More laptops for schoolchildren amid 'digital divide' fears
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Efforts are underway to provide thousands of laptops and tablets to schoolchildren learning from in lockdown – but fears remain over the how long it will take to get the essential kit.
Pupils are expected to be learning from home until at least the February half-term under the third Covid-19 national lockdown, meaning laptops, tablets and adequate broadband.
Yet not everyone has access to the equipment needed - with some homes sharing devices or trying to manage on inadequate mobiles.
Suffolk County Council has to date distributed 944 laptops, 75 tablets and 150 4G hotspots to pupils who do not ordinarily have access to technology under the Department for Education’s scheme, with a further 440,000 being distributed nationally by the DfE.
But Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for education, said additional efforts were underway to bridge the digital divide.
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She said: “SCC are purchasing additional laptops for disadvantaged children and young people that may not otherwise be able to access them via school, and we are currently putting in place arrangements with a local community organisation to re-purpose donated computers to provide to children.
“These devices are essential to children, enabling them to continue their learning during this incredibly difficult time and stay connected with services, friends and family where being in touch has never been more important.”
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Details of the laptop donation scheme are expected to be unveiled next week.
Schools have also been undertaking Herculean efforts to ensure their pupils have the necessary equipment, which has continued since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Craig D’Cunha, Chantry Academy principal, said the school identified pupils who did not have access to computers during the first lockdown to provide them with the necessary kit.
It is also rolling out a programme of purchasing a device for every single pupil – around 900 in total – which they will be able to use both in lessons and at home for learning and homework.
For those with weaker broadband, dongles are also being distributed.
“We are trying to level the playing field and bridge that digital divide,” he said.
“It’s something we were looking to do in a few years’ time but that has been accelerated by Covid.”
He added: “When we went into lockdown three, students were more familiar and staff are more familiar as well [with home learning].”
Mr D’Cunha said it was not a case of just setting work for pupils to do remotely, but teachers were continuing to deliver lessons as well as exercises to do. That has also helped ensure parents are not having to find activities for their children to do.
Budgets have had to be adapted to fund those laptops, which has included using reserves and looking at areas where funds can be found such as reduced photocopying or textbooks.
Abbie Thorrington, Ipswich Academy principal, said 150 DfE laptops had been given out prior to the latest lockdown.
However, in the last week, a further 484 have been dished out to pupils thanks to funding from the Paradigm Trust, which oversees the school – more than 50% of pupils.
“We have a high percentage of disadvantaged children so that digital divide is a real concern,” she said.
“It’s fantastic students are wanting to maintain as much as they can in their online learning, and our staff are still following the schemes of work.
“We just need to make sure we take away that barrier to learning.”
Jack Abbott, education spokesman with the county council's opposition Labour group, said the distribution of equipment from central government needed to be much quicker.
“The figures don’t lie - the number of laptops that have been distributed in Suffolk has barely changed since November and remains below a thousand, well below what is needed," he said.
“Schools, as ever, have done everything they can to support their pupils, and mobile operators have made data free for school children, but I fear the government’s repeated failures are going to take months, if not years for children to recover from.”
The Creative Computing Club community interest company in Suffolk has launched free lunchtime sessions four days per week under the latest lockdown to help parents teaching their children at home.
The club delivers digital technology education in areas such as coding, creating digital characters and use of algorithms in computer programme development.
Sessions are being run from 1pm to 2pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesday and Fridays, and is only open to members.
However, parents interested in their child joining can find out how to do so online at www.creativecomputingclub.com