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Education secretary Gavin Williamson has been told to “get a grip” as the scale of the government’s failure to deliver laptops promised to disadvantaged youngsters is laid bare in new figures.
Figures obtained by the Children’s Commissioner for England, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, shows the chaotic rollout of the scheme left some 27 academy trusts with just one device each.
In April, Williamson pledged the government would fund devices for children on free school meals in Year 10, as well as for vulnerable pupils with social workers and care leavers.
But, despite some 540,000 pupils being eligible for the scheme, just 220,000 laptops were delivered to schools by August, the data shows, meaning a second lockdown could be disastrous for youngsters’ education.
Using special data gathering powers for public bodies, the Commissioner’s office has discovered a third of academy trusts received fewer than 10 laptops for their Year 10 students.
Turning to councils, which usually serve a larger number of schools, 20 local authorities had fewer than 500 laptops allocated, and there were five councils with fewer than 200.
Overall, there were only enough devices for seven in 10 disadvantaged Year 10s - the group of students beginning to study for next year’s GCSEs.
Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst, said one primary schoolteacher had estimated 70% did not have adequate internet access but that the school had been allocated just three laptops.
She added that for the scheme to have provided laptops to seven in 10 disadvantaged children in all other year groups, it would have needed an additional 940,000 laptops.
“During this pandemic, proper access to the internet is not a luxury for children having to learn at home, it is a necessity,” she said. “While this scheme was very welcome, we know that many disadvantaged children have missed out.
“The government needs to ensure that all children are able to access education in the coming weeks and months, hopefully in school, but also remotely if that becomes their only option.”
On the threat to children’s education from a second lockdown, Vibert added it was “critical that more laptops are ordered” now.
She said: “Similar to the Nightingale hospitals, a sign of success would be if not all of them are eventually needed.
“And the decision to order more devices must be taken without delay. As the initial lockdown showed, the challenges of the global supply chain for devices mean that orders take time to be fulfilled. Now is the time to learn lessons from the initial stages of lockdown and get ahead.”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green, meanwhile, told HuffPost UK: “Yet again government incompetence has let down our young people.
“Ministers boasted that they would get laptops and routers to disadvantaged young people who needed them for their studies but now thousands of children are paying the price for Tory failure.
“Every young person should have the resources they need to learn. It is time for ministers to get a grip and give children the support they need.”
The Department for Education (DfE) said it would be providing schools with a further 150,000 laptops to disadvantaged children this autumn.
It comes as the A-Levels results crisis threatens to engulf the government.
Williamson is under pressure to resign government forced into a major U-turn to back teacher-predicted grades after computer modelled results saw almost 40% downgraded and poorest children hardest-hit.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We continue to do all we can to make sure no-one is left behind as a result of coronavirus through targeted support for children who need it most, providing over £100m to support children to learn at home, including delivery of over 200,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged and vulnerable children who need them most.
“For disadvantaged children whose education is disrupted in Autumn term, we are initially providing an additional 150,000 laptops and tablets to schools, who will be best placed to pass these on to children who need them.
“Children will be returning to school full time in September and we have invested £1bn in a Covid catch-up fund which will also provide one-on-one and small group tutoring for disadvantaged pupils.”