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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:20 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 10:20 am, 13th January 2021

I would need longer than the next few minutes to express my anger at the Government’s shambolic provision of remote education for schools, but I hope that I have long enough to propose three immediate, practical, tangible actions.

The first is zero-rating, which is a mechanism to make a website freely accessible, even if the user is without data. I congratulate BT, Three, Vodafone and O2 on their work on zero-rating the Oak National Academy, and particularly BT on its work to zero-rate BBC Bitesize. The Minister must urgently encourage all other providers to follow suit.

The second is data. Families streaming online lessons on pay-as-you-go can expect charges as astronomical as £37 a day, so I welcome the free data offered by the biggest providers, but the devil is in the detail. While they are offering unlimited data to all customers in need, Sky Mobile’s offer is limited to 1,800 customers and they have to be on a monthly contract. I say to the Minister that someone’s contract cannot be boosted if they do not have a contract in the first place. The families without connectivity are not on monthly contracts. They pay as they go. Where is the offer from the likes of Giffgaff, Lebara, Lyca and Asda Mobile? We are beginning to understand that poorer people pay their bills differently. Just as they pay their gas and electricity on a key charging meter, they pay for their connectivity on a pay-as-you-go basis.

I offer all hon. Members in this debate a table that Harry and Dan in my office have put together of all the offers by all the companies. It shows that companies that overwhelmingly provide services to poorer people on pay-as-you-go make no offer at all. Even though some of the leading companies make great offers to people on contracts, they make no offers to people on pay-as-you-go.

The third action is on devices and dongles, because no matter how many websites are zero-rated or how much data is offered, remote education remains completely inaccessible to the 1.78 million children without a device. And no matter how expensive, how smart or how modern the device distributed, it is educationally useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to connect from home. Why on earth have just 40,000 routers been delivered? In a country with free state education, how is it acceptable for remote education to be dependent on a lottery of support and for the Good Law Project to have to resort to legal action due to the poorest parents having to choose between their child’s education and their family’s health? If they do not have data or computers, they go to school.

So many Members have referred to the research from the Sutton Trust and Teach First. Just 10% of teachers report that all their students have adequate access to a device—just 5% of teachers in state schools, compared with 54% in private schools. Meanwhile, a principal in my constituency wrote to me only yesterday to tell me that an astonishing 350 children at her secondary school had to share a device in the household. I rang her to confirm, because I thought I had misunderstood. Unfortunately, I had not.

I welcome zero-rating and I thank those networks stepping up to boost contracts, but ultimately nothing replaces a teacher teaching their own pupils. It is utterly unjust that that is available to all but the poorest pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide. Every pupil receiving a laptop in the weeks ahead is a child that has been failed in the six months that they were off school without one. The Minister knows that the number provided still does not meet the need, and tens of thousands of other children will be without the connectivity they require to use the device in the first place. Stop passing the buck on to schools and teachers, and provide the data and dongles urgently needed, so that no child’s education is dependent on their internet connection.