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Remote Education: Self-isolating Pupils

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

In just 36 hours, schools will be legally required to provide online lessons to all pupils self-isolating because of coronavirus. In theory, that is a sensible suggestion to ensure that no parent has to choose between the health and education of their child, but in practice, and in the shadow of the digital divide, it is the latest of the Department for Education’s ill-thought-through pandemic proposals that have pushed the patience of our hard-working teachers to its limit.

I will reveal the horrifying extent of the digital divide across our country, consider the practical constraints that need to be urgently overcome for teachers to provide online learning, and offer a solution to the Minister following the Government’s woefully inadequate approach in advance of the new requirements. I will begin with lockdown, however.

My journey into the digital divide started in March, following a conversation with Debbie, an amazing health visitor in my constituency who had just visited temporary accommodation for 86 homeless families. Lockdown presented challenges for all of us, but spare a thought for those families in cramped rooms with no outside space and, as Debbie pointed out, no internet connection.

It is indisputable how vital the internet has been for us all in this time, unlocking the chance to remain in contact with loved ones, to take part in online exercise classes and to work and learn from home, despite the closure of offices and schools, but that lifeline was not available to all. The lockdown exposed the digital divide across the UK, with 11% of the population without home internet access and an estimated 9% of children without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom estimates that the number affected could be as many as an extraordinary 1.78 million children in the UK.

While the Government promoted their investment in the online Oak National Academy, let us be clear that no number of online lessons could benefit those children who were unable to login from home. That was not the fault of their schools. The pandemic presented the most testing environment for teaching. I have lost count of the extraordinary examples of teachers going above and beyond for their pupils. Their dedication should be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. Some schools, such as the outstanding Ursuline High School attended by many of my constituents, showed that they were already at the forefront of technology; every pupil was given a tablet and received six lessons a day from home. If the pupils were not logged in by 9 am, the school was on to the parents right away.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. Education, as she has just said, is so important. I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place, and we will be looking for an exceptional response from him. Does she not agree that, especially with children facing exams after losing months this year, it is vital that they have access to learning at home if put into isolation? Every hour of teaching is necessary and, further, it is imperative that the Government make additional resources available to help staff teach remotely as needed.

I completely agree with the hon. Member. I am not sure whether he is aware that a quarter of children on free school meals did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day during lockdown. Staggering data from the Children’s Commissioner indicates that more than 58% of primary and just under half of secondary school pupils were being provided with no online lessons whatever. There can be no doubt: those children who could not access the same resources as their classmates will have returned to school even further behind. It is fundamental that they catch up.

Those of us who recognise the problem did not idly stand by. While the Government struggled to source and distribute data and devices, extraordinary charitable efforts in so many of our constituencies secured laptops, tablets and sim cards to ensure that children had the chance to stay connected. I am personally grateful to Lycamobile, eBay, Three, Craig Russell and all at Tesco Mobile, my local Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the simply brilliant Dons local action group for their extraordinary generosity in providing data and hundreds of devices to children in my constituency. I commend the impressive pledges made by BT and Three to keep many of the most vulnerable families connected. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) is particularly grateful to an extraordinary councillor in his borough—Councillor Beverley Momenabadi—for her tireless work in securing devices for her residents.

I thank my hon. Friend for her amazing work on this most crucial of issues and join her in praising the excellent work of Councillor Beverley Momenabadi, who is the innovation digital champion for Wolverhampton. Her survey of pupils and schools has shown that at five primary schools in the city, over half of pupils had no access to a wi-fi connection at home, and pupils at many other schools lacked a suitable device with which to study online. With some 400,000 pupils being sent home because of covid cases being identified in their school, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to ensure that children have access to a wi-fi connection, as well as the laptops and other hardware they need, to stop this situation exacerbating the educational inequality that already exists?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend.

