Siobhain McDonagh urges Boris Johnson to address digital divide among pupils

Sienna Rodgers

Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh has urged Boris Johnson to address the digital divide that could hold back many pupils despite remote education being compulsory while coronavirus prevents some schools from reopening.

With secondary schools in England reopening on a staggered basis and the planned reopening of primary schools next week being postponed in many Tier 4 areas, millions of children will be set to receive distance education.

But McDonagh is raising concerns that the remote learning of some students will be affected by them not having the devices or internet connection necessary for logging in at home, which is likely to set them back.

The MP for Mitcham and Morden has organised a letter about the digital divide to be sent to Boris Johnson. It has been signed by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Education Secretaries, experts and dozens of MPs.

It cites the estimate by Ofcom that between 1.14 and 1.78 million children in the UK – 9% – have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and says over 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.

The Labour MP has pointed out that pupils may benefit from the government distribution of laptops, which she says has been “nowhere near enough”, but devices will only be useable for those with data or an internet connection.

Commenting on the letter, which refers to the Oak National Academy online hub, McDonagh said: “The internet has been a lifeline through the lockdowns, keeping us connected at a time when we have been forced apart.

“But children on the wrong side of the digital divide have neither the data nor the devices to log in from home when their schools close. In a country with free state education, no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.”

The letter welcomes the development of the Oak Academy in response to coronavirus crisis restrictions, but describes it as “inaccessible” to some pupils and says it “must be freely available to every pupil in every school”.

Below is the full text of the letter to Boris Johnson.

Dear Prime Minister,

RE: School closures and remote education

We write to you following the news that school will be closed for millions of pupils for the opening weeks of the new term. At the time of writing, all secondary school pupils in England and more than one million primary school pupils will be reliant on remote learning to continue their education.

In October, the law changed to require teachers to provide remote education to pupils who are unable to attend school because of Covid-19. But the lockdown exposed the digital divide across the UK, with approximately 9% of children without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom estimate the number to be up to an extraordinary 1.78 million children.

So, whilst we welcome the remote education support offered to schools by the Government, the number of devices pledged falls far short of the number required. Furthermore, a device is only effective for remote learning if the pupil can access the internet at home, with 880,000 children living in a household with only a mobile internet connection in addition to those children on the wrong side of the digital divide with no connection at all.

These pupils were likely to be behind their peers even before the pandemic. After five months of missed education, they returned to school further behind and now start that new year facing weeks of even more missed education.

Whilst we welcome the development of the online Oak Academy, we recognise that it remains inaccessible to all those pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide and it is fundamental that no child’s education is dependent on their internet connection. In a country with free state education, the Oak Academy must be freely available to every pupil in every school.

With the new term starting today, we are calling on you to urgently ensure that every child away from school has the data and device that they need to log in and learn from home. This will require a register of which children are without the technology or connectivity and a clear plan for how they will quickly receive this.

We ask your response as a matter of urgency.

Yours sincerely,

Siobhain McDonagh MP

CC: Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Education
Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for Schools

Co-signed:
Rt Hon Tony Blair, Former Prime Minister
Rt Hon Baroness Primarolo, Former Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families
Rt Hon Lord Blunkett, Former Secretary of State for Education and Employment
Rt Hon Alan Johnson, Former Secretary of State for Education and Skills
Rt Hon Baroness Morris of Yardley, Former Secretary of State for Education and Skills
Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Former Minister for Schools
Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MP, Former Minister of State for Children
Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary, NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union
Child Poverty Action Group
Sutton Trust
Sarah Atkinson, CEO, The Social Mobility Foundation
Liz Williams, CEO, FutureDotNow
Sharon Davies, Chief Executive Young Enterprise
Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho CBE
Baroness Tyler of Enfield, Co-Chair APPG for Children and APPG for Social Mobility Baroness Massey of Darwen, Vice-Chair APPG for Children
Keith Sonnet, Chief Executive, Computer Aid
Jaine Stannard, School Home Support
Barry Matthews, Founder, Social Mobility Business Partnership
September for Schools Working Group
Jonny Shipp, Founder OneLaptop.org
Professor Thom Brooks, Dean & Professor of Law and Government Durham University Inigo Woolf, CEO of the London Diocesan Board for Schools
Debbie Abrahams MP
Paula Barker MP
Apsana Begum MP
Clive Betts MP
Ian Byrne MP
Liam Byrne MP
Dan Carden MP
Rosie Cooper MP
Daisy Cooper MP
Peter Dowd MP
Julie Elliott MP
Mary Foy MP
Andrew Gwynne MP
Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP
Mike Hill MP
Rachel Hopkins MP
Dan Jarvis MP
Kim Johnson MP
Dame Diana Johnson MP
Darren Jones MP
Barbara Keeley MP
Emma Lewell-Buck MP
Caroline Lucas MP
Rt Hon Pat McFadden MP
Catherine McKinnell MP
Ian Mearns MP
Navendu Mishra MP
Layla Moran MP
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
Virendra Sharma MP
Andrew Slaughter MP
Derek Twigg MP
Munira Wilson MP
Mohammad Yasin MP

More from LabourList