School Closures: Support for Pupils — [Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 10:05 am, 13th January 2021

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, especially as it is your first time in the Chair—your opening night. It is a real pleasure to be here. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Western for securing this timely and important debate. I must say that it was unclear whether we were going to have the debate, but for the sake of my young constituents who are struggling with home learning, I am grateful that we went ahead.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the teachers, the teaching assistants, the heads, the parents, the BBC and others for their fantastic online lessons—all supporting our children to get an education during this new lockdown. Teachers have had to redesign lesson plans at the last minute and get to grips with a new way of teaching, while maintaining standards. Although many children are still going to school—the children of key workers and others—there are thousands back at home with their parents, potentially without resources to learn.

We know that the digital divide is real, and the lockdown has identified that inequality. Many of the most disadvantaged children rely on schools and libraries to access the internet. With those closed, children and young people are now struggling to get online. The need is urgent, and I reiterate the point made by the Sutton Trust: just one in 10 schools across the country says that its pupils have access to technology. It is urgent, and it is a crisis.

As a young girl growing up on a council estate in Batley, on free school meals, I definitely would have been one of those youngsters who did not have the tech. I know the impact it would have had on my prospects. This is about lost potential. I definitely would not be standing in this place if I had had to scramble around for tech or share a mobile phone with my sister, my mum and my dad. This is a crisis for this generation.

Only last night, I received an email from Andrew Barker, a parent at my old school, Windmill Primary School, which is an outstanding, excellent school with great leadership. He asked whether I could help him and other parents source 20 recycled, used or spare devices for children who might not have access at home to learning and the devices to support it. Andrew, a software company owner, has also offered his tech support to help the school and teachers. I thank him and so many other parents around the country who are using their skills to support teachers—something that is desperately needed. As we have just heard, Ofcom and SHINE, the Leeds-based charity, have said that 1.78 million children lack access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet. That is a seriously depressing number, given that children were already lagging behind their peers before covid. Now, after five months of missed education, they will be even further behind.

It is not just about the tech, is it? It is also about supporting the educators, the teachers, the teaching assistants and the mums, dads and carers, many of whom may not be natural teachers or may have a job to do at home while also trying to home school their children. They will need support. Leaving pupils without tech and their parents without support means the deprivation gap will only widen. Kids will suffer not just in terms of their education, prospects and future; potentially, their mental health will suffer too. A telling admission of failure was when the Education Secretary told children that if they did not have laptops at home, they could go to school, whereas the Government’s plan was to close schools to all children except vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Of course, the pledge to deliver 750,000 laptops to families without a suitable device is extremely welcome, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating—those children should have had them already. We cannot forget either that Government deliveries to special schools have not been fit for purpose. The Government have offered desktop computers to children who are not mobile and able to use desktops. Those children need tablets or smaller devices.

Councils around the country have had to step in where the Government have failed to deliver. My local authority, Kirklees, has distributed 3,857 devices since lockdown, but it decided that that was just not enough and allocated its own substantial funds to deliver tech for schools.