Hundreds of thousands of pupils should be provided with the devices or broadband connection they lack for remote learning during the pandemic, a group of senior public figures has said, after the education secretary admitted that some schools may remain closed for weeks.
In a letter coordinated by the Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, MPs, unions and charities called on Boris Johnson to take action to help “children on the wrong side of the digital divide”. Public figures including the former prime minister Tony Blair and three ex-education secretaries also signed the letter.
McDonagh said Ofcom estimates that 9% of children in the UK (between 1.1 million and 1.8 million) do not have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet at home and that more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
“Children on the wrong side of the digital divide have neither the data nor the devices to log in from home when their schools close,” the Labour MP said. “In a country with free state education, no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.”
Only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have internet access, McDonagh added, citing data from the Office for National Statistics.
From Monday, the first official day of the new term in England, all mainstream secondary schools and colleges will be closed, other than to vulnerable children and those with parents who are key workers. They will reopen next week only for pupils in years 11 and 13 facing GCSE and A-level exams and are expected to reopen more fully from 18 January.
In 60 contingency areas, primary schools will be similarly closed until 18 January. All schools in London will remain closed, while pupils in some parts of Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire will also be taught remotely.
However, just three days after declaring he was “absolutely confident” that all schools would reopen, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, admitted on Sunday that secondary schools within the 60 “contingency areas” may stay closed to most pupils after 18 January.
The government has rebuffed calls made on Saturday by teaching unions to keep all primary schools closed, with Johnson advising parents that they should “absolutely” send their children in on Monday morning.
Several local councils have urged the government to allow schools to remain closed in other areas, with councils in Birmingham, Cumbria and Kent among those writing to Williamson.
Southampton city council clarified that there would be no fines at present for parents who wish to keep their children at home due to concerns about Covid-19, while Durham county council said it would “support all [its] schools in their decision to remain open or to close based on individual risk assessments and national guidance”.
Access to electronic devices has been a constant issue throughout the pandemic for some deprived pupils. Last October, just two days after the government imposed a legal duty on schools to provide remote education to pupils affected by Covid, headteachers across England were told that their allocations of laptops for disadvantaged pupils had been slashed by around 80%.