Shabana Raman: It’s time to close the attainment gap by putting power into parents’ hands

30 Aug

Shabana Raman is Director of Mathematics Improvement for the EKC Group, which is a family of six community-based colleges across East Kent. She is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Invicta National Academy CIC.

Who remembers that YouGov poll of 944 Conservative members, showing that 55 per cent believed that Sajid Javid did not look or sound like a typical Conservative? Well, this resonates with me. I often get asked, “Why the Conservative Party? You are an immigrant in this country and they are anti-immigration!”

Secretly, I like being asked this question. It’s an opportunity for me to reiterate the core values of the party and conservatism which have shaped me as a person. I am a member of the party because I am an immigrant.

Being a Conservative means being responsible, hard-working, self-reliant, empowered, living within my means, respect for all, equality of opportunity for all, forward looking and compassionate. It’s my way of giving back to the country that welcomed me with open arms.

Growing up in a large and rather modest family in Mauritius with limited means, I was taught to aim high from a very young age and that education is the most powerful investment tool. I could dream of a better life but to achieve this, I would have to work hard and study – and sadly, sacrifice the latest Nintendo console for books and private tutors.

Today, I realise how fortunate I was to have had the support and guidance of my parents, and I want every child to have the same opportunities.

Hence why, during the first lockdown, I was disheartened to learn that pupils were learning through worksheets and web-based programmes instead of live, online lessons.

Friends shared their concerns over how little their children were doing during the day and how frustrating it was as a working parent to keep up with the numerous tasks set by schools. They were exasperated because they did not know how to help even if they wanted to.

Luckily, somewhere in West Kent, Anna Firth felt the same! Anna saw her son receiving a structured and robust education from his private school and on the other hand, her friend’s daughter, a grammar school pupil, was learning through worksheets and no teachers’ input. She felt so strongly about this that she decided to set up a free online school for pupils aged 7-15 years across Kent.

When I joined the team last year, there was no money or source of funding, no teachers and of course, no registered students. But we had a vision and under Anna’s leadership, we all rose to the challenge. A year on, as the Chair of the Board of Trustees, I am in awe of what the Invicta National Academy has achieved.

Thanks to generous donations and support from the Harry Oldfield Trust and other grants, such as the 2021 KCC Reconnect programme and an outstanding team of dedicated volunteers, the Invicta National Academy is now in its second year.

Last year, we delivered just under 40,000 pupil lessons over a five-week period to around 3,500 children around the UK. This year, under the leadership of Anna Firth and Caroline Platt, we are on track to deliver 85,000 pupil lessons over the same period to around 6,000 children around the UK – possibly far more, as we know some community groups are broadcasting our lessons to whole classes of children.

Bookings have also far outstripped last year. We now have over 122,000 lessons booked, over 5,500 every single day, compared to around 50,000 at the same time last year with no more than 2,500 booked for any one day.

This makes the academy, the largest online provider of FREE LIVE lessons of the country. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Laura Trott, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks, acknowledged our achievements in the House of Commons last Autumn. Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists called the team, “Educational heroes”!

This pandemic has undoubtedly brought to the surface the cracks in our education system. It has also exacerbated educational inequalities between the private and the public sector. The recent GCSE and A-levels results simply reiterated this disparity.

So, we must act fast! We must innovate to support our teaching professionals. It is time to close the attainment gap by putting power into parents’ hands, through a live, government-funded, out-of-school, teaching provision.

A free online academy using Invicta’s model, will not only help close the attainment gap but will also help with the disparity, providing a fair education system, serving pupils from all backgrounds. Invicta National Academy has contributed enormously towards levelling up education over the past two years and we need the support of the government to continue the job.

Our research has shown us that parents like and engage well with online learning because it is more convenient and flexible than traditional school-based learning. It is already well established that children with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores.

We know that parents are keen to support additional, out-of-school, supplementary education. The increasing reliance on expensive private tutors is worrying – a double-edged sword, helping wealthiest pupils succeed and further marginalising those whose parents cannot afford high tutoring fees. Like my parents, many are doing their best, despite financial constraints but there is still a large proportion of parents who cannot afford such exorbitant fees.

Therefore, we must seize this opportunity to invest in and modernise our education system to ensure that every child is treated equally and have the same opportunities. We need our first live, universal, free, interactive provision, accessible to every child, out of school. My professional experience has taught me that pre-recorded lessons are not the way forward. Pupils need engagement and interaction with their teachers and classmates to boost their academic progress and mental health.

As well as closing the existing education gap, a national online academy would be a backup provision in case the pandemic resurges. It would also ensure consistent access to qualified teachers delivering high quality lessons for the growing number of home schoolers, those without a suitable school placement and adults.

Margaret Thatcher said, “The younger generation doesn’t want equality and regimentation, but opportunity to shape their world while showing compassion to those in real need.”

Let’s work together to support parents inculcate in their children a positive attitude towards education and those vital core conservative values – like our parents did for us – so that they can grow up to be compassionate, hardworking and forward-looking adults, who can shape tomorrow’s Great Britain!