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Schools: Online Learning

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the provision of online learning for school pupils, and, in particular, for disadvantaged pupils.

My Lords, given the critical importance of ensuring that all children and young people continue to learn during the national lockdown, we have strengthened our expectations for remote education. We are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education, including securing 1.3 million laptops and tablets and delivering 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged children. As of 1 February, 927,000 laptops and tablets had been delivered to schools, trusts and local authorities.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister agrees that all pupils must have access to broadband and laptops to enable them to learn remotely. Can she give us the exact position on the provision of laptops and broadband in schools? It appears that 800,000 computers have been delivered, the majority of them last year, from the 1.3 million promised—little more than the 750,000 that the Minister claimed on 7 January. Is she saying that those 1.3 million laptops are now in schools and available for children? What plans do the Government have for the future provision of laptops? The rollout is very slow, which can be a disaster for children.

My Lords, I outlined the number that had been delivered as of Monday: 927,000. That is in addition to the 2.9 million laptops and tablets that were already in schools before the pandemic began. Of course, we are supporting the rollout of gigabyte broadband with an investment of £5 billion through DCMS to ensure connectivity for schools.

My Lords, in summer 2020 the National Education Union published a plan, point 1 of which said:

“Disadvantaged children and young people and their families must be a key priority.”

We know that child poverty and inequality limits life chances and is a significant factor in school achievement. Will the Government now speedily draw up and consult on a long-term national plan for children’s education and well-being? It must be fully funded and draw on expertise in education, health, mental health and local authorities’ children’s services—a plan to avoid a generation being lost to the pandemic. Schools are doing a great job but they cannot do it alone.

My Lords, I am pleased to say that as of 21 January 41% of children who are in contact with a social worker were indeed in school. Having a school place is one of the best protective factors for vulnerable children during the pandemic. We have also announced as of last Wednesday another £300 million in catch-up for the national tutoring programme, and catch-up will be a focus during the remainder of this Parliament.

My Lords, what specific guidance has the department given to schools and developers, and what standards has it set, for the design, procurement and operation of remote online learning services in terms of ethics, transparency and the sharing and use of sensitive personal data? This appears not to be covered at all in the review guidance of January. Does the DfE understand at all many of the issues involved with the digital world?

My Lords, we have given comprehensive guidance in Get Help with Remote Education for teachers and the workforce. Yes, cybercrime issues are a focus for the Department for Education. We are aware that that is part of what we must help schools to procure in future to ensure that the networks are secure.

My Lords, while I very much welcome the contribution that the Government are making to online learning and indeed to internet access, the Minister will be aware of the great mental pressures on families and young people in this regard. Does she have any plans to support supplementary strengthening services for young people, such as the National Citizen Service or indeed any other schemes specifically aimed at supporting young people?

My Lord, as well as the priority of getting children back into school as soon as possible, obviously, we want them to be taking part in those kinds of activities, and physical education was a key part of the guidance. DCMS has given £16.5 million to a Youth Covid-19 Support Fund to support grass-roots and national youth organisations at this time.

My Lords, while open discussion in the classroom motivates the majority of pupils, it can also induce reticence in slower learners. Does the Minister agree that, given the necessary resources, remote learning without the pressure of competition can help slower learners and SEN pupils to progress at their own pace? Does she also agree that, despite best efforts, tailored classes will be necessary after the lockdown to meet the catch-up needs of those who have not had full access to resources and support?

My Lords, in relation to SEND pupils, we have given additional funding to the national Star Academies to make sure that through the peer-to-peer support for schools they have the best practice to share. Yes, the effects of remote learning are quite disparate, and there are certain pupils who may have been distracted by pupils in the classroom whom teachers report are engaging better, but it is not a standard picture. We recognise that catch-up will have to be individualised for pupils. Schools know those pupils best, which is why £650 million is going out to schools.

My Lords, based on the figures just given by the Minister, of the 1.3 million laptops promised by the Government, one-quarter are yet to be delivered. At the current rollout pace of some 75,000 a week, many schools face having to wait for their laptops to be delivered until the second week of March—ironically, when the Prime Minister has said that he hopes schools will begin to reopen. The chair of the Education Select Committee has echoed the call by the Education Policy Institute for resources to be provided direct to schools to enable them to source IT equipment themselves. What consideration have the Government given to the feasibility of adopting that approach in order to reduce the amount of lost learning time?

My Lords, at a time when supply was massively disrupted, for the department’s commercial team to procure this number of laptops was actually quite a feat, in this climate where everyone wants a laptop. Some 350,000 were delivered in January alone. Yes, schools have been using additional resources to purchase laptops as well, which they can do from their Covid catch-up money.

My Lords, for those with the capacity, parental support and infrastructure, online learning is great, typically at home. What technical support will be available for families who struggle? Is there a standardised support offer, or does it vary from school to school and from pupil to pupil?

My Lords, the temporary continuity direction makes clear to parents the number of hours a day that should be delivered by their school. However, we recognise that it is not just about devices, as the noble Baroness outlines; it is parental supervision of the education that is important. If a school is aware that for whatever reason, a child is struggling to engage with their education, it has the discretion and the guidance to classify the child as vulnerable and accept them back into the school setting. It is schools’ professional judgment that we trust.

My Lords, Sutton Trust research shows that poorer children are half as likely to take part in online lessons. Only half of middle-class children and just one-third from poorer families spend four hours on schoolwork a day, while 40% of state schoolchildren are not completing their work. This is a disaster for children, particularly those from poor or overcrowded homes or with special needs. It will affect the rest of their lives, so the Government must make education the country’s number one priority for public spending after the pandemic.

My Lords, we made it part of the continuity direction that schools must monitor daily whether children are engaging with education. In addition to devices, we have given the connectivity that children need. We have also set up the national tutoring programme, which is aimed at just the children the noble Lord outlines. The Government have announced a further £300 million for that programme in this financial year. He is right, and catch-up will be a priority for the rest of this Parliament.

My Lords, the Government are providing further laptops for more than a million schoolchildren, but how are they working with other organisations such as Deloitte, which has donated 5,000 laptops, Raspberry Pi, which has gifted to Catch22 250 kits for its most in-need students, and Mail Force, the Daily Mail’s charitable arm, which is providing new laptops and helping companies to recycle old computers for school use? This seems to be an area where government and business really can work hand in hand to help improve children’s life chances.

My Lords, we welcome these initiatives because obviously, this is a time of a national pandemic when we all need to work together. I was pleased to learn that the Daily Mail campaign, through which businesses donate a minimum of 50 computers to be recycled, is being done by Computacenter, which is the department’s commercial procurement partner. It was a pleasure to meet, along with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, representatives of Catch22, who highlighted individuals who may have fallen through cracks and how we can get those devices to the children who need them most.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Curry of Kirkharle and Lord Blunkett, that there was not time to take their questions.