Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:51 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central 8:51 pm, 18th January 2021

The concept of remote learning leans heavily into the topic of digital exclusion—the exclusion of those who do not have the devices or data needed to access education. The Government may talk about addressing the issue, but yet again they are simply not doing enough, and what they are doing is at the latest possible moment.

The digital divide and the impact it is having on people’s lives was known about before the pandemic. It meant that people struggled to access services and information, and to engage with the digital world around them. When the pandemic arrived, it forced everyone indoors and into a digital world. It shone a light on the digital inequalities that already existed and, as time went on, exacerbated them. It was no longer a choice to work or access services from home, or for young people to access their education from home; it became a necessity. This situation accelerated the existing inequalities tenfold.

Remote learning became the only way for the vast majority of our children and young people to access their education. A clear divide opened up between those who had internet connection, data and devices, and those who did not. If the Government had invested in the procurement and distribution of devices on the first day of the pandemic, they would have been a Government acting too late, but 10 months later they have still not taken adequate action. We must remember that every day lost in education is a day of potential lost. There are still thousands of children up and down the country who are unable to access their education.

The Department for Education might say that it is going to provide 1 million devices, but that is not good enough. The actual digital divide, according to Ofcom, means 1.8 million people not having adequate connectivity. I am proud that organisations such as Laptops for Kids North East and the Good Things Foundation are reaching out to those in need in our communities and supporting people, giving them the data and devices they need, but they are having to do that because the Government have failed to do so.

This debate is rightly combined with the issue of free school meals. I applaud my neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, for campaigning on this issue for years; I agree with everything she said. It was heart-wrenching to see the images posted online last week of food parcels. Our children deserve so, so much more. The Government may try to pass the blame on to others, but it was their policy that got us into this mess. It is the Government’s responsibility to put this right and put it right fast by guaranteeing a substantial, healthy free school meal to all children who need one.