It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela, and I congratulate you on your damehood. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Western for securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to all the schools in my constituency and to the two local authorities, South Tyneside and Gateshead Councils, which reacted quickly to ensure that children and families are as supported as possible during the latest schools closure. I of course pay tribute to all the parents and carers, including my wife, who are home schooling their children at this very difficult time.
However, schools and families still face huge challenges in ensuring that every student has individual access to reliable and high-quality digital devices and the internet. This is, of course, not a new issue. The digital divide existed prior to the pandemic and left many children struggling to complete homework. The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide and other inequalities on a national scale, and effective action must now be taken to address that wide-reaching educational inequality.
Although this debate about digital exclusion among young people, alongside other things, is vital, let us not be in any doubt that it alone will deal with the deep-seated inequalities that having no face-to-face teaching creates. Online is no substitute for many, which is why it is vital that the Government ensure that pupils have guaranteed face-to-face contact time with their teachers online. Research conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East in May 2020 showed that school closures further exposed and exacerbated the gaps in education caused by low income, and left children unable to access or engage in learning because they did not have adequate resources or an appropriate set-up at home.
It seems a long time ago now that a demand for everyone in the UK to have a right to access the internet, irrespective of income, was considered by some to be “broadband communism”. Fast forward a year and many children across the country are not able to gain access to laptops and the internet when it is so desperately needed. That is no surprise when Ofcom estimates that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK—around 9%—do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.