Millions of children in the UK lack the basic technology they need to participate in remote learning.
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A huge effort is underway to get a million laptops delivered to school children who will be forced to learn from home this term, following fresh lockdown measures in the UK.

In December, the Department for Education (DfE) said it would purchase one million laptops and tablets on behalf of the country’s schools to help ensure pupils have adequate means of participating in remote lessons.

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Telecoms providers have also announced a raft of supportive measures, agreeing to work with the government to provide free internet data to disadvantaged school children who are unable to take part in remote lessons.

Yet with lessons having kicked off of Monday this week, many pupils will be starting the school term unable to log into lessons.

Critics have argued that the government has moved too slowly in providing support to the most vulnerable children, noting that under its current plans, some students may not receive any equipment until the end of the school term.

Nick Davies, programme director for UK thinktank the Institute for Government, noted that issues around the allocation of devices had been highlighted in the autumn of last year.

“The question is why the government hasn’t got out ahead of it,” Davies told TechRepublic.

“Obviously the big problem here is that the problem is much worse for poorer students, pupils who don’t have their own equipment, don’t have data, don’t have Wi-Fi or their own room to work in. The government needs to try to get this equipment out to students as quickly as possible.”

Through the government’s Get Help With Technology programme, schools, academy trusts and local authorities can place orders via an internal portal. Based on availability, they can request Windows laptops or tablets, Chromebooks and Apple iPads, which are then distributed to schools and local authorities.

The short window between the government announcing that primary and secondary schools would be closed and the introduction of the UK’s third COVID-19 lockdown meant that some schools faced a mad dash to get laptops and tablets out to students before the first day of term.

Steve Taylor, CEO of the Cabot Learning Federation, a multi-academy trust in Bristol, described how some teachers had been forced to drive around to pupils’ homes to drop off devices before the UK-wide lockdown came into force on Tuesday.

“There is a huge commitment among the sector to try to get the devices out,” he told TechRepublic.

Taylor added that the number of devices currently available and the speed at which schools are able to access them was a particular concern after the government suggested that schools that are not able to provide high-quality remote education would be subject to investigation from the UK’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

“It’s right that the government are prioritizing rolling out technology this time, and I think that the focus on devices is in part thanks to the fact that so many people from so many different corners, like Anne Longfield, have been championing how challenging digital poverty was in the first lockdown, and how it needs to be a fundamental part of the strategic approach to supporting pupils and families through this lockdown,” said Taylor.

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Longfield, England’s children’s commissioner, has called on the government to ensure that vulnerable children who don’t have necessary technology to participate in learning should be immediately prioritized, adding that devices and internet connectivity need to be in place for students “this week”.

She wrote on Twitter: “The alternative is that they are not able to learn, which is just not acceptable.”

On Tuesday, Longfield wrote a blog post that called on the government to publish “a clear plan” on how education would be delivered remotely while schools remained closed over the coming months, adding that “more specific requirements” needed to be put in place to make sure children are properly equipped with the technology needed to engage in classes.

Longfield said that the digital divide among pupils has widened since the introduction of the UK’s first national lockdown in Spring, with many of the most vulnerable students forced to share laptops with other family members or take part in lessons “on a cracked phone screen”.

“A second national closure of schools will see a repeat of all of this, compounding problems that have not been addressed since the first lockdown,” Longfield added.

The Commissioner also published a letter sent to UK education secretary, Gavin Williamson, in which she called on the minister to provide further details “on plans to minimize learning loss during the national lockdown,” in part by ensuring that children “have access to technical equipment and broadband to support remote learning.”

On Tuesday, the DfE announced that it had delivered 560,000 of a total 1,000,000 laptops and tablets to schools through 2020, promising to deliver an additional 100,000 over the course of the first school week.

Williamson said the government is delivering devices “at breakneck speed”, telling the UK Parliament on January 6 that it is on track to have delivered a total of 750,000 devices by the end of the first school week.

Yet there are concerns that the support being offered by the government isn’t enough to support an estimated 1.14m to 1.78 million children in the UK who have no access to a laptop, tablet or desktop computer at home. At the same time, figures from UK media regulator Ofcom estimate that more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection, while its Connected Nations report in December 2020 concluded that around 190,000 UK homes lacked a “decent” broadband connection.

UK mobile network operators Three, Smarty, Virgin Mobile, EE, Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile have signed up to the Department for Education’s Get Help with Technology programme, through which schools and local authorities can request mobile data for children without a fixed connection at home, or who are unable to afford the additional data for devices. The programme also offers 4G wireless routers.

Vodafone also joined the scheme this week, which offers 20GB of free data a month. The operator has already distributed more than 330,000 SIM cards to UK schools as part of its Schools.Connected initiative.

Raspberry Pi announced on Wednesday that it had teamed up with children’s charity Youth UK to provide its computers to 2,000 young people in the country – although noted that this was “a drop in the ocean compared to the size of the problem.”

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Under current plans, the governments aims to have shipped the entirely of its 1.3 million stockpile to pupils by the end of the academic year.

A spokesperson for DfE told TechRepublic that the “vast majority” of secondary schools would receive its allocation of devices by the end of the week, adding that the government would be “systematically delivering devices to primary schools over the next two weeks, with the most disadvantaged areas being prioritized.”

The spokesperson added that schools could also “consider different forms of remote education,” for example “printed resources or textbooks, supplemented with other forms of communication.”

Under current government guidelines, children without a means of accessing remote education can be deemed ‘vulnerable’ and attend school in person – though schools, local authorities and colleges retain “best judgement of which children do not have access to a device or internet connection,” the DfE spokesperson said.

Davies argued that the government’s current system for distributing equipment to children should be reviewed.

“The government has already committed one billion pounds of funding to catch up, which is great and really, really welcome. But the more children who are without laptops or the ability to access remote lessons and the longer that goes on, the more money that is going to be needed to support those children to catch up, and indeed the greater the likelihood is that some children will never entirely catch up,” he said.

“The government is committed to not allowing the educational divide to grow wider during the crisis. If it wants to live up to that commitment, it needs to act quickly.”