by Kristina Murkett
Friday, 8
January 2021
Debate
09:37

Remote learning? 1.8m children don’t have a laptop

Digital poverty is bleaker than ever, and the government still has no answer
by Kristina Murkett
Gavin Williamson turned down an offer to get free or cheap broadband for thousands of disadvantaged families

When it comes to lockdowns, third time isn’t the charm; statistics around digital poverty are bleaker than ever. Ofcom estimates that over 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and 800,000 pupils live in homes with only a mobile internet connection.

The government has failed to deliver on its pledge to provide laptops to the most disadvantaged pupils; by August only 37% of pupils eligible had been able to access a device. Only 51 per cent of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have access to the internet at all.

At least during the first lockdown, the government had the excuse that the situation was genuinely unprecedented, and could claim that teething problems were inevitable. 10 months on, and the government has no such defence.

So where is the contingency plan? Individuals, organisations and campaigns such as Devices Dot Now are making valiant efforts, but there is still a shocking lack of leadership and ignorance around the scale of the problem.

Today, it was reported that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson turned down an offer to get free or cheap broadband for thousands of disadvantaged families. Instead, his solution to the problem was telling parents to report schools to Ofsted if they felt that the online provision was not good enough. Teachers are only just recovering from the whiplash of several u-turns around mass testing and exams, and it is an odd state of affairs when Ofsted can inspect schools’ remote lessons, but the government isn’t willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to make remote lessons work in the first place.

There are 1.4 million children on free school meals in the UK; the government could buy every single one of them a £400 Chromebook and 12 months of £20-a-month broadband for roughly the same amount of money (£896m) as the Eat Out To Help Out Scheme (£849m).

In fact, they could buy every single pupil in the UK a decent £500 laptop and 12 months of broadband for £6.5 billion, which is less than a third of the price of our ‘world-beating’ test and trace system.

It’s therefore not so much a question of can’t, but won’t.

The digital divide is not a new phenomenon, but the result of a decade of unambitious government policies. Lack of investment in broadband infrastructure means that the UK’s fibre-optic connectivity is around 8-10%, in contrast with South Korea’s 98%. Guidance around technology-supported learning is incredibly vague: the Core Content Framework for Initial Teacher Training makes no reference to it at all.

The government’s short-term solution is to label children without access to technology as “vulnerable,” and therefore allow them to go to school alongside the children of key workers. However, this has been poorly publicised, and more needs to be done to be make sure kids actually show up — in June only about 20% of vulnerable children went into school.

It seems mind-boggling that only 14 months ago, Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to bring free broadband to everyone was mocked by the BBC as ‘broadband communism.’ Boris Johnson called it a “crackpot scheme”, Nicky Morgan laughed at this “reckless fantasy” and even Jess Philips said it “was just not believable.” It seems no-one is laughing now.

Join the discussion


  • I think the laptop question, or even the rest of it, is a red herring of the highest order.

    The real issue is that online education is not very good. Even online programs for university students can easily be crap quality, and they have a high drop-out and fail rate. But primary school education is not at all suited to online work. Even as a literacy tutor, I see every day that working online with students, on one mainly text based subject with one child, is difficult. Some things, like the mechanical aspect of writing which is important in literacy work, are almost impossible. Children are easily distracted, etc. It is much more difficult to find out why they are struggling with something.

    Any regular home educating parent will say that even for an online program, right up through middle school and even into high school, you need a parent present. Close by in younger years. And you simply cannot spend hour after hour working online and have a good outcome.

    Similarly the piles of workbooks parents are ordering in desperation are not going to educate anyone. Workbooks can be a supplement for kids who like them or to keep them busy for a short while, they do not teach.

  • Just about every comment is better informed on this subject than Kristina. Typical left solution to every problem – throw others people’s money at it. No intellectual or even practical rigour applied, just a cheap, sloppy, headline grabbing sound bite. So according to this commentator around £1 billion will solve the problem by providing “free” laptops and broadband. The reality is if these kids are as badly off as Kristina makes out then surely it’s right to classify them as disadvantaged and better they attend school for real teaching. Yet this commentator reduces a complex problem to simple solutions. Better to face the fact the education system isn’t set up to deliver lessons across the web. It might be in time but not in a few months. And even if the technology was there does Kristina honestly believe these kids or their parents are motivated or able to use it. And that isn’t a criticism of the kids or parents but a statement of common sense and human nature. We now have digital poverty, food poverty, energy poverty and of course real poverty. Where will it end?

  • The govt has taken away resources from those who need them. That’s the net effect of lockdown mania. Shutting down schools does not just stifle education, it has social and psychological effects on children. And arbitrarily shutting businesses and putting millions into unemployment is not stopping a virus; it’s creating dependency.

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