A Tower Hamlets Council survey of local headteachers has found that an estimated 10,000 additional devices are required in the borough to ensure that every child has the IT equipment they require to access schooling from home.
The Prime Minister made the decision to shut schools in England last week for many children, a day after many primary school pupils had already returned for the first day of the new term. Only children of critical workers and vulnerable children and young people can attend school or college in person, with all other pupils and students receiving a remote education.
The Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs and Cllr Danny Hassell have written to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson MP to raise the impact that the lack of equipment is having, and to highlight the difficulties faced by children living in overcrowded accommodation where more than one child has to access learning at the same time. The letter raises concerns that with the level of overcrowding in Tower Hamlets, many children are being disadvantaged by the lack of IT devices provided.
The letter also says that the use of temporary month to month mobile contracts for accessing remote learning ‘simply won’t work in practice’ and argues that providing broadband in homes would have been better in the immediate term but also continued greater access to learning for disadvantaged children post-pandemic.
In November it was revealed that Tower Hamlets Council had secured over 500 more laptops than originally allocated through lobbying for more devices, but more are required to ensure fair access to remote education.
John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “The Government’s failure to provide adequate IT equipment for children learning at home risks undermining the great work that our schools do to narrow attainment gaps. This is a particular concern for families living in overcrowded homes with more than one child needing access to online education.
“We estimate that around 10,000 additional devices are required in Tower Hamlets to ensure that every child has the access they require, and we’re calling on the Education Secretary to address this as a matter of urgency.”
Councillor Danny Hassell, Cabinet Member for Children and Schools, said: “Having suitable IT at home is so important for home learning, and I’m pleased that we’ve been able to work with schools and teachers to distribute equipment to pupils but we need thousands more devices as soon as possible.
“A reliable broadband connection is also vital for home schooling, but so many families simply don’t have this, nor do they have enough devices. We’re calling on the Government to urgently review the way equipment is distributed to consider the needs of households with several children trying to access learning at the same time.”
The letter sent from Mayor Biggs and Cllr Hassell to the Education Secretary:
Dear Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP,
The decision to close schools to most pupils has to go hand in hand with proper support for home schooling and access to adequate IT equipment and connectivity to enable learning.
While we support the closure of schools to most pupils as a way of stopping the spread of Coronavirus we are very concerned about the impact it will have on educational attainment and the additional pressure on parents and pupils who are home schooling and must be supported.
As you will be aware one of the biggest barriers to home schooling is access to adequate IT equipment and a fast and reliable broadband connection. We are asking you to urgently review the way equipment is distributed to consider the needs of households with several children trying to access learning at the same time.
Many families in Tower Hamlets live in overcrowded accommodation, with more than one child needing to access learning simultaneously. Teachers, parents and carers have raised their concerns about children not being able to access the online curriculum due to having to rely on shared devices. It is impossible to access timetabled lessons without a dedicated and suitable personal device. We are concerned that this clearly disadvantages children in our borough and risks undermining the excellent work that our schools pride themselves on in terms of narrowing attainment gaps.
The DfE modelling has used ‘access’ to a device as its sole metric. This is clearly an inadequate measure to facilitate quality learning. It needs to instead consider whether a child can access a personal device and has the necessary broadband access too. The current metric is also flawed as if parents and children all need to work online they may not be able to. This is of particular issue in Tower Hamlets as it has some of the highest levels of overcrowding in the UK.
The pandemic has emphasised that IT is an integral support for learning for all young people and that they all require a personal device to complete homework, research and if necessary work remotely as default part of their educational offer.
Our schools and teachers locally have made great efforts to distribute equipment but we still face a digital divide. We estimate that around 10,000 additional devices are required in our borough to ensure that every child has the access they require.
While we appreciate that the government has tried to mitigate this to some extent by adding those without suitable equipment to the criteria for attending schools in a borough like Tower Hamlets this will push up numbers in schools well beyond what was planned at this time when we need to do what we can to limit contact and protect teaching staff, and there will undoubtably be a stigma around this for those young people.
Aside from the offer for equipment on broadband the offer from DfE of using temporary month to month mobile contracts with limited an 8GB limit simply won’t work in practice and where a family didn’t have any broadband it would have been far better to get it installed in the home. This would be a great legacy in embedding online learning even after the pandemic ends.
You recently said you expect schools to provide between three and five hours teaching a day, depending on the child’s age and that if schools can’t provide this parents should approach Ofsted. We are asking that you give schools the tools they need to deliver this expectation.
A blanket universal entitlement offer is required to address a digital divide which existed before the pandemic and now risks setting back children’s educational attainment.
We look forward to hearing from you.