Teachers, MPs and campaigners have demanded the government provides the laptops and internet access poorer children need to stop them falling behind their classmates during lockdown.
On Wednesday the Department for Education said pupils without access to the the technology or space needed for home learning could attend school instead, but the plan has been criticised for “trading off” education and safety.
The Labour Party called for a mass roll-out of devices and internet access alongside steps such as “zero-rating” of educational websites, meaning data used while learning would not be deducted from an allowance.
The government pledged in December to provide one million laptops to those who need them. It has said the vast majority of these devices will be delivered to schools and colleges by Easter, which is April 4. Schools are slated to return in mid-February.
Charlotte Beardsley, a sociology teacher from Derby, said students are being let down by the government.
She told HuffPost UK: “The pandemic has ripped open and laid bare just how wide the digital divide is in this country – as thousands of households will be left anxious at the thought of their children having more time away from classroom teaching.
“Education is supposed to level the playing field, a place where meritocracy and talent wins over socio-economic background however in reality this utopia of equality is nothing but a myth.
“Structural issues such as poverty mean many of our disadvantaged and vulnerable students will be let down through no fault of their own. The government pledged laptops would be given to ensure all students could learn at home. You only need to speak to a teacher to find out that this was another empty promise as hundreds of schools found themselves with only a fraction of what was promised if anything at all.”
Further education students are also being affected too.
Edward Anderson, a history lecturer at Northumbria University, said a lot of existing inequalities are reflected in the digital divide – but often in new ways that aren’t always anticipated.
“The digital divide is sometimes presented as a binary: having a device/internet connection which you can use to access online learning, or not,” he told HuffPost UK.
“But it’s often a lot more complex: having a newer or more powerful computer, a faster and more stable internet connection, multiple devices, a device with a camera and functioning microphone, being able to use your computer near to the router, etc.
“A big issue is the quality and stability of the internet connection. It’s often the case that students (and, for that matter, lecturers) who live in rural areas have slower internet connections. It’s also often true that the more you can afford to pay for your internet, and the fewer people who use that connection at the same time, improves the quality of connection.”
Anu Roy, a secondary school English teacher in a highly deprived area of Birmingham, believes that although work done by staff in preparation for the term means small groups could safely come in to learn, it is far from ideal.
She told HuffPost UK: “The issue of digital poverty is particularly complicated when you consider multi-generational households where multiple siblings rely often on only one phone not even a proper laptop.
“This is quite common in the area I teach in. The lack of digital access is very damaging.”
About 9% of children in the UK – between 1.1 million and 1.8 million – do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, according to Ofcom. More than 880,000 of them live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
The watchdog also said around a million children are accessing online learning from a parent’s mobile phone.
Amira Elwakil, is an ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) teacher working with adult migrants, who tell her about the impact digital exclusion is having on their children’s lives.
“When I look at this issue with my students, providing every child with a laptop and reliable internet connection is a solution that is consistently mentioned,” she told HuffPost UK.
“The government is underestimating the scale of the digital divide when it suggests that the solution is now for children impacted to return to school under the current terrifying circumstances. Instead of putting parents in a cruel position where they have to choose between their children’s health and their education, the government should be addressing digital exclusion as a problem that overlaps with class, race and immigration status.
“We know very well that Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and will be disproportionately impacted by digital exclusion too. These responses will only add insult to the injury.”
People have also taken to social media to document the realities of home schooling their children. A father-of-two said: “I’ve deployed my laptop and three iPads for today’s homeschooling of two children. I have no idea how people are coping without such access.”
Another parent tweeted: “As a key worker I can escape home schooling to an extent...but I have 3 children, all different classes, five learning platforms between them and one elderly laptop. Just how this will work is anyone’s guess.”
There are also reports of parents paying their neighbours to use their broadband connection, and HuffPost UK understands some mothers living in Home Office accommodation and not provided with WiFi are having to use expensive data or pay the building up to £20 a month for access – despite having no recourse to public funds.
In 2019, the Labour Party set out plans to deliver fast and free full fibre-broadband for all.
Shadow schools minister Wes Streeting told HuffPost UK: “Labour has been calling for months for government action to ensure all children have the devices and digital access needed to learn online, but ministers have once again been too slow to act. As we enter this third lockdown, the government must now urgently scale up the roll out of mobile dongles and laptops and tablets to ensure children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not priced out of education.”
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: “Far from being a great equaliser, the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the stark inequalities in our society.
“We know that gaps in achievement between the most and least advantaged pupils start early and ministers must not let children from low-income backgrounds fall further behind because they can’t get online to learn at home.
“It’s vital the government ensures schools have the devices and support they need to enable all pupils, including those in low-income households, to make the very best of remote learning.”
On Tuesday, the UK’s professional IT body called for educational websites to be exempt from mobile data charges during the lockdown to help poor families.
While broadband data caps have been removed following negotiation by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and major providers, many families’ internet connections still come via capped mobile services.
Adam Leon Smith, chair of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT’s Software Testing Group said: “We know the digital divide is a modern measure of inequality – so to support technical solutions it is vital that the quality of guided online learning is levelled up between state and private schools – with teachers given the training and support they need to deliver this well.
“Making data free is a small part of that overall strategy, and is unlikely to have long lasting effects without everything else that has to go with it.”
When approached for comment by HuffPost UK, the Department of Education pointed to the pledge made by the government in December to ensure that one million devices will reach schools, colleges and councils to help ensure students have access to “high-quality remote education” if they need it.
On Tuesday, the BBC announced that it is to deliver the biggest education offer in its history across more of its platforms.
It will bring together BBC Two, CBBC, BBC Red Button, BBC iPlayer and online to deliver a new education offer to children, teachers and parents.
Tech Inclusion UK and The Partnership have collaborated to provide devices to children across Tower Hamlets – the borough with the highest rate of child poverty in the country.
A spokesperson said: “We believe more investment is required in technology for education, with a long term plan to provide a one-to-one entitlement of a device per child, which looks beyond “access at home” which is not equivalent to access due to the need to share devices, poor connections, etc.”