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Conflict of Interest? Education Secretary ‘Sponsors’ Private Online Company Providing Free Lockdown Lessons

Sian Norris reports on the multiple ties to the Conservative Party of an online academy critical of “left-wing teaching unions”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Conflict of Interest? Education Secretary ‘Sponsors’ Private Online Company Providing Free Lockdown Lessons

Sian Norris reports on the multiple ties to the Conservative Party of an online academy critical of “left-wing teaching unions”

The ‘sponsorship’ of a private education company providing free online lessons during the Coronavirus pandemic by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson raises questions of a potential conflict of interest, Byline Times can reveal.

Williamson is a sponsor of the Invicta National Academy, which offers free online English and Maths lessons for children to catch up on missed learning during the COVID-19 crisis and was established following the first Coronavirus lockdown last year.

It was incorporated as a community interest company on 3 July 2020 and the Invicta Online Company was incorporated as a limited company in September. 

The Academy is dependent on sponsors to raise money to provide its lessons for free. Those sponsors include Williamson, who before Christmas threatened to take legal action against schools that planned to close to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. 

The Ministerial Code states that ministers should be beyond any appearance of a conflict of interest. Sponsoring a private education company would appear to many reasonable people to be in direct competition with Williamson’s role in charge of state education.

There is no evidence that Williamson has provided the Academy with financial support. Byline Times has contacted him for comment.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon MP is another sponsor. The chair of the Education Select Committee and MP for Harlow, he has described the Academy as an “educational disruptor” doing “extraordinary” work.

They are are joined as sponsors by Laura Trott MP and Damian Collins MP. The latter has consistently voted in favour of increasing schools’ autonomy and academies, while voting to cut financial support for 16 to 18-year-olds in further education. 

Others include Kristy Adams (whose name is spelled ‘Kirsty’ on the Invicta website) who stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in the 2017 General Election. She was linked to a “gay cure” church that sought to drive out “demons” from LGBT people with prayer. 

The Invicta National Academy Sponsors page on the morning of 25 January 2021, accessed via Wayback Machine

The Academy told Byline Times that “supporters” is a more accurate description of the role of its “sponsors”.

“‘Supporters’ is a more accurate description, as this is what they have done… through encouragement and such like,” it said. “A sponsor would imply that money has changed hands or there has been direct intervention… which there has not. All our funding comes from private donations which allows us to deliver free lessons… Invicta is not-for-profit.

“When we approached all MPs including Labour for support, it was only Conservative MPs who responded. We would welcome cross-party support for offering free lessons to children lockdown.”

Up until lunchtime today, the Invicta National Academy website referred to all the people named in this article as “sponsors” not supporters. It also stated that sponsors give “financial support” as well as “public, personal support”. However, after receiving Byline Times’ request for comment, the sponsors page was deleted and replaced with a supporters page listing directors only.

When accessed, the old sponsors page led to an error message although the URL clearly said:

Later this afternoon, Halfon told Byline Times: “I am just an honorary supporter of the Invicta Academy and that has now been corrected on their website.”

The Invicta National Academy sponsors page on the afternoon 25 January 2021

Wider Conservative Links

Both of the Academy’s founders have been critical of schools, which they claim are not offering sufficient live lessons to pupils. They have close ties to the Conservative Party. 

Co-founder and former army veteran Stephen James has been director of digital content for the Kent Conservatives since January 2020 and was an approved parliamentary candidate in the 2019 General Election. He is the founder of Conservative Friends Of Education, which aims to be “a promotor/advocate/campaigner for our key Conservative values of aspiration, opportunity, and compassion”.

Unlike his fellow co-founder, Anna Firth, James does have teaching experience. Firth, whose background is in law, is a Conservative councillor and former parliamentary candidate. She is also a director of the Conservative Policy Forum and attracted some controversy last year when she compared the Coronavirus crisis favourably to the Black Death, for leading to “profound social change and innovation”. 

Firth stood as the Conservatives’ parliamentary candidate for Canterbury in the 2019 General Election, but was defeated by Labour’s Rosie Duffield. Her comments about queues of students at Canterbury polling stations as “not encouraging”, having hoped they would have “taken their vote home for Christmas”, also raised a few eyebrows.

But Conservative support for Invicta extends beyond Westminster’s walls. This includes from councillors Rory Love and Louise Brice, and former councillor candidate and officer of Canterbury Conservative Association Shabana Raman. 

Then there is Liz St Clair Legge, who stood as a Conservative candidate, as did ‘sponsor’ Linden Kemkaran. Sponsor Laurie Glover is also linked to the Conservatives, with a deleted Twitter account indicating membership of the Conservatives Policy Board. Fellow sponsor Caroline Platt campaigned in favour of grammar schools and Georgie Krone campaigned for Brexit. Krone called the Government’s decision to “cave in to demands to close all schools” as “alarming and inexcusable”.

Boris Johnson has also praised the Academy, although a request for £40,000 funding from the Department for Education was declined. 

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