Anna Firth

Conservative MP and Invicta Academy founder

'I am confident that Truss will expand our grammar system'

Anna Firth is a co-founder of the online learning platform Invicta Academy and a member of the education select committee. The Conservative MP tells Jess Staufenberg how her teacher mother inspired her – and why she wants the ban on grammar schools lifted

“And that’s 246 students now, Mr Cole! You can start.”

Teaching assistant Sheila Shah beams out from my screen. Also on this 10am Zoom is maths teacher Walter Cole, a buoyant Australian, who beams back.

“All right! Rock and roll!” he says, before sharing a maths problem. This is an Invicta Academy lesson – the live online platform co-founded during lockdown by Anna Firth. But, the Conservative MP for Southend West, tells me, this summer might be its last.

I think hard about the maths question (see image), which is apparently for years 9 to 11. Cole reveals the answer is 30, which 72 per cent of pupils achieved. Did you get it?

An Invicta Academy maths lesson with teacher Walter Cole

Forty-five minutes later and English lessons begin at 11am, so I drop into years 1 and 2.

Here, teacher Zonaira Khan and teaching assistant Tianna Oti are explaining conjunctions. Oti reads out pupils’ answers from the chat box and Khan enthusiastically keeps the lesson moving along.

The online platform currently has 20 regular teachers and ten teaching assistants on its books. The teachers must hold qualified teacher status and be a secondary subject specialist. The lessons are free and were set up voluntarily by Firth and her co-founder, teacher Stephen James.

Since launching in 2020, the academy has delivered 230,000 live online maths and English lessons to about 20,000 children, according to Firth. It is no small feat.

She seems to have been inspired into action out of pure indignation, while a district councillor in Kent.

“My son was very lucky, he was at a private school. School closed on the Friday, and on Monday he had a full timetable. He had to be at his screen.”

Meanwhile, she was “out delivering food parcels, and parents were tearing their hair out about how they were suddenly stranded and only had worksheets.” She especially remembers one “really depressed” mother.

“I just thought, it can’t be rocket science.”

So during a Zoom with colleagues, Firth began “sounding off” in the chat bar, with James heartily agreeing. Soon she had pledged her skills in fundraising and organising, while James pledged curriculum resources and the technical end.

Firth being sworn in as an MP to the House of Commons on 7 February 2022

Firth soon secured £30,000 from the Henry Oldfield Trust charity; a trustee at Sevenoaks School then donated £10,000. By August 2020 there was £80,000 in the coffers. All of it went towards paying staff and Zoom licences, she says (£30 an hour for teachers and £15 for teaching assistants). So Invicta – which means “invincible” – was born.

It hasn’t been without controversy, though. In January last year the founders were forced to stop describing senior Conservative MPs – including then education secretary Gavin Williamson and education committee chair Robert Halfon – as “sponsors” after comments from James in a newspaper article.

Politicians were instead switched to “supporters” after Halfon intervened.

Firth tells me the “sponsor” tag was a mistake, adding although it “doesn’t necessarily mean finance, it was interpreted that way”.

It came after James had bluntly blamed teaching unions for blocking live lessons in an interview with the Daily Mail, claiming “for every solution, they come up with a problem”.

But Firth is more careful, recognising that staff opposed Williamson’s summer schools suggestion in 2021, for instance, because they were exhausted and needed a holiday.

So is it the resources gap that explains the difference between her son’s experience and state school pupils?

“Resources didn’t explain the difference, no,” she says. “Schools that had the will to innovate got on with it. Sadly that wasn’t the case across the whole sector.”

Firth’s great interest in education follows being “brought up in a school. My mother was a teacher and she was a very big influence in my life.”

Born in Southend, the constituency she now represents, Firth was brought up by her teacher mother Margaret and she was also very close to her godmother, a headteacher. At one point the two women worked in the same school, Grove Wood primary, and a young Firth would play in her mother’s classroom as she set it up.

Firth as a baby with her family in Southend on Sea

She got an early introduction to politics, too.

“I remember in 1979, there was a general election coming that was hugely significant and I was allowed to stay up. The big blue teddy was brought out,” she says with a smile. It was the year of Margaret Thatcher’s election.

Her mother even did a PhD on belief systems within education, interviewing the late Sir David Amess, who held the Southend West seat before Firth, as part of her research.

Firth clearly remembers the MP who was murdered by an Islamist State group terrorist. “Sir David was an absolute legend in Essex,” she says, comparing him with “a prep school headmaster”. “He knew all 70,000 children on his patch.”

Firth, who went to a small private school, studied at Durham and did stints as an investment banker and medical negligence barrister, was enjoying life as a local councillor when everything changed. She was on holiday scuba diving when she heard Amess had been attacked during a constituency surgery.

“We were all praying he would pull through.”

It meant that as she was setting up Invicta, MP friends were telling her to stand for the Conservative candidacy. She was selected from 100 applicants, she believes, and elected in early February this year.

Firth and her brother William in a playground in Southend on Sea in the 1970s

Sadly, she runs her constituency surgeries from Conservative offices in Southend, rather than in community spaces as Amess did – and a security officer searches everybody on entry.

More positively, she has also joined the education select committee and says she “listens hard” to her Labour colleagues. “No one party has a monopoly on good ideas.”

But where she clearly departs from many on the left – and some in her own party – is on grammar schools. As a councillor, she helped get permission from then-education secretary Nicky Morgan for the Weald of Kent Grammar School to open a satellite site in 2015, despite the ban on new grammars. Like prime minister Liz Truss (and despite failing the 11-plus herself), Firth wants the ban lifted.

“I am confident that [Truss] will expand our grammar system, and there is no better template for her to follow than the three brilliant ones we have in Southend West!” she tells me.

It’s a view opposed by most educators as only about 5 per cent of pupils at grammar schools are eligible for free school meals (far below the national average) and evidence shows a wider attainment gap in selective school areas.

Where the sector will agree with her is on funding, however. She makes the powerful point that “health spending will have increased by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2025”.

Firth in her constituency this year

“But we’re only looking at a 3 per cent increase for education over the same period.” She wants to tackle the new government on this.

Incidentally, who did she want to become prime minister? Penny Mordaunt was “the clear frontrunner” in her area, but Firth says she very much supported Truss’s campaign.

Meanwhile, she describes the new education secretary Kit Malthouse as an “extremely talented” minister and says she looks forward to holding him to account.

Aside from school funding, Firth’s other bugbear is that she is struggling to secure long-term cash for Invicta. Oak National Academy has videos that aren’t live, which Firth says is really “no different to going on YouTube”.

Meanwhile the National Tuition Programme is a “schools-based route” that doesn’t address the summer holiday learning loss, or excluded or home-educated children.

But she has so far failed to persuade ministers.

Nick Gibb, a long-serving schools minister, apparently wanted to see “proper impact data” and Robin Walker, another schools minister, was committed to the NTP.

Firth warns: “Unfortunately, unless Invicta does attract serious funding, this will have to be its last summer.”

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