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Schools: Online Learning

Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards providing laptops and tablets to those pupils who require such equipment for online learning.

My Lords, the Government are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care services, including securing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children and young people. To date, we have delivered more than 1 million laptops and tablets to schools, trusts, local authorities and further education providers. We are making further deliveries all the time and expect to achieve our overall commitment to delivering 1.3 million devices by the end of the spring term.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer—those are, indeed, very big numbers. However, Ofcom reports that between 1.1 million and 1.8 million children have no access to a device at home and 880,000 live in a household with only mobile internet connection. The Sutton Trust reported in January that only 10% of teachers felt that their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning, while 17% say that their students have no access at all. The gap in internet access has grown, with 21% of deprived schools reporting that one in five do not have adequate access. Even if all schools manage to open and remain open from 8 March, devices and internet access will remain important for all young people’s learning, so what more will the Government do to close the digital gap?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that, going forward, remote education will be part of children’s lives. On connectivity, the Government have distributed 60,000 4G wireless routers and have negotiated data deals with many of the mobile phone providers to ensure that parents can have their data limit lifted to enable their children to access remote education. The devices that I have outlined are in addition to the 2.9 million devices that were already present in schools before the pandemic began.

My Lords, I acknowledge the Prime Minister’s desire to have children back in the classroom, but how will the noble Baroness ensure that pupils who have had no equipment for online learning over the past number of months at home will not be left educationally disadvantaged? Even yet, can they receive laptops and tablets, or what special measures will be taken to assist them to regain lost educational tuition?

My Lords, those children who were without connectivity or were struggling to engage with education at home could be brought into our schools in England and classified by teachers as vulnerable children, to ensure that they were gaining access to education. Only schools will know how much learning has been lost by students, but we have commissioned Renaissance Learning and the EPI so that we can know, as soon as possible, the data on lost learning in order to help children catch up.

My Lords, with the return of schools next month, are there plans to distribute in the long term the many devices that have been provided to those children on the wrong side of the digital divide?

My Lords, the devices that we have distributed remain the property of local authorities, schools or multi-academy trusts, and we expect them to use those devices flexibly going forward. For instance, if they are running summer schools for some year groups, they can call devices back in from certain pupils and redistribute them. We expect, in the medium-term and long-term, to make sure that the best of our teaching is available to most pupils in this country by using remote education.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a governor of the Vodafone-supported M-PESA Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, where every one of our 820 children from the poorest communities in the country have a fully functioning Apple iPad and 4G, both at their home or village community, area or school to support their learning. Given the huge and ongoing task of catch-up that will be required and the skills development after schools go back here in the United Kingdom, have the Government engaged with the tech, mobile and computer hardware companies, all of which have made massive profits during the pandemic because of homeworking, with the duty to give them a public citizenship role in gifting equipment and wi-fi to the families and children most in need? If not, why not?

We are grateful to have the technology that we have in order to make remote education available. The Government have committed a further £300 million to the tutoring catch-up. We are aware of many companies that have, in the past, been involved in our school system. I take inspiration from the noble Lord and will look at whether now is also the time to ask them to make a contribution. Many have been successful in sponsoring academies, et cetera, in the past.

My Lords, the start that has been made by the Government is commendable. Of course, this money and gifting of laptops to children are important, but never will that be more important than on their return to school in March. The young people will notice the differential between themselves and their colleagues. Is there any way of speeding up this initiative to endorse the government policy of helping children to catch up? Speed and range of facilities provided to the homes of young people will be crucial so that they can use those laptops at home.

In addition to the connectivity that I have outlined, I pay tribute to the school staff who have helped many parents to use the equipment that has been provided to access online lessons; we must not forget their role in skilling up parents to enable this access for children. Yes, indeed, this is part of the system going forward, so we will look to make sure that children have the access that they need to these devices, as well as the connectivity. We are also looking to invest in rural connectivity, because, of course, some of the schools have connectivity issues as well.

My Lords, it is good news that our children and young people are returning to school soon. Moving forward, does the Minister see a role for virtual learning in future, perhaps as a means of supporting home-educated children, for example?

We are overjoyed at the prospect that on 8 March all our children will return to school. We have provided these devices at a time of global disruption of supply, so have done very well in managing to obtain such a large amount. We are looking at—and welcome all Peers’ contributions on—how we can ensure that, in what has been invested in with this £400 million, we take the best that has developed in these terrible circumstances in terms of remote education and ensure that children can benefit from it going forward.

My Lords, I am told that the provision of laptops and tablets has improved since the first lockdown but that challenges remain even once a person has been loaned or given one. Will the Minister look at what can be done to help provide internet access and training on such devices? I have spoken on this before. Will she consider adopting the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s approach of seeking internet access in all its social housing? I commend this approach to the Government for widespread use.

My Lords, as I outlined, we are aware of the connectivity issues for various homes and schools and have provided peer-to-peer training and support across the school system through our EdTech demonstrator schools. Some 6,900 schools have been given access by the department to Microsoft Education or Google Classroom during the pandemic. In building our infrastructure in future, as the noble Baroness described, connectivity will be essential.

My Lords, in response to an Oral Question from my noble friend Lord Blunkett on 11 February, the Minister stated, as she did earlier today, that the Government had invested

“more than £400 million to support access to remote education … including … 1.3 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children and young people.”

While that is certainly welcome, she did not answer the specific Question asked by my noble friend regarding

“the number of children who are not eligible for face-to-face teaching who have not been able to access online teaching for more than 80 per cent of the normal timetable in … 2021.”—[Official Report, 11/2/21; cols. 484-5.]

Will the Minister take this opportunity to answer that Question?

The instruction given to schools on the amount of remote education also included that teachers were to monitor whether children were engaging with that education. It is not possible for the department to collect that kind of granular data on a day-to-day basis. Teachers are in front of the students virtually and we put the obligation on them to monitor that. If they were aware that children were not engaging remotely, they had the ability to bring them into school as a vulnerable child.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I am sorry that Members, both remotely and in the Chamber, were not able to be reached.