I thank all those charitable efforts during lockdown, but it cannot be right that educational opportunity for our children during lockdown was dependent on a lottery of charitable giving. This is not just an issue of access; it is an issue of deprivation, and it should be right at the top of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

Data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have internet access, compared with 99% of households earning over £40,000, and while 30.7% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons a day, only 6.3% of state school pupils did the same. However damning the statistics sound, we should not be misled. Being connected is one thing, but more than 880,000 children live in households with only one mobile internet connection. I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but mum’s mobile does not strike me as an acceptable solution to logging in and learning from home. No wonder the Oak Academy data shows that pupils were accessing lessons through games consoles, mobile phones and old tablets. For those families using pay-as-you-go, streaming online lessons costs an astronomical £37 a day—another ill thought-through policy hitting the poorest hardest.

No one should underestimate the digitally connected world that we now live in and assume that we face a short-term problem. Secondary school pupils spend an average of one hour and 37 minutes a week on schoolwork through the internet, with every click widening the digital divide in our society. Before lockdown, children on free school meals were leaving school 18 months behind their classmates, and the gap was getting worse. The digital divide will manifest itself by giving those from the wealthiest backgrounds an advantage over the other children. We cannot let coronavirus make our society even more unequal and unfair. Whatever happened to levelling up? This is not just a manifesto commitment: in just 36 hours, the digital divide will change from a political debate to a legal requirement, with schools obliged to provide online lessons to the increasing numbers of children who are self-isolating at home.

I anticipate that the Minister will celebrate from the Dispatch Box the small number of devices already distributed by the Government, but however I look at it, the numbers simply do not add up. There were 540,000 children eligible under the Government’s initial scheme to provide devices to disadvantaged learners, but only 200,000 devices and 50,000 routers to give away. The whole system was chaotic and ad hoc, with some children receiving devices regardless of whether they already had one, and others not arriving until July, too late for term time and months into the world of remote education. Staggeringly, even now—seven months after schools closed—the Government’s support package for remote education still has a large section entitled “Remote education support: available soon”.

Teachers are sick and tired of information leaks before midnight, document updates and vague press releases. The message being conveyed to schools is that they are accountable from Thursday, and will face consequences if remote education is not in place. But how can the Department expect schools to be ready to provide remote education if it is not ready itself? More devices have finally been pledged, but the numbers still fall far short of the need. Where is the drive or the ambition? The headteacher of an Ofsted-rated “outstanding” school in my constituency says:

“Today in school the leadership team have been trying to work out exactly how to address the legislative changes, when around one third of pupils do not have devices. Frankly, we do not know what to do.”

Importantly, the Government do not seem to recognise that a device is only as effective as the internet connection that it is used with. No matter how expensive, how smart and how modern the device is, it is rendered useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to link in from home. Why has the Department not engaged with all the mobile virtual network operators? After all, the families on the lowest incomes are unlikely to have contracts with the bigger providers.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for Inclusive Education notes that there is nothing in the guidance about the provision of adaptive and assistive technologies, but with the clock ticking, four of my local schools contacted me urgently this morning. The first has 79 pupils unable to access remote learning online. The second has 60 students who still need access to their own devices, and that does not take into account those who share devices with siblings. The third has an extraordinary 31% of key stage 2 pupils with just a mobile connection or no internet at all. The fourth has had a coronavirus outbreak, but laptops ordered from the Department for Education have no timeframe for delivery, and 15% of children are yet to log in from home. Please will the Minister tell me when St Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Primary School will get its 47 devices? Although the Government point to the covid fund provided to support schools, from which emergency devices can be purchased, there is no spare change once cleaning supplies, new desks, sinks, chairs, fencing, signage, red tape, face masks, thermometers, aprons, gloves and more have all been purchased. So whose responsibility is it to ensure that these children have the data and devices required?

Teachers need to know that tonight, because many of them are understandably at the end of their tether. One said:

“What was the Department for Education’s biggest failure during lockdown? Not providing schools with the resources or funding to ensure every child who did not have access to the internet or suitable devices for remote learning would receive one. With the best will in the world, this was a short turnaround. We all understand that it could not be achieved overnight, but it is worth noting that schools were expected to move mountains overnight—the Department required them to do so.”

