Questions are being raised over what the Isle of Wight Council is doing to help children who do not have access to online learning during the current lockdown.
With Covid restrictions preventing the majority of children going to school, and with the restrictions expected to last until the end of the month at least, concerns have been raised about the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots in terms of education.
Speaking at a meeting of the council’s policy and scrutiny committee for neighbourhoods and regeneration, Cllr Julie Jones-Evans asked what was being done to support families and bridge the divide, and if more could be done to provide broadband connections so that children could access education.
She said: “We have got awful incidents of child poverty on the Island. I had an email exchange with Cllr Paul Brading [cabinet member for education] and he informed me 400 laptops had been given out but there are 7,000 children deemed to be in poverty on the Island.
“A report showed families at the lower ends of income are struggling the most, not only with their time, capacity and ability to help their children but also many do not have the equipment that is needed — working off their parents’ phones, eating up the data.
“It is very sobering but also very concerning. I have had my education; I had books, but now this is all different. This lockdown — the impact on our children’s education is absolutely terrifying for their futures.”
However, Cllr Brading later said the number of laptops handed out and in the process of being given out is almost quadruple the figure quoted. He said: “We, as a council, have been working very closely with our schools to develop programmes to help learners respond to the challenges of school lockdown.
“Since the start of the summer term, the council has distributed more than 800 laptops to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people on the Island, as well as providing internet access to pupils who need it most. The Department for Education (DfE) has now allocated a further 780 laptops for Island pupils which will be distributed very shortly, helping to ensure students have access to high-quality remote education during the current pandemic.”
Cllr Stuart Hutchinson, deputy leader of the council and cabinet
member for the Covid recovery, said: “We have the problem where if you are living in towns you have quick broadband but in many villages broadband is incredibly slow and unreliable. I do know that our teachers and education staff are trying to work hard on covering those points.”
Cllr Gary Peace, cabinet member for community safety and digital transformation, said WightFibre rollout of broadband was not going to happen overnight and that there is not an ‘awful lot that could’ be done but the authority would do all it could. He added that it was essential that children get back to school safely as quickly as possible: “Not least because of their education needs but for their mental health and social wellbeing, that is where they need to be. That has got to be the critical priority.”
The Department for Education has been providing laptops and tablets to schools to help access remote education and providing an internet connection to disadvantaged children who need it. Families should contact their schools if help is needed.
Mobile networks, Three, Virgin Mobile, EE, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and O2 are all offering schemes to temporarily increase data allowances for those who do not have home broadband, cannot afford the increase and have had a disruption in their education. For more information, you can visit: get-help-with-tech.education.gov.uk/about-increasing-mobile-data.
Speaking after the meeting Peter Shreeve, assistant district secretary of the National Education Union said: “It appears 800 laptops have been distributed and the LA has had another 780 allocated. Good news. But Cllr Julie Jones Evans is right to fear that this is not enough to meet the needs of those children deemed to be in poverty on the Island. The latest data published in October shows 7,311 island children (33.2%) living in poverty after housing costs in 2018/19.
“Schools have been kept waiting for equipment that has been promised to them throughout this pandemic, with last minute delays, changes or retractions, which sadly has become an alarmingly unsupportive normalised response from the DfE.
“Every one of those 7,311 island children might need access to equipment, even more so if lockdown worsens. Government must take their responsibility towards these children seriously and this time rapidly ensure every vulnerable child has access to the equipment they need to ensure they can learn safely from home.”