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Covid-19: School Students Learning From Home

Volume 806: debated on Monday 5 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on primary and secondary school students’ ability to learn for those students (1) who have digital connectivity, and (2) who do not have such connectivity, when learning from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the Government have already invested over £100 million to support remote education, including 250,000 additional devices for children who cannot attend school or if their school is closed. Understanding the impact of Covid disruption on attainment and progress is a key research priority for the Government. We have commissioned an independent research and assessment agency to consider catch-up needs and monitor progress over the year.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. The department needs to do more. Before the Covid outbreak, we had heard already this year from the Education Policy Institute that young people on free school meals were leaving our schools 18 months behind other young people. For the first time in a decade, we saw the widening gap among primary school children between those from poor families and those from wealthy families. We know from the Government-appointed Children’s Commissioner that 50% of secondary school children and 60% of primary children had no access to online education. It just seems too little. Can the Minister give us more information about the assessment, research and dates, and how attainment will be measured?

My Lords, I am grateful for the mention of the EPI, because it will do the data analysis. Renaissance Learning has won the contract, which is, as I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, an assessment platform that schools already use, so there is baseline data; we are not in the process of putting an additional burden on schools—as they use the platform, they will monitor that. The EPI will analyse the data that we get from this. We know it is important to know as much as possible about how children have fallen behind and how they are progressing to catch up.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and for what the Government have already done. Before the pandemic, 23% of children in socioeconomic groups D and E lacked home broadband and access to laptops, et cetera. Does the Minister agree that we now need to measure data poverty and its effects more carefully? Will the Government commit to legislating for household digital access to be treated as a utility on an equal footing with the right to access for water and heat—a change supported by the general public?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct that access to a computer at home is essential for children’s learning. On laptop and device provision, 470,000 devices are now being made available to disadvantaged children. They will be distributed by local authorities and academy trusts. Alongside that, we have provided 4G routers for children who do not have access, and there has been work with BT to ensure access for 10,000 disadvantaged families where they are relying on the mobile phone network to get broadband. There is now a universal service obligation under broadband of 10 megabytes per second.

When schools are disrupted or closed by Covid, the Government’s policy is that remote education will be provided immediately. That is impractical and virtually impossible. Last week in Hastings, the most deprived coastal town in the south of England, an academy had to close suddenly; 1,000 students and many others did not attend for 10 days. In Hove, 11 teachers could not turn up—education disrupted. In Kent, nine teachers could not turn up—education disrupted. How can disadvantaged children possibly catch up on four months of lost education and new stuff in the remaining 29 weeks before GCSEs next summer? I beg the department to have a plan B alongside the possibility of GCSEs, involving moderated teacher assessment and possibly assisted by internal mock exams which could measure student absence against learning. If it does not do this, hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged students will be treated unfairly.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that next year’s exams were the subject of a consultation by Ofqual; we will have an announcement on that shortly. On support for remote education, which includes online and offline, last week we opened a new central hub on remote education to assist teachers. Some 2,800 schools have accessed the new teacher resource on the Oak National Academy, which the department funded. Many schools—I pay tribute to them on World Teachers’ Day—are doing a great job on standing up remote education as soon as they can.

My Lords, this is an important subject, but I ask Members to please keep their supplementaries short. I call the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty.

My Lords, although the share of households with internet access in the UK is now at 93%, we hear too many stories of real concern about sharing devices and lack of computers, even with connectivity. Under what precise conditions are the Government currently supplying computers to the neediest? Should they not now pledge a dedicated school computer for every child, particularly considering that any child or whole class may at a moment’s notice have to switch to online learning?

The Government are distributing these laptops to the most disadvantaged students. This batch will be delivered to disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11, to any child shielding and to any child in a hospital school or a further education college doing key stage 4. We rely on local authorities and schools to know who those disadvantaged children are; free school meals are a measure, but they know who the disadvantaged children are, and we must rely on them to distribute to those in need.

My Lords, we are four weeks into the current term, yet the Government are talking about delivering this equipment and the remote routers. Can the Minister tell us what proportion of local authorities and schools, many of which are reporting that the equipment promised was late in arriving and insufficient for the number of children needing it, have queried their allocation since the start of the current term? Of those allocations, what proportion has actually been received by schools? Can she assure us that this will not be allocated by algorithm?

My Lords, the 220,000 devices delivered last term were all delivered at speed. At points, we were delivering thousands of laptops within 24 hours. The expectation is that this term, when schools and local authorities put in their order, they will receive the devices within 48 hours. I will reply by way of a letter to the noble Lord’s more precise questions.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the last 10 years have seen an increase in social mobility and that Covid-19 isolations threaten our progress? To be without digital connection puts a pupil at great disadvantage. However, I was forcefully reminded by a recent meeting with students that, even with good digital connections, technology is not a cure-all. There is no substitute for classroom teaching and face-to-face tuition. Does this not reinforce the necessity of keeping schools open to offer the best choice in life for pupils?

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord that face-to-face tuition is, of course, the best for students. I am pleased to say that, as of 24 September, 88% of children were in school, so that is a remarkable feat. In relation to social mobility, that is why we have aimed £350 million, through a national tutoring programme, at the most disadvantaged to help them catch up.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady McDonagh said, the coronavirus lockdown exposed the digital divide in education, with around three-quarters of a million disadvantaged young people missing schoolwork due to a lack of a computer or internet access at home. The Government’s announcement last week of 100,000 more laptops, welcome though it is, in that situation is really quite inadequate. Yet, seemingly oblivious to that point, last week the Government also announced that schools and colleges were to be given a new legal duty to provide online education to students at home on the same basis as in the classroom. Can the Minister say whether sanctions will be brought to bear on schools unable to fully deliver online education, even where that is as a result of the Government failing to provide adequate connectivity to students?

My Lords, the direction is to provide remote education, and the announcement was a further 250,000 laptops, so 470,000 laptops have been delivered. It was to give certainty and assurance to parents in relation to the provision of remote education; a lot has been provided but sometimes it has not been consistent. There will obviously be supportive conversations to help schools deliver. We have also given thousands of schools the source of the platforms that they need and the training, through demonstrator schools, to enable them to do this, but there will be a supportive conversation if they are not meeting the requirements of the direction.

My Lords, I regret to say that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed; I apologise to the three Members unable to ask their questions.