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Lockdown 3: ‘digital divide’ keeps pupils in schools

Children without computers can attend lessons under latest coronavirus restrictions

08 January, 2021 — By Helen Chapman

PARENTS whose children do not have computers to work on at home can send them to school during the national lockdown closures – with the change in policy driving up the numbers heading into classrooms.

In the latest sharp illustration of the “digital divide” between families who can afford technology and those who can’t, headteachers have warned that they are still waiting to pass on laptops that the government pledged to provide up to nine months ago.

All schools have been asked to move to remote learning as the coronavirus spreads through the country and Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a stay-at-home order.

Children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable can keep going in for classroom lessons, in line with the last lockdown. They are limited in numbers but could now be joined by classmates who do not have a device at home.

Helen Ryan, headteacher at Duncombe ­Primary School, Upper Holloway, said a third of their parents do not have internet or computer access.

Juliet Benis, headteacher at Ambler Primary School

She said: “We did a parent survey and lots of our families have more than one child so people need another device. We have 180 parents that do not have devices.

“We applied for more online but we have been waiting for nine months.”

She said they have already invited more children who do not have a device to attend school alongside those of key workers or pupils who are considered vulnerable.

Juliet Benis, headteacher at Ambler Primary School, Finsbury Park, said: “The DfE had promised a large amount of devices which was then reduced to a much smaller amount, so my PTA looked to fundraise.”

Labour councillor Gulcin Ozdemi, a parent-governor at Grafton Primary School in Holloway, said: “The government is completely out of touch with what teachers and parents are facing. We have been working so hard to get the DfE to roll out laptops – the impact on pupils has been detrimental. If they cared, they would have handled it differently. We are doing everything we can and are still making bids for devices.”

Three thousand laptops were provided by the government last year but schools say they are still in need of devices. The council say they are also waiting on wifi routers to enable internet access.

Ken Muller of the National Education Union

Ken Muller, spokesperson for the Islington branch of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Teachers and support staff are frustrated at seeing the chaos the government has created at a time when Covid is spreading exponentially and schools are quite clearly a major vector of transmission, even if children are less likely to be affected.”

Over the weekend the NEU recruited 16,000 new members amid growing frustration with the government handling of the coronavirus in schools.

Mr Muller added: “We want schools to be open safely and that requires planning and consultation with people who know what they are doing, and that is teachers and headteachers.

“Instead of marginalising and denigrating them, they should work with them.”

Before Christmas, the council had been sent legal threats from the government after it told schools to end the term one day early, but by the end of the holidays schools in Islington had been told to stay closed anyway.

Richard Watts, the leader of Islington Council, said: “The government’s inconsistent approach to this issue has wasted precious time, and caused more confusion and distress among hard-pressed teachers, pupils and parents.

“At a time of public health crisis, it’s disappointing the government took action to stop councils taking steps to protect public health, only to then adopt similar steps itself.”

Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that half-a-million devices had been given out to schools last year and a further 50,000 went out this week.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that those without access to remote learning could attend school, adding: “Schools are much better prepared to deliver online learning, with the delivery of hundreds of thousands of devices at breakneck speed, data support and high-quality video lessons.”

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, deputy leader of Islington Council and executive member for children, young people and families, said: “Digital inequality is a reality for many of our poorest families and we have worked tirelessly since the first lockdown last March to make home learning workable for them, sourcing around 3,000 laptops so far and rolling them out to schools and families since April.

“We have worked with schools, local charities and business groups, including Islington Giving, The Cripplegate Foundation, Richard Reeves and Arsenal In The Community, in a collective effort to get laptops to the children who need them.

“We know there is still unmet demand and we continue to work with the charitable sector to meet this. Our secondary schools are also starting to receive laptops ordered from the DfE and primary schools are now placing their orders, too. These allocations will be a great help. There are still some gaps, but we are confident that by working together we will fill them as quickly as possible.”

Islington NEU are hosting a meeting on Friday 15 at 5:30pm to discuss how to keep schools safe

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