We must end the rich-poor tech divide to help deprived children

Seema Malhotra

Today marks the start of a new school term. As it stands, this term will be one in which the most deprived school children fall behind their peers, with severe consequences for their futures. As lessons and learning move online, it is children in the poorest households who stand to pay the highest price.

We knew we had to do something about this issue two weeks ago. That’s when secondary school headteachers in Hounslow told me that they were having to courier schoolwork to the homes of children who did not have access to a computer or the internet. A phone round of heads suggested an initial estimate of around 1,000 secondary school children in Hounslow were similarly affected. This doesn’t even include children who are now competing to use the home computer with siblings or parents who are working from home. Nor does it include primary school children.

Many of these children would have been able to stay longer after school to use computers or go to the local library. The first key issue we faced is that computers, particularly in bulk in the current climate, are really difficult to come by, and they are expensive. That’s why local education charity Hounslow’s Promise, set up with Cranford Community College, has teamed up with the Hounslow Education Partnership consortium of headteachers to launch ConnectingKids@Home. The project has been covered by Sky News and BBC.

Computers, iPads and laptops are being donated by local people and businesses, reset and reimaged to get kids connected at home. The project is backed by Hounslow Council and the Hounslow Chamber of Commerce. Initial feedback has been amazing, and on Friday it was incredible to be at Springwest Academy in Feltham to see the first computers brought in by our volunteers.

Every computer donated that helps a child go online safely and access their online school classroom is a child who will do better. But in this, , which Forbes highlighted two weeks ago. Findings by the Sutton Trust published today come as no surprise. The research shows that 15% of teachers in the most deprived schools – compared to just 2% in the most affluent state schools – said more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device at home. 12% also thought that more than a third of their students would not have adequate internet access.

The second key issue we face is low-cost connectivity. Market prices simply aren’t affordable. For an estimated 500 children we need to help in Hounslow, even an estimate of £20 a month for five months to September would be £100 a child – around £50,000 in total. Even if schools are able to return for part of the summer term, home-schooling is likely to be part of our system for some time to come.

One solution to the connectivity issue for families without broadband is for the government to negotiate temporary schemes with telecoms companies. These would provide free or low-cost broadband for five months to households in which children currently have no internet access. This would enable them to download online learning materials and watch their school lessons. It would be a very targeted programme.

This isn’t just about homework. It’s about regular schoolwork and access to the online classroom and resources. Once children fall behind, it can be really difficult to catch up. With schools unable to reopen at present, the situation is all the more serious. This is an unsettling time for children, and it would be a huge benefit and easily achievable for tech firms and broadband suppliers to help children stay connected to their school and their friends. Not only will it support their learning, but it will positively impact their confidence and wellbeing.

I welcome the government’s announcement that laptops or tablets will be provided for some Year 10 students, and that 4G routers will be offered to families without mobile or broadband internet. But our work shows that the scale of the challenge in helping children who need support now is huge. The government also has yet to say how many laptops will be provided and how quickly access can be guaranteed.

The need is much wider than those in Year 10, and so far there is no broader plan. I am deeply concerned about those tens of thousands of pupils we will see fall well behind as they look to potentially four months of schooling at home. It’s a stark contrast to the strong stand taken against unauthorised absence on the basis of its potential impact on a child’s education.

What the government has announced is a start, but it’s not anywhere near the scale we need. Government and industry need to step up and help now. It’s achievable – and affordable for large telecoms companies. The alternative is that many more children in poor households will not just fall behind now, but may carry the consequences with them for years to come, and the country will pay the price.

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