Another teacher told me that she is already working through her breaks and bringing masses of work home. She asked whether the Minister could clarify how she is expected to mark home learning, how she can give constructive feedback to isolated pupils and when in a school day she is to provide the full day of extra lessons. The language by a third teacher was a bit less parliamentary; “When on earth in our working hours are we doing this?” is perhaps a translation. We must not underestimate the practical difficulties facing a school. How does a teacher simultaneously teach half their class in person and half online? How can younger primary pupils be expected to sit attentively in front of a screen throughout a whole day? Are the arts, music or drama subjects to be sacrificed in the online world? Add in a crashed computer or broken microphone and the barriers facing classrooms are clear.

Furthermore, nobody should underestimate the importance of child protection issues. Teachers have told me horror stories this week of children taking the iPad to the toilet and of a mum swearing in front of a class of horrified primary students. I wholeheartedly appreciate the importance of ensuring that no child falls even further behind in their education, and I am confident that the practical difficulties outlined can be overcome, but the Government cannot just pin the obligation on schools without giving them every ounce of support and guidance that they need.

Given the statistics I shared this evening, we can be in no doubt that without urgent support the online lesson requirement will fail those children on the wrong side of the digital divide, but the Government knew this was coming and they were too slow to act. Back in June, I shared a cross-party warning directly with the Secretary of State, calling for all children entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device at home. That was not just my view, but that of four former Education Secretaries; four former children’s Ministers; the former head of Ofsted; the Labour shadow Education Secretary; the Conservative Chair of the Education Committee; the Liberal Democrat education spokesman; and the chairs of the all-party group on children, the all-party group on education, the all-party group on social mobility and the all-party group on digital skills; a number of children’s charities, unions, think-tanks, MPs and academics; and even my favourite former Prime Minister. I am now looking to ensure the backing of a wonderful young Premier League striker from Manchester—because digital exclusion is not an issue that directly resulted from the pandemic, and neither will it subside with it.

The importance of closing the digital divide extends far beyond the classroom. Coronavirus has shone a light on this inequality, highlighting the critical role that adequate access to safe, high-quality online learning resources at home plays in children’s lives. Unless schools are supported with the means to adhere to this new legal requirement, these educational inequalities will only be exacerbated. That simply cannot be right, because surely no matter what corner of the Chamber we sit in, we can all agree that no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate. Ensuring that children continue to receive their education during the pandemic is critical, to ensure that this generation of schoolchildren reach their potential and to prevent a widening of the attainment gap; I share her objective.

It is thanks to the outstanding efforts of our teachers and staff that pupils continue to receive the education and opportunities they deserve in the face of the pandemic. We recognise that all children and young people have had their education disrupted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Department is committed to the continuation of high-quality education for all pupils during this period. We know that schools and colleges worked extremely hard over the summer to prepare for a full reopening and to develop remote education contingency plans. That is testament to their commitment to ensuring that any missed education is recovered and that we prevent the attainment gap from widening further. We have a shared responsibility to ensure that this generation of young people do not face long-term disadvantage.

The Government were clear that pupils in all year groups and from all types of school should return to school full time from the beginning of the autumn term. Figures show that, as of 15 October, 99.7% of schools were open and over 7 million children and young people are back in school, representing 89% of pupils across the country. We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that every child can continue to attend school safely, because that is the best place for them to be for their education, development and wellbeing.

The Department works closely with public health bodies to monitor the rate of transmission of the virus. On 15 October, approximately 0.1% of pupils in state schools were self-isolating because they had tested positive for the coronavirus, 0.5% were self-isolating with a suspected case of coronavirus, and between 3.9% and 4.3% of pupils were self-isolating because they had been in contact with a potential case.

