Labour has urged the government to take action to ensure all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have access to education during the UK’s pandemic lockdown.
Labour MPs Chi Onwurah and Wes Streeting wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson and digital secretary Oliver Dowden to outline some of the ways the government could help young people access “excellent online education” while saying at home to reduce the spread of Covid-19, including ensuring children who are unable to access the internet are provided with connectivity, and making people available to help with technical support if needed.
The call comes as the UK’s various lockdowns have forced children to learn from home, many of whom won’t have access to the internet or devices needed to enable home schooling.
Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow schools minister, said: “The government has 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. If ministers do not urgently adopt Labour’s proposals, the digital divide in access to education risks failing a generation.”
Not everyone in the UK has the luxury of access to digital devices or the internet – recent studies from Ofcom found that around 43,000 homes in the UK cannot access good quality fixed broadband service or 4G coverage.
When schools were originally told to switch to online learning during the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, the government began issuing devices to children who needed them for home schooling, and has said up to one million devices will be provided to children by spring this year.
The government also launched Get Help with Technology resources in 2020 to help schools claim laptops and internet access for disadvantages students, get support for setting up digital learning provisions, apply for funding to set up a digital education platform, and access training to deploy and use technology.
To ensure as many children have access to education as possible, Labour advised the government to give devices to every child who needs one, to use the Get Help with Technology programme to ensure every child has internet access, and to establish a “minimum contact time” between schools and pupils to ensure children are receiving guidance.
Labour also suggested ensuring there are people available to identify the need for and provide technical support and to “zero rate” websites used for education so that people are not charged for the data used when accessing educational resources.
Abolishing data charges for education-related sites or giving families a higher data allowance could help people from under-privileged backgrounds to access school resources – Ofcom found that 7% of UK households rely on mobile data for internet access.
Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow digital minister, said: “Labour has continually warned about the dangers of the digital divide which risks leaving so many children and young people behind. The government has yet again failed to deliver on digital provision for those who need it most.”
While it shone a light on resources available to help people in the UK use digital to access school and work while at work, industry body TechUK also pointed out there is more to be done to close the UK’s digital divide, claiming it would be working alongside government, the tech sector and education providers to do so.
During a statement to the House of Commons, prime minister Boris Johnson outlined some of the government’s work to provide young people with devices for remote learning. He claimed 560,000 laptops and tablets were provided to pupils in 2020, a further 50,000 were delivered to schools on 4 January 2021, and more than 100,000 would be deployed in total during the first week of term.
Johnson thanked the BBC for providing educational resources to primary and secondary school children, and mobile operators for providing free mobile data to disadvantaged families to allow them to access online learning.
“I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all the teachers, all the pupils and parents who are now making the rapid move to remote learning, and we will do everything possible to support that process,” he added.