Education secretary deems aspects of remote learning an ‘unqualified success’, while many schools still lack government device allocations

Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, addressed the Education Policy Institute yesterday (26 January 2021), to discuss the impact of the pandemic-induced shift to remote learning

In an address to the Education Policy Institute (EPI) at yesterday’s Apple-hosted event (26 January), education secretary Gavin Williamson deemed some “consequences of remote learning”  an “unqualified success”, stating that “we have become so used to looking at the negative effects of the pandemic [that] we have lost sight of the more positive aspects and how it has changed life for the better”.

After lauding the power of technology for “helping us navigate a way through this global health crisis”, and congratulating teachers and school leaders “who have worked so hard and so fast to transfer their curriculum into a series of lessons and materials that can be applied remotely as well as in the classroom”, Mr Williamson urged school leaders that they are “not alone in adjusting to this”, adding that schools can get “free support at Get Help with Remote Education on the website”.

Here, said Williamson, educators can access an “online ‘one-stop-shop'” for the latest updates and information, as well as “free access to digital education platforms and devices”.

But while the education secretary championed one of the “world’s largest hardware shopping expeditions”, in which the government have “purchased an additional 1.3 million devices” to support the nation’s disadvantaged students, his address failed to mention that schools across the UK have still not received the devices they’ve been promised.

An Ofcom survey from the start of the pandemic in 2020 found that almost one in 10 British families – including up to 1.8 million children – had no computer or tablet at home, and up to 900,000 children only had internet access via an unreliable mobile network.

With digital inequality disproportionately affecting the most disadvantaged students, Williamson first announced a government scheme to provide devices to support home learning in April 2020, but with just one week to go until schools were set to reopen after the UK’s first lockdown on 15 June, The Guardian reported that more than half (54%) of secondary school leaders were yet to receive a single device.

“It would have been quicker to have the funds and buy them ourselves. It is absolutely vital we are able to use these laptops with pupils to try to level the field,” Matthew Shanks, deputy chief executive of the multi-academy trust Education South West told The Guardian last year.

In other news: COVID-19 drives considerable growth in demand for MOOCs

He added: “If the vast majority of learning is accessed online, it is not surprising that children whose parents are able to go out and buy them a device will succeed more than a child who has to access all learning from a phone or shared device.”

In yesterday’s speech, Williamson claimed that the Department for Education (DfE) had “delivered an additional 800,000 laptops and tablets and nearly 240,000 have gone out to schools since the start of this month”. However, reports from educators across the country paint a very different picture, with many institutions finding that government-pledged devices have not been delivered quickly or effectively enough.

“At the moment some schools do not have the capacity to be able to take in vulnerable children who have no internet access at home” – Helen Davey, headteacher, Willow Tree Primary School

On 8 January, Leeds Live reported that “frustrated” headteachers across Yorkshire feared that disadvantaged children would be forced to attend school during lockdown, denouncing the government’s laptop rollout initiative as a “disaster”.

“We will send out as many devices to our pupils as we can but it’s not enough,” said Helen Davey, headteacher of Willow Tree Primary School in Harrogate, who claimed she has only received 11 of the 57 devices she had ordered.

“We’re currently using our own supply and that’s not just for pupils, that for other things as well.

“At the moment some schools do not have the capacity to be able to take in vulnerable children who have no internet access at home.

“We can’t have classes of 30. That would be pointless when we have been told to lockdown.”

Similar stories can be heard across the UK: in Oldham and Greater Manchester, for example, news platform InYourArea has joined forces with the Manchester Evening News to support the Greater Manchester Tech Fund, since many schools across the region still have not received their promised device allocation and, even when they do, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which manages the fund, estimates that some 20,000 young people will still be without the data, devices or digital access needed to take part in remote learning.

In an article published yesterday (26 January), Jason Gillman, teacher at Fairfield High School in Bristol, told Tes: “”In order to tackle the problem of a lack of devices, Fairfield Parent Network created a fundraiser and advertised furiously through social media. Now that a chunk of money has been raised (initially we had the target of £5,000 but we currently have a running total of £6,000), we are now liaising with the IT department and senior leaders to work out exactly how many laptops are required in order to eradicate digital poverty completely at the school.”

Now, PM Boris Johnson is under pressure to offer clarity as to whether schools will fully reopen by Easter, after concerns surrounding the damage lockdowns and subsequent school closures have caused to the current student generation were elevated on Monday (25 January) this week.

Williamson is facing mounting criticism from the UK media and the public at large, with The Telegraph yesterday calling him a “class clown” after he failed to address an urgent question regarding the escalating school closure row, with schools minister Nick Gibb being sent to parliament in his place; and “lampooning” social media posts consistently calling for him to resign.

Despite the education secretary’s failure to turn up to the House of Commons Debate, the PM states that he “has not lost faith in Gavin Williamson”.

Click here to read the full transcript of Gavin Wiliamson’s speech.

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