Campaign for children to have access to laptops for home schooling
- Credit: Contributed
School communities are helping to bridge the gap to ensure children have access to devices for home learning as research shows government support is slow on the ground.
The coronavirus pandemic caused schools to shut except to keyworker and vulnerable children, while the rest are completing schoolwork at home.
But not every child has access to a laptop, tablet or desktop at home - between 1.1 million and 1.8 million (about 9% of children in the UK) don't, according to Ofcom.
And, while the Department for Education (DfE) does have a scheme available for disadvantaged children, some pupils who may need a device do not qualify or the equipment is not arriving quickly enough.
Research by the Sutton Trust educational charity has revealed two thirds of state school leaders said they have needed to source IT equipment themselves while waiting for the government to provide support for their pupils.
Campaigns for devices for home learning have sprung up across Suffolk, including at Honington CEVCP Primary School.
Lauren Moore, headteacher at Honington, said their allocation as a school using the Government scheme was just five devices, against a student body of about 180.
She said for some of their children their main way to access schoolwork was via a smartphone.
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She said: "The way the government scheme is being perceived out there is there's lots of devices for everybody who is struggling, but actually in reality on the ground it feels quite different."
She said there were cases of larger families or parents working at home and home schooling where there just weren't enough devices to go round.
"It's about us being as proactive as we can as a school community to do the best we can as a school community," she added.
Mrs Moore said they were "hugely grateful" for any donations for their campaign, which has raised just over £500 of its £2,000 target.
As well as fundraising for new devices, the school is also taking equipment people no longer need.
Mrs Moore said they currently have students at home who need devices for learning.
Parent Adam Thomas is leading fundraising for laptops for schools in the Woodbridge area, raising more than £19,000 so far.
He is aware of one school with 86 pupils, but only one government laptop arrived.
"The government scheme doesn't cover everybody and has been slow to be rolled out. It doesn't cover Key Stage 1," said Mr Thomas, who has a son at Farlingaye High School.
He said they were working with 14 primaries and Farlingaye High School who between them have said they need 159 computers.
"We have just taken the view we cannot sit here and wait [for government computers]. Every day is a day in education lost," said Mr Thomas, an engineer.
Mr Thomas said they have received funding to buy 98 laptops and have received 38 used laptops so far, with some having reached students already.
Woodbridge Rotary Club and The Rotary Club of Woodbridge Deben have donated £4,600 to the appeal.
Barnham CEVC Primary School has also been fundraising for home learning IT devices, hitting its £2,000 target.
Amy Arnold, headteacher at Barnham, said: "We started it all up because when schools closed to the majority our learning went online and we knew there were families who didn't have access to a device or the quantity of devices needed for pupils to access remote learning.
"We wanted to do everything we could to make sure every child had the opportunity to flourish and fulfil their potential."
At Stanton Community Primary School, headteacher Sue Chapman said the response to its campaign had been "amazing".
She said: "[Local firm] Shelbourne Reynolds have been really helpful and match-funded us and we've just ordered 10 brand new laptops.
"We have had donations of old laptops as well, so by next week we will have 28 in total."
She added: "It's been really difficult for parents, so a big thank you to everyone who has got involved so far."
Law trainee Maddy Askins, 27, from near Woodbridge, has also joined the movement to get devices to children who need them.
In just a week, her campaign has raised money for seven laptops, which have been delivered to a primary school in Lowestoft.
"It's been a great response. At the moment, everybody just feels they want to do their bit and sitting at home they feel a bit useless," she said.
A family coping with sharing devices
Sarah Horrex, a teaching assistant from Ixworth, and her three children, aged eight, ten and 12, have been sharing a laptop, desktop computer and smartphone between them.
She is working between home and her school and her children need to do their schoolwork.
She said they bought the desktop computer during the first national lockdown, which was a "big expense", and didn't think they would qualify for government help as both she and her husband work.
She said her daughter in high school, who is dyslexic, uses the laptop, while she and her younger daughters juggle use of the desktop.
While they were asked by her daughters' primary school, Stanton, whether they needed a device, Mrs Horrex, 39, said: "Even though it's stressful, I know there are other families out there who probably need them more."
She said this lockdown had been "the hardest".
She said: "It's juggling trying to be a parent, being a teacher for them, trying to cope with all the chores, and you cannot go anywhere."
Research shows digital divide between richer and poorer households
The research from the Sutton Trust shows just 5% of teachers in state schools reported that all their students have access to an appropriate device for remote learning, compared to 54% at private schools.
And 19% of parents overall report their children do not have access to a sufficient number of devices suitable for their online learning, however this is 35% for households with the lowest incomes, and 11% in households with the highest.
The study also looked at remote learning, attendance in school, support for home learning and the attainment gap.
Councillor Jack Abbott, Suffolk Labour spokesperson for children’s services, education and skills, said: "Once again, I urge the government to finally get a grip on this and ensure that every pupil has access to a device and the internet.
"They must also move immediately to make educational websites ‘zero rated’ so families do not use up mobile data allowances. Every day pupils are left without these basic provisions is another day of preventable lost learning."
Green Party councillor Wendy Turner, for Mid Suffolk, added: "I’m glad schools are now beginning to help all families that are struggling with the lack of computer devices as it must be near impossible to work from a phone screen.
"Forward planning is missing from central government thinking, they were warned at the beginning of the pandemic that it was highly likely we would have a second wave. They should have spent the summer making sure every school child had access to some type of computer device and data provision in case schools were shut again."
The DfE was contacted for comment.
How is Suffolk County Council helping?
From June 2020 to now, Suffolk County Council children’s services have distributed 1,000 laptops, 100 tablets and 150 4G Hotspots under the DfE scheme, primarily to children with a social worker and care leavers that did not have suitable access to technology to support them with remote learning and to engage with supporting services.
Previously, Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for education, said: "Suffolk County Council are purchasing additional laptops for disadvantaged children and young people that may not otherwise be able to access them via school, and we are currently putting in place arrangements with a local community organisation to re-purpose donated computers to provide to children."