We recognise that for some pupils, remote education may need to be an essential component alongside classroom teaching. In those circumstances, the Government want to ensure that there is no doubt about the roles and responsibilities within the system for providing that remote education. That is why the Secretary of State issued a temporary continuity direction on 1 October, to give clarity that schools have a duty to provide remote education for state-funded school-aged children who are unable to attend school due to the coronavirus pandemic, in line with guidance and the law. That links to the remote education expectations that the Department published for schools on 2 July. The direction says that schools must have regard to the guidance, which has been available to schools since 2 July. It sets out clearly the expectations that we have for the quality and breadth of remote education.

Ensuring that schools can provide a high quality of remote education was and continues to be a key part of our work to support schools. Alongside the direction, the Department announced further remote education support intended to help schools and colleges in meeting the remote education expectations. The support package is available over the coming months, and parts of it are available now to support schools and colleges seeking additional support. Information can be found on the “Get help with remote education” page on the website.

We have invested over £160 million to support remote education. As part of that, during the summer term, we delivered over 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access to the internet. It was one of the largest procurements of computers in the UK. On one single day, 27,000 were being delivered. We are now supplementing that support by making available 250,000 additional laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 in the event that face-to-face schooling is disrupted this term as a result of the pandemic. By the end of this week, we will have delivered, since the beginning of term, 100,000 of those 250,000 computers to schools.

The hon. Member referred to St Thomas of Canterbury primary school, and she sent me a letter today. I checked the status of the school’s order with my officials as a consequence of the hon. Member sending me that letter. According to my officials, St Thomas of Canterbury primary school’s order of 47 laptops was received on Friday 16 October and we expect that the laptops will be dispatched to them tomorrow. The hon. Member has achieved some piece of information by orchestrating this debate this evening.

We are also working with the major telecoms companies to improve internet connectivity for disadvantaged and vulnerable families. The Department is piloting an approach where, for families who rely on a mobile internet connection, mobile network operators will provide temporary access to free additional data, offering them more flexibility to access the resources that they need the most.

I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that being poor means that people pay their bills differently, whether it is electricity meters or gas meters. They get their data from pay-as-you-go mobiles from providers other than the mainstream ones, such as giffgaff and Lycamobile. What is the Minister doing in those sorts of areas?

With permission, I will write to the hon. Member about that so that I get the facts absolutely right. We are very concerned about these issues, which is why we have provided more than 50,000 4G routers to homes and the other support that I referred to. I will write to her specifically about the point she raises.

We are funding expert technical support and training to help schools and to help set up Google or Microsoft digital education platforms. Schools can also access guidance and training from a network of schools and colleges across the country that are leading the way in the use of digital. They are our edtech demonstrator schools. They have already produced a library of resources and materials to support remote education arrangements, including support for schools that are less digitally able, alongside guidance about how to make use of Department for Education-funded digital platforms and devices. The programme is proving popular: well over 1,000 schools and colleges are receiving weekly tailored support, and more than 5,000 schools and colleges are attending livestreamed webinars.

To support the hard work of schools in delivering remote education, Oak National Academy, which the hon. Member referred to, was very quickly brought together —I think within two weeks of the pandemic leading to schools closing—by more than 40 teachers, and their schools and other educational organisations also helped them. The Department has made £4.84 million available for Oak National Academy, both for the summer term of the last academic year and for the 2020-21 academic year, to provide video lessons for a broad range of subjects for reception to year 11. Oak will remain a free optional resource for 2020-21. Since the start of the autumn term, half a million users have visited the Oak National Academy platform, and there have been 3.1 million lessons.

The Government are clear that the best place for children is in school, where they can be with their friends and teachers and can catch up with the education that they may have lost when schools closed to most pupils, but ensuring that that education can continue when schools are required to send children and young people home to self-isolate because of a confirmed case of coronavirus is also vital. We are providing the support and devices for the most disadvantaged, and we are providing £1 billion of catch-up funding to ensure that the current generation of school students do not have their long-term prospects damaged by the appalling pandemic that the world is confronting.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.