and a stringent timetable of live, interactive lessons in all his key subjects.
My jaw dropped as she described how his PE teachers even held competitive sports sessions against other schools using Zoom. Anna had naturally assumed, until she observed my gaping mouth, that all other children had been doing much the same.
I then saw on Facebook an end-of-term post from a teacher friend of mine, about how her fee-paying school had successfully completed its final Zoom lesson of a full timetable including end of term exams, and a parents’ evening, and how teachers and students alike were now anticipating a well-earned rest over the holidays.
All this was worlds apart from the lockdown experience of my grammar school daughter, and many of her state-educated peers, almost all of whom had been without a rigorous daily school structure and had had little or no live interaction with teaching staff.
I realised that since schools shut in March, I had been watching my daughter slowly lose all motivation and it was clear that she was finding it harder and harder to just get up every morning due to the complete lack of interactivity with her school and such low expectations that had been set.
A Year nine student, she would typically receive an email on a Monday morning, containing a list of tasks to be done, some with no deadlines, and others to be emailed back but which were frustratingly, hardly ever marked.
For the first two-and-a-half-months of lockdown there were no live lessons at all and when some were introduced, it was a one-way street in terms of visual interaction due to a bizarre “safeguarding” policy that I still fail to understand; on screen the child may see the teacher, but the teacher is not permitted to see the child, and the children can’t see each other.
I know that child safeguarding is really, really important and to that end we have put in place strict guidelines in our pop-up academy to pre-empt any issues. However, I still cannot get my head around the fact that from the age of four, my daughter has been physically present at a school, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, in the sole care of teachers.
These teachers, of which there have been many over the years, have been competently and cheerfully in loco parentis while I have sometimes been geographically miles, if not continents away from my daughter due to work commitments.
I simply don’t get how it is suddenly a safeguarding issue for the same trusted teachers to interact with her via a webcam for the duration of a virtual school lesson – with her parents physically in the next door room.
I poured all my frustration out to Anna Firth who shared it via a Zoom chat, with a formidable primary school teacher called Stephen James. Between the two of them they said, “we can do something about this”, and so they did and our little team was duly formed.
Our pop-up summer academy is now being rolled out in four other locations: Oxford, London, Lancashire and Surrey and I’ve just taken a call from a friend in Hampshire who wants to set up there.
The feedback so far from re-engaged pupils has been that “the lessons are fun” and parents are genuinely scratching their heads and asking why on earth their own schools, with a team of paid teachers and a ready-made register of pupils, haven’t been doing this all along.
I personally suspect that politics has played a much bigger part in this sorry episode than it should have done and there have been a number of powerful hands working the levers of the various teaching unions, attempting to disrupt Downing Street’s plans as much as possible. If state-schooled children lost out during the process, it doesn’t seem to have bothered them in the slightest.
Education is the surest way to lift children out of poverty and it seems grossly unfair that those who need the most help, have received the least during the Covid crisis. Our attempt in Kent to put this right is a start, and we hope that others will follow our lead and try to close the gap where they live too.
Shockingly, the Department of Education warns that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to the pandemic and a poll by YouGov found that 51 per cent of teachers had pupils who had “dropped out of education altogether” during lockdown.
What’s the betting that these are the kids for whom a decent education is their one shot at a chance of a better life?