Why getting laptops to Yorkshire children must be a priority during third lockdown
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The Government is facing calls to ensure children can learn remotely after Boris Johnson announced that schools would close for the vast majority of young people around the country.
Former premier Tony Blair and three ex-education secretaries are among those who have written to the Prime Minister calling on him to act regarding shortages of remote learning equipment and accessibility.
Charities, unions and current MPs have also co-signed the letter with ex-Cabinet ministers in a bid to highlight the issue as controversy continues over how many schools should be closed.
Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, said the Government needed to treat pupils without laptops and access to sufficient technology as a priority.
Ms Longfield, who is from West Yorkshire, told BBC Radio 4's Today: "There is no doubt that remote learning and a large amount of time out of school has a very negative impact on children.
"Remote learning now needs to be a high priority for the Government and we need a plan around that to ensure there is consistency in what schools are able to offer but also that tech issue.
"A lot of pupils still don't have laptops. They are surviving on broken phones - those children now need to be seen as a priority to get into the classroom and deemed to be a vulnerable child.
"There is also the issue of the cost of data, and I think this is something that tech companies and broadband companies really need to step up to now."
On exams, she said: "We're looking at moving to teacher-assessed grades again, even if they are alongside some form of exams, but really having the moderation that wasn't there last year to give confidence."
Fiona Spellman, the Leeds-based chief executive of northern education charity SHINE said that to learn well from home children need "reliable access to the internet on an appropriate device; a quality curriculum offer from their teachers; and regular conversations about learning with their parents or carers".
She said: "Current estimates show that 1.78 million children lack access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet and the government’s ambitions on this are woefully inadequate. Fixing the digital divide is only one part of the equation though: to deliver quality learning outcomes, parents and teachers have a crucial role to play.
"We must invest in people as well as physical equipment and enable both teachers and parents to access support in delivering remote learning most effectively. Just as any business would upskill and train its staff in the event of such a seismic change, so too must we invest in the skills and confidence of our educators to help them meet the scale of the challenges they face.
"Remote learning will remain a feature of our education system long after the pandemic subsides. If we can invest in the skills of teachers and parents now this will pay dividends long into the future."
In Leeds, the leader of a new tech project says closing schools without having sorted equipment for learning at home will be "ruinous" for some of the city's most disadvantaged children.
Before Christmas, and in the aftermath of the second national lockdown in November, Ben McKenna started a scheme called Leeds Tech Angels after it became apparent how many children in Leeds and West Yorkshire did not have internet access or the devices to be able to learn at home.
He made an appeal for companies and individuals to donate unwanted, unused and surplus equipment, from laptops to dongles, that could be re-purposed and allocated to youngsters that don't have access to a computer at home.
However, demand is outpacing supply and already yesterday morning he took six referrals in addition to a further 25 over the last two weeks.
He fears this will not be met, as the Government last night announced a third national lockdown and ordered schools to close, as well as the cost of technology equipment rising due to demand and issues with supply and import of equipment due to the country's EU exit.
Mr McKenna said: "I definitely expect there to be a surge in demand. My daughter is at home and absolutely gutted about schools closing, and she has the tech that she needs, but she’s very disappointed. I can only imagine it will be harder for kids that don’t have access to equipment and want to progress educationally and make the best of their lives. Having access to tech equipment is hugely important. It’s a lifeline to education because what is the alternative? It is a lifeline for anybody trying to take education seriously. It is awful for them to be stuck in this situation."
Despite the Department for Education announcing that it was in the process of delivering 100,000 laptops to schools over this week, Mr McKenna and others have said it should have been done earlier.
He added: "There will be a spike in demand now, we’ve already seen more requests come in since it was announced, but this could have been sorted between sending them back to school in September and now. It is back to square one. This is where we were in March 2020 and now it is January 2021.It is going to be ruinous for some of these kids, both educationally and for their mental health. There will be damage to kids’ education, and the saddest bit is the kids that don’t have tech will suffer the most."