An estimated 9% of families in the UK do not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. This digital divide is not new, but during the Covid-19 crisis its implications have been particularly stark. A good quality device (or more than one) and reliable internet connection have made all the difference for many children, allowing them to play games, keep in touch with friends and have fun. Perhaps most significantly, it has enabled children to continue to access school work, whether through dedicated video lessons designed and delivered by the most conscientious schools, or through fantastic new public resources such as the Oak National Academy and BBC Bitesize. Access to the internet has also enabled children in care to keep in touch with social workers at a time when many in-person visits dropped off.
Given the importance of internet access during this time, the Government’s announcement of a free laptops scheme in April was very welcome. The £100 million package was to fund laptops and 4G wireless routers to be sent to vulnerable pupils with social workers, care leavers and disadvantaged year 10s. These devices have made all the difference to the children who were able to benefit from the scheme.
However there were just 200,000 devices and 50,000 routers up for grabs. This compares to the 540,000 children in groups currently eligible for the scheme, meaning that only 37% of these could be allocated a device. Some of these children will already have had a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, but often this will be poor quality, and/or shared between an entire family. Having access to a device is not the same as having enough access.
Furthermore, there are children which the scheme did not target whose needs has been overlooked. This includes disadvantaged children in every year group apart from year 10 – around 1.34 million children, on the basis of those eligible for free school meals. Ofcom estimate that between 1.14m and 1.78m children in total in the UK have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, meaning that the scheme only targeted between roughly a third and a half of children who definitely needed one. The scheme provided laptops to 7 in 10 disadvantaged year 10s. For it to have provided laptops to 7 in 10 disadvantaged children in all other year groups, it would have needed an additional 940,000 laptops.
The Children’s Commissioner’s Office used its data gathering powers to obtain breakdowns of how many laptops trusts and local authorities received. This data shows that a third of trusts received fewer than 10 laptops for all of their year 10s, and 27 received just a single device. One secondary school told us that their allocation was only enough for about half of the pupils in the year group who they knew actually needed one. A primary school headteacher who contacted us estimated that 70% of her pupils lacked adequate internet access but that only three received devices. In the words of another headteacher, the scheme offered “too little, too late”.
It is important not to overstate the merits of remote education. Children usually learn best in the classroom. It is of paramount importance that all children get back to school as soon as possible, and we support the Government’s drive and ambition to achieve this.
Nevertheless, it is likely that remote education will continue to play an important role in the next academic year. Local flare ups in the virus transmission rate may lead to unavoidable school closures, of the type seen in Leicester. On a smaller scale, individual children, classes or year groups may be required to self-isolate for a time if they or their peers develop symptoms.
The Government has announced that the laptop scheme will be extended next term to provide more laptops to schools for children in years 3 to 11 whose education is disrupted. The announcement of the extension of the scheme is very good to see, along with the widening of eligibility beyond year 10 and children with social workers. But the Department for Education is initially making just 150,000 additional laptops available. This may well prove to be insufficient. If in the recent Leicester lockdown the Department had decided to provide 70% of all children on free school meals with a laptop to help them continue to learn from home (excluding the year 10s already given one), it would have needed over 7,300 laptops to do so. If it happened in Birmingham, over 40,000 laptops would be needed.
Any child who is not allowed to attend school and doesn’t have sufficient digital access at home must be given the equipment they need to continue their education. It is critical that more laptops are ordered. Similar to the Nightingale hospitals, a sign of success would be if not all of them are eventually needed. And the decision to order more devices must be taken without delay. As the initial lockdown showed, the challenges of the global supply chain for devices mean that orders take time to be fulfilled. Now is the time to learn lessons from the initial stages of lockdown and get ahead.
Every teacher knows that giving a child a laptop is not enough to get results. They also need proper support to make the best possible use of it. Schools need to take very seriously the message from Government that their remote education offer needs to be of the highest quality from September. During the initial stages of lockdown practice was extremely varied, with some schools doing little to check in with pupils and their families at home while others offered a full timetable via video calling facilities. If remote learning is to continue in the next academic year, there should be more accountability for schools to ensure that children are getting the right support.
It is a silver lining that during this time the education profession has accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge about how to make the best use of technology to support children to learn, both in and out of the classroom. Once the immediate crisis is over, these lessons should be captured and a strategy is put in place to invest in effective online infrastructures and high quality training for all children and staff.
Particularly during this pandemic, proper access to the internet is not a luxury, but a necessity. It is the same as not having a book or a pen and must be recognised as such. The Government needs to ensure that all children are able to access education in the coming weeks and months, hopefully in school, but remotely if need be.