There are concerns many schools cannot support distance teaching for all their pupils during the third national lockdown, amid a shortage of hardware and WiFi access among some of England’s most disadvantaged students.
During a speech to parliament yesterday, education secretary Gavin Williamson said he would ensure every student could learn and study at home. Children of key workers, and those who do not have access to laptops and WiFi, are still permitted to attend school.
Today, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) Paul Whiteman said an online meeting of 2,000 members revealed widespread concerns about the number of students attending school because they lack access to technology.
According to the NAHT, nearly a third of those headteachers reported having between 20 and 30% of pupils in schools, including many disadvantaged students who did not have access to online lessons at home.
Mr Whiteman told the BBC: “It is critical that key worker child school places are only used when absolutely necessary to truly reduce numbers and spread of the virus.
“We have concern that the government has not supplied enough laptops for all the children without them and so has made lack of internet access vulnerable criteria – only adding to numbers still in school.
“It is important that all vulnerable pupils have access to a school place, but the government must provide laptops and internet access for every pupil that needs one, so that they can access home learning to take some of the strain off the demand for school places.”
Mr Whiteman also revealed that nearly half of headteachers polled said their schools had received fewer than 10% of the laptops requested.
About 9% of children in the UK – between 1.1 million and 1.8 million – do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, according to Ofcom. More than 880,000 of them live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
Yesterday, Mr Williamson said that England’s schools were better equipped to manage the technological requirements of distance working than during the first lockdown.
“Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace. We have purchased more than one million laptops and tablets and have already delivered over 560,000 of these to schools and local authorities, with an extra 100,000 this week alone. By the end of next week, we will have delivered three-quarters of a million devices.
“We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators, to provide free data for key educational sites. We are very grateful to EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodaphone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet,” Mr Williamson said.
“Now, many primary schools and local authorities will all be applying for laptops at the same time; there are bound to be issues with delivery as a consequence”
– Oli Ryan, PlanBee
Sky News reported that the government portal, designed for headteachers to order laptops, did not accept requests after the lockdown announcement. Michael Tidd, headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex, was instructed by the portal to wait to be contacted by the Department for Education.
Independent SAGE member Prof Stephen Reicher said: “We recognise that, given the extent to which infections have been allowed to run out of control, it is now necessary to close schools down. However, it is entirely unacceptable to shut things down without also acting to make schools safe when they reopen, without providing the resources to ensure that all pupils can study remotely, and without developing plans to address the serious harms caused by closure.
“As ever, the government has created a crisis, responded at the last moment with emergency measures but has entirely failed to develop a more comprehensive strategy to deal with the pandemic. This report fills that gap with just such a strategy for schools.”
The National Education Union (NEU) said it was “glad” the government had promised “urgent action on tablets and data support for the remote learning of disadvantaged students”, adding: “It has not gone unnoticed that we have seen months of dither and delay”.
The union noted with the concern that the government estimates meant that the rollout of a million devices would not be reached until “two-thirds of the way through the proposed period of lockdown”. It said it was “galling that this should still remain an issue”.
Former primary school teacher Oli Ryan, who works for education resources platform PlanBee, said the decision to close schools should have been earlier. “Now, many primary schools and local authorities will all be applying for laptops at the same time; there are bound to be issues with delivery as a consequence,” he reflected.
Growing educational inequality was laid bare in new research from the University of Exeter and the London School of Economics, which revealed that students in deprived areas were more likely to miss school in 2020. Its authors warned extended school closures in early 2021 are likely to widen educational inequality.
According to the research, local authority areas with the highest proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals had lower school attendance rates at the end of last year than areas with a low proportion of students entitled to free school meals.
In councils with the highest proportions of pupils entitled to free school meals, it was equivalent to 9.6 missed days. At local authority level, each 10-percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals was associated with an extra 1.4 to 1.8 school days missed per pupil over the course of the autumn term.