The growing number of school children forced to remain absent due to Covid outbreaks has reignited concerns the nation’s most deprived pupils are being cut off from technology required for home learning.
The latest statistics, published on Tuesday by the Department for Education (DfE), paint a grim portrait of school attendance in the midst of the pandemic – with more than 600,000 pupils off last week.
Teachers and MPs have continually raised fears about poorer children falling behind their classmates without access to laptops and a stable internet connection – worries that are only growing as the autumn term goes on.
One teacher described the situation to HuffPost UK as “an absolute joke” after they discovered how few laptops would be allocated to their school.
“I was fuming, absolutely livid. You can’t keep spouting off about ‘closing the gap’ and then not giving us the tools to actually close the gap,” Chris Dyson, headteacher at Parklands Primary School in Leeds, said.
Last week (November 9 to 13) one in six secondary pupils were not in school during that period due to coronavirus-related reasons. State school attendance across England was 86%, down from 89% the previous week.
Almost two thirds of secondary schools had pupils self isolating, an increase on the previous week, and the proportion of primary schools with pupils self-isolating doubled from 11% to 22%.
In some particularly badly-hit areas such as Hull, a quarter of children have been forced to miss school because of Covid-19, The Guardian reported.
On the Thursday before October half-term, schools were told they had a legal duty to provide immediate access to remote learning for all state-funded pupils. The government had already announced that hundreds of thousands of laptops and other devices would be made available to help them do this.
The next day, headteachers across the country were sent an email by the DfE telling them that 100,000 extra devices had been secured.
Widespread confusion ensued when it transpired that many of the most desperate schools had seen their allowance slashed, a move the government explained as the result of “more effectively” targeting children who might need them.
Chris Dyson, headteacher at Parklands Primary School in Leeds, said his school had worked out that they would need 168 laptops if every pupil were forced to go home.
He told HuffPost UK how he’d been left “fuming” after being told his allowance of 67 laptops from the Department for Education (DfE) – already inadequate for every pupil’s needs – had been downgraded to just 13.
He said: “Thirteen laptops. What an absolute joke. It’s the equivalent of putting a pack of biscuits in a staff room and expecting everyone to have one.
“I was fuming, absolutely livid. You can’t keep spouting off about ‘closing the gap’ and then not giving us the tools to actually close the gap.”
Dyson explained that he had recently been forced to close a small bubble of around 20 students, but still hadn’t been able to access the laptops he needed through the DfE website because the school does not complete the government’s new Covid-19 register every day, which is not mandatory.
He said only around 70% of schools were completing the register as it takes office staff more than an hour to fill out each day. Dyson reported the closure of the bubble to Public Health England (PHE), but said because he didn’t do so through the new register he was prevented from applying for the laptops by an automated message online.
The DfE told HuffPost UK it was untrue that the department had specifically told Dyson that he was unable to apply for the laptops as his school does not use the register, but did not comment on the automated message.
Dyson also said that after turning to Leeds City Council for advice he was told it was “highly unlikely” he would be able to access their supply of laptops unless more than 50% of the school was shut. HuffPost UK has approached the local authority for comment.
“I don’t know anyone who’s getting these laptops yet apart from certain academy trusts, but the most deprived children who need these the most are just not getting them,” Dyson said.
“You look at the brilliant things they’re doing on the Oak Academy [a website offering free teaching and learning resources], but sadly it’s the disadvantaged children who have not got the technology to access it and therefore the gap will just continue to grow.”
In order to overcome the growing gap between children from different backgrounds, Dyson said, teachers gave students in the isolated bubble iPads and laptops owned by the school itself – but if larger bubbles needed to isolate this might not be an option.
He said: “They [the government] are absolutely clueless, they do not understand whatsoever what it’s like to work in a challenging school.
“They sit in a lovely, warm, beautiful office in Whitehall, dictating these brilliant plans, but at the end of the day they don’t give you the ingredients to make the cake.
“They’ve got hundreds of thousands of laptops stuck in a warehouse somewhere that nobody can have access to, when schools like mine are desperate to have access to them.”
More than two months after schools returned, it’s clear that many students are still not able to access the equipment they need.
Labour MP and shadow minister Jess Phillips directly intervened on Monday, urging education secretary Gavin Williamson to help school pupils in her constituency get the laptops they need.
Phillips told HuffPost UK: “Having spoken to all the schools in my constituency almost all have an allocation of computers that will not meet their needs.
“It should never take a local MP kicking off about an individual school with hundreds of kids isolating away from school for computers to be provided.
“There must be a system that ensures that schools can easily and without a fight fulfil their legal duty to offer online education. In the last few weeks thousands of children in my constituency, my own children too, have had long periods out of school.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The scale and speed at which the department has delivered laptops and tablets to children who need them over the past six months is unprecedented, with deliveries now set to total over half a million by Christmas.
“In the context of significant global demand, we have updated our allocation process to more accurately align orders with the number of students schools typically have self-isolating, ensuring as many children as possible benefit from receiving a device this term.
“We have already purchased an additional 96,000 devices and continue to work closely with our suppliers to ensure delivery despite the increased global demand.”