While this pandemic has put considerable and unprecedented pressure on local institutions, it has also exposed and shed a spotlight on pre-existing inequalities – many of which were hidden from obvious view before the pandemic. Digital exclusion is chief among them.
I find it staggering how limited the Government support for digital learning has been. They have had nine months since the start of the pandemic to tackle the digital divide in children’s learning, yet thousands of pupils are still unable to access online education.
How can the Prime Minister close schools for what will be almost a full academic year and yet not support online education?
In Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, this digital divide runs very deep. During the first lockdown, I worked with the Dons Local Action Group and Keeping Kids Connected to provide laptops to local parents in need of IT support. Thanks to the outstanding work of the volunteers, 1000 laptops have now been repurposed and delivered to local kids. This is a remarkable achievement ensuring that kids have been able to continue learning and stay connected to their school communities throughout 2020.
But although it is a remarkable achievement, the volume of laptops needed speaks to the huge need in communities for digital learning.
That need is still huge. I wrote to local schools recently and their feedback was truly shocking.
One primary school need of at least 47 laptops and 47 wi-fi routers. They were originally told to expect 29 laptops – but that number was then reduced to less than 10. There has been no clarity and not enough laptops and so many parents of that school are in digital poverty.
Two other Primary Schools need 40 laptops each. Two technology Academy’s need 20 laptops each.
Another secondary school has just had an order accepted for 38 laptops, and is also concerned that schools are becoming overwhelmed with requests for such critical worker places to the point where in some schools over 100 children are on site
With digital exclusion existing on this scale, the fact the Prime Minister is now suggesting this situation could go on until summer is shocking.
Many FE colleges are also struggling. FE Colleges have received very little financial support, either for their own online learning initiatives and money for tutors.
Boris Johnson must immediately set out clear plans for every child to return safely to school as soon as possible and be honest with parents about the timetable for this. It is critical that pupils’ education is safeguarded throughout this period of remote learning, and every pupil must be able to access education.
Every pupil must have access to the devices they need to learn, and the government must take action to stop data roaming charges from pricing disadvantaged families out of education.