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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:12 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 10:12 am, 13th January 2021

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Libraries are so important to our communities.

In June 2020, the National Education Union, the Labour party and others called on the Government to urgently address the digital divide and provide laptops for all pupils who needed one. Seven months on, that has not been properly addressed. How long does it take to order and distribute laptops?

Delivering devices alone does not fully address the issue of connectivity, with 880,000 children and young people living in a home with only a mobile internet connection. Schools have reported that take-up of additional SIM cards has been low among families in certain areas. Even with mobile companies expanding data plans, this still means that children’s learning is dependent on phone reception, which can often be unreliable or slow. That is preventing children and pupils from fully participating in lessons.

The Government’s decision to cut school laptop allocations in October last year—a decision that was fortunately eventually reversed—combined with schools previously being able to request laptops only for isolating pupils, left many schools and pupils unprepared and without the right resources to move quickly into an extended period of remote learning. Echoing much of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, this has been a story of dither, delay and indecision, and it is our children who are now paying the price. I agree with the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East that the Government must commit to rapidly increasing the distribution timetable for the 440,000 purchased devices that are currently available to schools and ensure that every child across the country has access to a device for learning and other essential items.

The CPAG and CNE have outlined some very basic ways in which the Government could achieve that goal. First, the number of devices schools can apply for should be increased, enabling them to meet the needs of their school communities. Cash grants could be provided to parents to allow them to purchase the ICT equipment that is needed—not just laptops, but wi-fi, printers, printer ink, paper and so on—so that pupils can learn from home. Child benefit could be increased by at least £10 a week to ensure that families have enough money to meet the additional financial pressures placed on them as a result of children learning at home. Will the Minister commit to those reasonable requests, to ensure that no child is further disadvantaged by forces that are completely out of their control? Nearly one year on since the start of the crisis, the Government’s failure to deliver the digital resources for school children’s learning must not continue at this critical point in their lives.

Finally, I will turn to free school meals. I echo the concerns so eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, and add that, surely, the easiest way to ensure that children, through their parents, receive the full level of their allowance for free school meals is to use vouchers. That will allow parents to make sure that the food given to their children is nutritious and balanced and that it is food their children will eat. It will also mean that unscrupulous companies no longer benefit at the expense of our children—literally taking food from their mouths.