Leeds councillor and governor with the dream of a comprehensive pupil in the Oxbridge Boat Race

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is a key marker in the annual sports calendar and, for the most part, it remains a preserve of the western world’s elite.

Many of the competitors are students who have spent their lives at the world’s most esteemed educational institutions.

But, hopefully soon, they will compete with a teammate who is a comprehensively-educated student from North-East Leeds.

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At least, that is the hope of Ryan Stephenson – a board member of the Gorse Academies Trust in the city, the shadow cabinet member for education at Leeds Council, and a former Conservative election candidate in Batley and Spen.

Ryan Stephenson, pictured at John Smeaton Academy, Leeds (JPI)

“We hope that we can break the glass ceiling at the moment,” he tells The Yorkshire Post, from an office at the John Smeaton Academy on the eastern fringes of the city.

“If you look at the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, it’s typically occupied by rowers who come from very similar backgrounds.

“Somebody asked me the other day: ‘Can you name a single Olympic rower that comes from a disadvantaged background?’. And I struggled to name one.

“I would hope that when we get to the Olympics in a few years, we’ll be pointing to children from communities like these in Leeds who were one time written off as disadvantaged, and are now able to access great opportunities that were once the preserve of private schools, independent schools and Oxbridge.”

The John Smeaton Academy is a school that was only absorbed into the trust last September.

Mr Stephenson describes it as “at the heart of a community that needs a really good local school as the hub for the community”, but he admits that there is a “big job ahead”.

Rowing is one of the extracurricular enrichment activities available to students across the trust, as opportunities in other academic fields such as music are also expanded.

So, could there be a John Smeaton pupil participating in the 2032 Boat Race?

“That would be my dream,” Mr Stephenson says.

“Schools are places where we come to learn, and hopefully, get a good enough education to allow us to go on into the world and get a decent job and start a family, look after our families and so forth.

“But they are also places where you should be able to have new opportunities and try new things.”

Mr Stephenson says that his interest in education is one that has been with him for a long time, having been intrigued at secondary school by “how the process of education was working around me”.

However, arguably, the last two years in this field have been the most testing in living memory.

Education staff across the country have been subjected to unimaginable pressure over the past two years, as the Covid-19 pandemic emptied classrooms and cancelled exams.

In his roles both as a governor, and wider across Leeds schools in the council, Mr Stephenson has seen first-hand how education has been flipped upside down by home

learning, and how teachers have had to try and put the pieces back together again.

“Right across the city as across the country in schools, we’re seeing real difficulties in maintaining the ability to deliver education as we need to,” Mr Stephenson explains, as isolation requirements continue to impact the workforce.

Since this interview with The Yorkshire Post, the Health Secretary has announced changes to isolation requirements, which should see key workers able to return to their

jobs more quickly after a positive test.

Relationships between teachers and the Government have been strained at times during the pandemic, with concerns about staff safety and exams among the issues that have had to be tackled.

However, Mr Stephenson believes that schools and education could be the key to the Government achieving its flagship levelling up promise that propelled the Conservatives to Number 10 two years ago.

Referring back to the opportunities in sport or music and other activities, Mr Stephenson says ”you might actually pick out a few future stars in all sorts of walks of life, but it’s really important that opportunity matches the aspirations of local people”.

He adds: “I think that’s where it’s really important that if we are going to level up properly across the UK, education is a really good delivery mechanism of that.

“Governments run election to election. And if you’re wanting to prove that you’ve actually levelled up, then you will want the low hanging fruit as a way to prove to somebody that you have levelled up, you know, massive infrastructure projects, free ports, all those kind of things. Education will take time.

“If we’re investing in a Year Seven pupil now, it’s going to be seven or eight years before we see them entering the jobs market and utilising the skills that we’ve provided them with.”

And the process needs to be a "long-term investment”, Mr Stephenson adds.

“The Government needs to keep an eye on that as we level up as well, and not forget that sometimes longer term investments deliver the best rewards.”