‘We’re still waiting’: schools lack free laptops pledged for poorer GCSE pupils

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As secondaries prepare to open more widely, most heads have seen none of the devices promised to help disadvantaged teenagers

Headteachers fear the government’s promise to deliver laptops to disadvantaged teenagers will not be fulfilled as the majority said this weekend they had still received none. 

On 19 April, the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, announced the scheme, claiming it would “take the pressure off” parents and schools, and support children without any access to online learning while schools were shut. 

Yet, with just a week to go before secondary schools reopen more widely to pupils on 15 June, some headteachers have still only received emails telling them to “get ready” to be “invited to order” the laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers – while most heads say they haven’t received a single device yet for disadvantaged year 10 pupils. 

When pressed on the question of numbers sent directly to headteachers this weekend, the Department for Education was unable to confirm whether any devices had been delivered. It stated that, in May, laptops were being delivered “daily” to local authorities, who are responsible for distributing the devices to care leavers and pupils with a social worker, along with disadvantaged year 10 students at maintained secondary schools. 

However, the vast majority – around 72% – of secondary school pupils attend academies, which are no longer directly linked to local authorities. Academy headteachers have been “invited to order” and some “have done so”, a DfE spokesperson said, but would not divulge numbers or say whether any of the devices ordered have been delivered. 

Matthew Shanks, deputy chief executive of the multi-academy trust Education South West, said he had ordered devices in April but none have been delivered. “It would have been quicker to have the funds and buy them ourselves. It is absolutely vital we are able to use these laptops with pupils to try to level the field.”

He added: “If the vast majority of learning is accessed online, it is not surprising that children whose parents are able to go out and buy them a device will succeed more than a child who has to access all learning from a phone or shared device.”

More than half (54%) of secondary school leaders say, as of this weekend, they have not received a single device, and 70% have not received the promised routers to give internet access for these pupils, according to a survey of 142 headteachers by the National Association of Headteachers. “This promise seems to be going unfulfilled,” said Paul Whiteman, the union’s general secretary.

Vic Goddard, headteacher at Passmores Academy and a participant in the TV show Educating Essex, said a quarter of his Year 10 pupils have little or no access to the technology they needed for online learning during lockdown. “We’ve moved completely offline because we weren’t willing to sacrifice 25% of our kids. However, by doing that, the criticism we’re open to is: you’ve disadvantaged the advantaged kids.”

He has not received any of the devices he has requested, just emails from the Department for Education saying: you’ll be contacted about how to order them. “My direct network would be about 50 heads from all over the country. None of them have heard anything different to that.” 

A further six headteachers told the Observer they had not yet received any devices. Steve Howell, headteacher at the City of Birmingham School, is one of them. “More than three-quarters of our year 10 pupils do not have access, regularly and consistently, to a device or the internet at home,” he said. “It’s disappointing that a big announcement was made about this before there was a practical mechanism for rollout. The most disadvantaged pupils are hardest hit with IT poverty, and the fact this has taken so long is really making things worse.”

The government’s failure to deliver is effectively putting children without any tech under pressure to take greater health risks and return to school earlier than their peers, warned Jolyon Maugham, a barrister and founder of the Good Law Project. “Poorer families are overwhelmingly the victims of the pandemic. It’s extraordinary to me that the government should make matters worse by denying those families a choice the middle class have, to educate their children at home.”

There are already signs that the partial return of schools will exacerbate the attainment gap between rich and poor, as new data obtained by the Observer shows greater numbers of primary school pupils returned to the classroom last week in affluent areas than in poorer neighbourhoods.

Teachers at different schools were asked to identify whether less than a fifth of eligible pupils had returned to classrooms last week. That was true of 24% of the poorest schools but only 10% of the richest.

Laura McInerny, the co-founder of TeacherTapp, which conducted the survey of just under 2,000 teachers, said: “The data is showing us that far fewer pupils are attending in the poorest areas. It’s actually quite dramatic. We know that the home environment is unequal, but we also now know that who is coming to school is unequal.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said Williamson had promised to deliver the devices at the end of May and throughout June, and its £100m programme to support pupils with remote education was “on track”. “The Department is prioritising the delivery of devices to the most vulnerable children first – children with a social worker and care leavers,” he said. “We will do whatever we can to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus. ”

James Johnson, a year 1 teacher in Kent shares his diary from the first week back at school with nine of his usual class of 30

Monday

Before the children arrive, I feel anxious about the day ahead. I wonder how the gap in their education is going to present itself and what has happened to them over the past 10 weeks. But my biggest anxiety is: is this going to work? Are we going to be able to keep everybody safe? Will all the children manage to stay in one “bubble” throughout the week?

At the same time, I’m feeling very, very excited. I always form such a strong connection to the children I teach and the thought that keeps going through my mind is: I’m going to see some of them again. And the moment that I do, I feel overwhelmed with emotion. It was such a beautiful sunny day, and when each child came round the corner and we saw each other… I just couldn’t stop smiling. Those were moments of complete and utter joy.

Tuesday

I feel much less anxious today. The steps my leadership team has put in place have been very successful. The children may be only five or six years old, but they have learned to line up two metres apart, put hand gel on when they arrive and sit at individual desks spread out around the room. Normally, I teach the children through play, we don’t have formal desks at all. But they are now taking pride in their desks and saying “I’ve got to keep it tidy”.

Throughout the week, the children seem fully aware of the virus and what’s been happening. Today, when we speak about the continent of Asia, straightaway one of the children says: “That’s where the coronavirus comes from.” My teaching assistant and I look at each other. Asia has such a rich culture and history. For a child to immediately think of that… This is how the real world is imprinting itself on our young children.

Wednesday

The children are learning about Saint George, so I get them to describe and draw their own dragons.

Normally, I teach a mixed class of 30 Year 1 and Year 2 pupils, but only nine of them have come into school this week. We are all in one “bubble” together. My teaching assistant supervises them when I have my lunch or a break, and vice versa, so no other adult ever enters our bubble.

It’s hard to keep your distance from a small child – sometimes they just want to come up to you and hold your hand. My biggest concern is to keep the children’s anxieties to a minimum. That comes first, for me, so I am prepared to let them get a bit close.

After a socially distanced ice-cream on the school playing field with other staff members, I hear on the news the death toll is rising again. My mother calls me to say she wouldn’t have sent her child back to school this week – but she didn’t have a choice. I find myself hoping, beyond anything, that going back was the right decision.

Thursday

We play socially distanced golf this morning. It’s not a sport I’ve taught before, it’s not on our normal curriculum but it was fantastic. When the children’s balls land in the “pond” I have created from a big water tray, they have to whack them out of the water – and they can’t stop laughing.

I can tell one little boy is missing his best friend though. Usually, they’re inseparable – but his friend isn’t coming in, so he seems a bit lost. I try my best to help. I miss the other children in the class, too.

From the news that evening, I learn face masks will soon be compulsory on public transport. Yet the government is happy for teachers to be confined in classrooms with up to 15 children all day long. That was interesting.

Friday

Today the children re-enact the Roman invasion of the hometown of Boudica, the warrior queen. Normally, we dedicate a whole term to a single topic or theme, but this week I’ve been trying to spark their curiosity about learning again. There are no end of year assessments, like there usually are, so I can use this time to really explore and fill the different gaps in their knowledge.

It takes a lot of energy to teach young children and when I leave, I am tired. I want to collapse on the sofa. But I have been back in the classroom, where I should be, seeing children smile again and having an impact on their learning. And that has felt incredible.

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