On 29 April I wrote to the Secretaries of State for Culture and Education about the urgent need for a Government strategy to eliminate digital exclusion, especially for children who cannot access vital educational resources, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Dear Secretaries of State,
I write to you both about the need for a Government strategy to eliminate digital exclusion, beginning with urgent action during this Coronavirus lockdown.
I do not believe the public will find it acceptable that as many as a million children are without either an internet-capable device, or reliable connectivity, or both, during this lockdown. This will, without a doubt, be denying these children access to the educational resources that all other children are able to make use of.
Life during lockdown without reliable broadband access or internet-capable devices multiplies the isolation we have all experienced many times over. Locally, we have had fantastic new online services made available over the past weeks. This includes not only educational services for children at school, but online mental health therapies, hugely expanded virtual GPs surgeries, and more. But all of this is entirely out of reach for families who don’t have reliable access to the internet within their own homes.
Newham has the second highest child poverty rate in the country, with 52% of our children in poverty. Despite this serious disadvantage, our fantastic schools and parents who consistently focus their limited energy and resources on their children have been able to enable excellent results. You will know that even an interruption of a few months to the progress of disadvantaged children can do very long-lasting damage.
The reality is that no amount of parental encouragement or diligence by teachers can enable a child to progress in line with their peers if they don’t have digital skills or if they simply can’t afford the cost of an internet-capable device, broadband access, or subsequent energy costs. The hit to family incomes from this crisis has been significant and it is concentrated on families who were on lower incomes, in insecure work, and who had very little savings already. I believe this will further increase the scale of digital exclusion in my constituency unless serious action is taken now.
Many parents locally only have pay as you go data packages, not only as a result of the cost, but in many cases also because a poor credit score or a lack of documentation, prevents them from accessing a more flexible, dependable and cost-effective contract. These packages do not provide reliable access to enough data for their children to use them for learning. The rate of homelessness in temporary accommodation and the prevalence of insecure private renting in Newham, both of which mean that families have to move regularly, also contribute to the large number of families without a broadband connection or indeed a home phone line locally.
Many families are also struggling to maintain and update laptops, help their children to learn how to use educational materials, and intervene to keep their children safe from inappropriate content while they are online. Support by teachers for these parents is essential, and this needs to form part of the Government’s strategy.
There are local charities who provide access to devices, including Skills Enterprise, which I understand is taking COVID referrals. However, it is clear that the means and reach of such charities are and will remain very limited.
I would be grateful for an update on the roll out plan and the timetable for when the existing scheme to provide free laptops and routers to some homes will be in place, and how these resources will be distributed among the very large number of families who are in need. I would also be grateful for information about any plans you have to provide additional training and resources to teachers in deprived areas to enable them to set up effective online lessons. You may be aware that recent research by the Sutton Trust has found that teachers in schools with the highest proportions of pupils with Free School Meals status are the least likely to say they can provide online learning.
I have heard early reports from primary schools locally that younger children with secondary school age siblings are not getting enough access to devices to learn effectively. In practice, just one device may not be enough for larger families to enable all their children to engage fully with virtual learning in the way that we need.
I am concerned that the Government schemes that have been announced so far will not be wide enough in scale or scope to reach all of the families that are in need of support to stop their children falling disastrously behind as a result of their digital disadvantage.
I believe that a fully-funded Government strategy is required that would aim to leave no child behind. I would urge you to work through schools in the first instance. I am sure you would agree that teachers are best placed to rapidly identify and support the families that need access and help them with the essential digital skills they need, or ensure that an appropriate free or minimal-cost broadband service is provided for them. This must be backed by investment on the scale required, otherwise teachers or other hard-pressed workers will be placed in the position of having to deny access to children who desperately need it.
I would also urge you to begin making plans now for what happens if children are able to return to schools in large numbers within the next two months. As we know, there is a very serious risk of a second wave of COVID-19 infections even if and when the current outbreak is fully controlled. A return to school, however brief, would provide an opportunity for children and parents to be better prepared for a return to mass remote education during any second wave, and this is an opportunity that our schools need to be prepared in advance to seize as and when it appears.
Member of Parliament for West Ham