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Internet Access (Children Eligible for Free School Meals)

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that all children eligible for free school meals have a broadband connection and facilities to access the internet at home; and for connected purposes.

The technological advance in our society and the reliance that we all now have on the internet is indisputable. Whether it is for work, entertainment, shopping, bills or even connecting to our friends and family through social media or video calls, the internet has changed every part of everybody’s life—or at least almost everybody’s life.

There is a digital divide in our society: those who have digital access and those who do not. Although the consequences of being on the wrong side of the digital divide are felt at all stages and ages, and we can and should debate those consequences in this House, it is the divide for our children and young people that I wish to focus on today and that this Bill aims to close.

I wish to start by setting the scene. I am sorry to do this, but I will take us back to the beginning of the pandemic. During the lockdowns, Marcus Rashford scored the most important goal of his career, using his platform to highlight that food poverty is not restricted just to school term times. It was a campaign of which any left winger wearing red would be proud. However, support for children who are entitled to free school meals should be about more than just the food.

When schools closed, it was not just lunch that disadvantaged children missed out on, but connectivity. Before the lockdowns, approximately 9% of children did not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom estimated the number to be up to an extraordinary 1.78 million children. Those children most likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide were already leaving school 18 months behind their classmates, and the gap was and is getting worse.

Then schools closed and teachers and pupils moved to remote learning overnight. Millions of children started the day with Joe Wicks’ online exercise classes. They completed schoolwork sent remotely by their teachers, and they joined their classmates in live remote-learning lessons. It was not perfect, but it was an extraordinary feat, achieved thanks to the dedication of our teachers and to the support and patience of home-schooling parents.

Schools such as the outstanding Ursuline High School were already at the forefront of technology, giving every pupil a tablet and offering six lessons a day from home, but others did not have the kit required. A quarter of children on free school meals did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day. While approximately 30% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons per day during the first lockdown, just 6.3% of state school pupils did the same.

Those figures should come as no surprise, considering that one in five children did not always have access to a device for online learning while schools were closed. The Government were dragged kicking and screaming to provide the kit and connectivity required for those children who could not log in and learn from home, but for far too many children, that support arrived either too late or not at all. The roll-out of devices was nothing short of shambolic: just 5% of teachers in state schools reported that all their students had a device, compared with 54% at private schools.

Almost a year after schools first closed, the Daily Mail had to run an emergency campaign to secure more laptops for the children who were being left behind, a damning National Audit Office report concluded that the Department for Education did not even aim to provide equipment to all the children who lacked it, and 80,224 of the devices provided in the roll-out arrived after schools had reopened. While the Government slowly recognised the importance of the devices, a piece of kit is only educationally useful if it comes with the connectivity required to use it.

The inescapable reality is that, for those still on the wrong side of the digital divide, every click widened the attainment gap. Those pupils will have returned to school even further behind their peers. Meanwhile, a further 880,000 children were in households with only a mobile internet connection. I do not know about other hon. Members, but Mum’s mobile does not strike me as an acceptable solution for logging in and learning from home.

However, this is no problem for the past. Schools may be long reopened—I hope they never close again—but the days of pen and paper are long gone and the technological age that we now live in is here to stay. Homework, research, catch-up—so much is now online. The consequence is that children on the wrong side of the digital divide are now even more disadvantaged than before. That is even before we consider the wider impacts of digital exclusion, from the inability to develop digital skills for the world of work to being unable to socialise online with family, friends and peers. Not only is the reliance on connectivity indisputable, but it is growing.

If we accept that internet access and digital devices are part of a child’s learning in a modern-day classroom, then we must also recognise how essential is the kit and connectivity required for taking part. Even before covid, evidence suggested that digitally excluded young people aged 11 to 18 could be spending 60 fewer hours every year learning online at home, compared with their peers—a figure that will only have soared.

That is why I am calling for every child entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device at home. I recognise that free school meals may not be a complete measure of need, but I believe it is the best measure we have. After all, data collected before the pandemic found that the likelihood of internet access increased with income, with households with an average income of £6,000 to £10,000 being half as likely to have access compared with households earning more than £40,000.

Compared with the vast sums squandered through the pandemic, this is a low-cost, straightforward and tangible step forward. It is no silver bullet, but it would make a life-changing difference to children on the wrong side of the digital divide—children such as 10-year-old Abi in my constituency, who in lockdown secured entry to the Tiffin Girls’ School, one of the most prestigious grammar schools in the country, while working in a cramped homeless hostel with only a refurbished phone donated by Tesco Mobile to get connected.

The impact for Abi will be lifelong, but data and devices should not come down to the lottery of charitable giving; nor should they be deemed a luxury any more. They are an educational essential. This Bill would give the golden ticket that Abi received to every child entitled to free school meals—call it social mobility, call it levelling up or whatever you want.

This is no short-term measure. A recent UNICEF report found that if action is not taken now to support children and young people, there will be an estimated gap of 4 million highly skilled workers by 2024. It took the intervention of a premier league footballer for Ministers to agree that no child should go to bed hungry. No matter where we sit in this Chamber, surely we can all agree that no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.

Question put and agreed to.


That Siobhain McDonagh, Julie Elliott, Darren Jones, Dame Margaret Hodge, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Sir Stephen Timms, Catherine McKinnell, Kim Johnson, Apsana Begum and Stephen Hammond present the Bill.

Siobhain McDonagh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 November, and to be printed (Bill 179).