Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:03 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree 9:03 pm, 18th January 2021

The digital lottery is hindering the life chances of children and the next generation. If the Government mean what they say about levelling up education, the standard of education and the life chances of working-class children must be front and centre of that agenda.

In early 2020, Ofcom’s technology tracker estimated that between 1.4 million and 1.78 million children under the age of 18 in the UK lived in households without access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet. Add to that up to half a million people living in households with no access to the internet. A further 900,000 live in households where the only access to the internet is via a mobile phone. Those are very stark figures indeed.

Unlike in the previous lockdown, it is now a legal requirement for schools to provide a remote education. Perhaps that is driving the Government’s decision to relax the criteria on children being in schools, which is resulting in dangerously high attendance rates. The Government know they have yet again failed to plan, and are once again playing catch-up. A prime example of that can be seen in Northway Primary School in my constituency; it ordered 37 iPads from the Department for Education in October, but they were only delivered on 13 January. That is just one of many constituency examples that demonstrate that the Government were not even meeting demand prior to the school closure; they were failing to keep pace with smaller orders from schools supporting children isolating at home. This is simply not good enough, and clearly contributes to the fact that the gap in England between some pupils and their wealthier peers widened by 46% during the school year.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledge of free broadband was roundly mocked by professional commentators and Government politicians in the last election. The greatest tragedy of all is that the very thing that policy sought to address, digital exclusion, is wreaking havoc with the learning of the next generation. It is time for the Government to actually deliver on their “whatever it takes” promise, to ensure that the gaping inequalities in our education system are closed once and for all, and to prevent a whole generation of children from being robbed of a decent education, and the life chances that go hand in hand with that. Every child matters and deserves to succeed. Nothing less is good enough. Nothing less is acceptable.