Free laptops: DfE rhetoric at odds with reality in schools over lockdown devices for poorest students

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As a DfE press notice trumpets the number of laptops it has now acquired to support remote learning, research reveals that almost a year into the pandemic only one in five schools have been able to supply devices to all pupils who need one. Pete Henshaw reports

A Department for Education (DfE) press release trumpeting the acquisition of 300,000 more laptops and tablets to support remote education has landed badly with teaching professionals.

While the government has now delivered 702,000 laptops and tablets to schools since the pandemic began, the general view is that implementation of the programme has been slow and the number of devices available remains inadequate.

This was supported by a research briefing from charity the Sutton Trust this week, which revealed that in the first week of the January lockdown only 10 per cent of teachers said that all their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning.

Furthermore, the research, which involved 6,200 teachers and 1,500 school leaders, reports that only one in five heads (18 per cent) say they have been able to supply devices to all of their pupils who have needed one. In the most deprived schools, 56 per cent report they have not been able to help half or more of their pupils who needed devices. This compares with 39 per cent at the most affluent state schools.

And 32 per cent of teachers from the most deprived schools said that more than one in five of their students lacked devices.

According to figures from Ofcom, 1.78 million children do not have access to a laptop or computer at home (this is nine per cent of all households with children). This figure does not take into account those without sole access to a device. Furthermore, 559,000 children have no internet access at all and 913,000 are only able to access the internet through a mobile network.

This compares to the DfE’s laptops programme, which by the end of 2020 had delivered 560,000 devices to schools and local authorities. This figure had risen to 702,000 by January 11.

A DfE press statement on Tuesday (January 12) announced that a further 300,000 devices would take the total number of laptops and tablets for disadvantaged students to 1.3 million. The DfE says it has invested £400m so far.

The statement said: “The additional devices will support schools and colleges across England, with top-ups to their original allocation, offering further support to disadvantaged children. Device allocations have been made with the aim of prioritising those most in need. Schools being able to order even more devices, should they require them, will allow for more devices for these children if needed.”

However, the statement does not detail when the 300,000 devices will be delivered or whether the DfE intends to deliver devices to all 1.78 million pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) was quick to point out that this announcement comes almost a year after the pandemic began.

General secretary Geoff Barton said: “While we welcome the extra laptops and tablets announced, it is pretty poor that nearly a year after this crisis began we are only now inching up to the number of devices that are needed.

“The reality is that this extra provision is coming when we are already well into the new lockdown and after a heavily disrupted autumn term in which many children had to self-isolate in line with coronavirus protocols.

“The government was slow off the mark to address the digital divide early in the crisis and is now trying to make up for lost time.”

The National Education Union (NEU) branded the failure of the laptops programme a “stain on the government's record”. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, added: “The immense disruption in autumn half term, with so many absent from school due to self-isolation … was a clear warning that the education secretary needed to properly build the groundwork for a continuity and equity of education for all students. But the warning went unheeded, and in Gavin Williamson's recent announcements on laptop and data roll-out it is abundantly clear he is still weeks away from anything like an adequate response.”

Schools are still angry at the DfE’s decision, quietly pushed out before the autumn half-term, to restrict access to the laptop scheme. The move meant that schools could only claim about 20 per cent of their allocation, with one academy trust seeing its allocation drop from 465 to 55 devices.

The Sutton Trust research finds that last term, 66 per cent of senior leaders in state schools reported needing to source IT equipment for disadvantaged pupils themselves while waiting for government support.

Mr Courtney added: "Schools have been kept waiting for equipment that has been promised to them throughout the pandemic, with last-minute delays, changes or retractions of the kit they need becoming an alarmingly normalised response from the DfE. It is surely a no-brainer that schools should be compensated for having to plug the gaps, which are entirely due to governmental sloth."

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “As soon as schools were closed back in March, it was clear that the digital divide was going to have a huge impact on poorer pupils. Those without access to a laptop and a good internet connection have already lost valuable learning, which could damage their chances in life for years to come. Quite simply, it would be a tragedy if we let this happen again.

“But as our new research shows, the picture has barely changed. Despite the heroic efforts of teachers, many pupils still face being left behind because of digital poverty. The government has made some positive steps but they must go further and faster to ensure that every child has the resources they need to learn while schools remain closed.”

The lack of enough devices for all pupils who need them is particularly frustrating for schools given that the government legislated last term to make remote education provision mandatory.

The DfE states that “the remote education provided by schools should be equivalent in length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school and will include both recorded or live direct teaching time, and time for pupils to complete tasks and assignments independently”.

The minimum standard, according to the DfE, is three hours a day at key stage 1, four hours a day at key stage 2, and five hours a day at key stages 3 and 4.

This week, the DfE has also published a voluntary remote education framework to support schools and colleges. The framework is aimed at helping schools “to identify the strengths and areas for improvement in the lessons and teaching they provide remotely”.

Elsewhere, the DfE is working with the UK’s leading mobile network operators to enable schools to secure free uplifts in data for disadvantaged families. The scheme can request free mobile data uplifts for disadvantaged families, via the DfE website, with the level of additional data varying by provider. Schools can also request 4G wireless routers where children need to access remote education – around 55,000 have been provided to schools since the pandemic began.

This follows the news that the Oak National Academy government-funded online school is to work with mobile operators Vodafone, 02, Three and EE to make access to the site free for mobile users. In addition, BT and EE customers will be able to access BBC Bitesize resources for free from the end of January.


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