Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Labour, Birmingham, Hodge Hill 8:20 pm, 18th January 2021

It is a great pleasure to follow Damian Hinds. I want to share a few thoughts from the frontline here in Europe’s youngest city, Birmingham. It is fair to say that many people will have a degree of sympathy, in that this was a crisis that could not have been foreseen, but nor could anybody else have foreseen it, and yet somehow here in this country we have had more lives lost than almost anywhere else, livelihoods have been hit harder than almost anywhere else, and now, as we are going to hear from this debate, more lessons are being lost here than anywhere else. The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to say that young people have a very hard road ahead of them. Here in Birmingham, like everywhere else in Britain, our children have really suffered from the exams fiasco last year. Here in the west midlands, youth services have been cut by two and a half times more than the national average, we have youth unemployment that is over 20%, and now our young people are being punished because they cannot get the education they need at home.

I was glad to hear that the Secretary of State is now interested in social policy. Let me share some data with him. We surveyed 443 schools last week in Birmingham, and I thank Ian Ward, the leader of the council, and cabinet member Jayne Francis for organising that. All but one of the respondents said that they had problems with technology for children at home. Some secondary schools are saying that they are 400 laptops short, 70% said that there were problems with connectivity and almost all of them said that there were problems getting through to the DFE. Listen to Maddie Bromley from Court Farm Primary School: “Deprived school. Allocation 51 laptops, only 10 arrived. Still waiting on the rest. Had to chase Government repeatedly.” Or Helen Slack, the head of Twickenham Primary School: “No allocation for years 1, 2 and 3. Parents ringing in tears. Can’t get an answer from the Department for Education.” Another school said: “We are an infant school. We have been ignored by the DFE.” And another: “As an infant school, we were not eligible for laptops.” Another head said: “We have been in desperate need for laptops. Any help appreciated, thank you.”, and another told me: “We have requested over 15 times now from the Department for Education and still haven’t had a response.” Some are reporting that there are anywhere between 70 and 250 parents in desperate need of technology support. This is a shambles. I say thank you to Birmingham City Council and thank you to Graeme Brown, the editor of the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail for offering to jump into the breach and organise laptop collections, because where the Department has failed, we now need the good people and the good companies of Birmingham to come together to fill the breach.