Pupils in England who have no access to laptops are designated as “vulnerable children”, the Department for Education has said, meaning they can continue to turn up at school for face-to-face learning during lockdown.
The DfE guidance raises questions about whether schools will have the capacity to teach the more than a million children who fall into this category, when they have been told to restrict teaching for at least six weeks as part of efforts to control surging coronavirus cases.
It also came as a surprise to the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, who learned of the guidance after she had called for pupils to be designated vulnerable if remote learning equipment could not be provided to them. Sources at Longfield’s office questioned why the DfE had made no effort to publicise it.
In comments on Tuesday, Longfield had said: “Those children who haven’t got the tech should be offered a priority place in school from Monday.” She also called on companies to provide free data capacity for children and families at a time of “emergency”.
A few hours later that day, a DfE spokesperson said students who do not have a device could continue to attend school, pointing to a page on the gov.uk website that said such children were classified as vulnerable.
When asked when that guidance was published, the DfE spokesperson said they would not able to able to establish that until the following day. On Wednesday, the spokesperson said the guidance had been in place since September.
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.
Three UK, which has an 11% market share of mobile subscriptions in the UK, said on Tuesday that it would provide unlimited data upgrades to disadvantaged schoolchildren in England until the end of the school year in July, amid pressure on others to do the same.
The digital divide in England hits poorer pupils hardest, with research by the educational charity Teach First suggesting four of five schools with the poorest pupils do not have enough devices and internet access to ensure all those self-isolating can keep learning.
Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First, said: “Access to high-quality education has always been unequal. But whilst trying to learn from home, the gap between children from wealthier homes and their poorer peers is greatly exacerbated.”
More than 560,000 devices were delivered to schools and councils last year, according to the DfE. It announced before Christmas that it had bought 440,000 more.
Nevertheless, schools such as St Ambrose Barlow Roman Catholic high school in Salford are still struggling. It said it had so far received just 75 laptops for a school of more than 1,000 pupils, where at least 40% don’t have their own device. “Very few of our pupils have no devices at all at home, but you often have families of five with one laptop and everybody needing to get online,” said the school’s head, Ben Davis.
To plug the gap, the school has prioritised year 11 pupils, and gave out “30 or 40” laptops to that cohort on Tuesday. But the autumn term was a struggle, with 56% of pupils off self-isolating at some point during the new school year.
In Oldham, a headteacher said pupils with no broadband at home during the first lockdown last year rode trams all day to make use of free wifi. Glyn Potts, head of Newman Roman Catholic college in Oldham, added that his school had this week received 138 laptops from the central government scheme to add to the 34 they received last year – nine months after making the original request for 237.
There were reports elsewhere of 13-year-old pupils submitting schoolwork at midnight because that was the only time they could use the sole computer or smartphone in their home, according to Claire Garside, of the Leeds-based volunteer group Digital Access West Yorkshire.
“Every headteacher has told us they’re short of devices. Due to the DfE criteria, headteachers applied for these devices knowing that it wasn’t going to be enough for the children that they know need access,” said Garside.
Aside from the shortage of hardware, ministers and telecoms companies faced calls to remove punitive mobile data costs. BCS, the chartered institute for IT professionals, said the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should negotiate with mobile data providers to apply a “zero-rating” for educational websites in the same way they apply to online NHS resources.
“Many low-income families rely on mobile data for internet access, and the average data allowance is much lower. Schools would need to confirm details of the sites they need, but these can be agreed and refined over time,” said Adam Leon Smith, chair of BCS.
The DfE drew criticism by posting a photo on Instagram of a warehouse containing some of the 50,000 laptops and tablets due to have been delivered to schools this week.
Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP who coordinated a letter in which MPs, unions and charities called on Boris Johnson to take action to help “children on the wrong side of the digital divide”, said of the photo: “It beggars belief that the government would celebrate distributing devices almost a year after schools first closed and to just a fraction of the pupils who need them.”