Why failure to equip school children with technology would be economic arson - Ismail Mulla

Spare a thought for our political leaders. Not only do they have to face major issues such as Brexit and climate change but to compound matters they now have to navigate the country out of one of the greatest public health crises in centuries.

David Richards has helped pioneer the Laptops For Kids scheme in Sheffield that ensures pupils such as Castro Hart-Richards, pictured with his mother Vikki Hart and Athelstan Primary School assistant headteacher James Mills.

While the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to predict what will happen in the next 48 hours let alone next few weeks or even months, there are some things that are unforgivable.

Not equipping schools with the tech to enable every child to continue their education from home in the event of a second lockdown is just that. Unforgivable.

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Don’t take that from me. Take that from someone who has been trying to warn about this situation and trying to actively head it off.

David Richards, founder and CEO of Sheffield-based tech company WANdisco, says it's unforgivable that lessons have not been learned from the first lockdown.

David Richards, founder and CEO of Sheffield-based tech company WANdisco, told me: “What’s unforgivable is the lessons that should have been learned from the first lockdown.”

He added: “You get a free pass for the first one but for the second one it is unacceptable. It smacks of total incompetence.”

The Government can kid itself all it wants but we all know that a second lockdown was a very real possibility. It made a lot of noise about having enough laptops for every school child in the event of another lockdown after the country had to shut down for the first time last March.

However, Mr Richards, who helped set up Laptops For Kids, an initiative that looks to ensure every child in Sheffield has access to a device to continue learning, says that it was simply not what schools were telling him in the city.

As the tech entrepreneur points out, quite worryingly, that it is already widening the inequality gap.

He talked about how he encountered a single mother with three children, two who were in college, and they had one mobile phone amongst them. He said: “Let’s not pull any punches here. This is a demographic issue in the UK. This is very specific to immigrants in the country, to people in very working class areas, there are a lot of those in Yorkshire. They’re all going to suffer. The result of this on society is going to be a complete train wreck if we don’t do something about it.”

The lack of tech for school-children is no longer a political issue but an economic one.

The Government is always keen to cite the economy whenever it’s preaching spending prudence. But it would be tantamount to economic arson if we don’t act fast as a country to get education up and running for these children.

This is the future workforce of our country. Social mobility, which already is an uphill climb, will become an impossible incline for underprivileged families.

Classing these children as vulnerable just so they can go into school won’t ease the burden on the education system or control the virus.

The whole sorry saga has shown us the importance of technology and the increasing role it will play in all our lives. It is time to start putting technology front and centre in our education system.

The way IT is taught needs reform. We need to inspire students rather than impose on them topics such as the components of a printer. Then, critically, the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is. Investing in the education sector in this manner is investing in our future economy. Sure, we all hope to return to some semblance of the old normal once the population is administered with a vaccine. But investing in tech such as laptops, tablets and internet access for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will enable them to flourish post pandemic.

Mr Richards recalls meeting a young man at the WANdisco Academy, who told him that he was building computers with his dad in their garage.

“I said, what does your dad do?” Mr Richards said. “I expected him to say ‘he is a computer programmer for Hewlett Packard or IBM or Google or something like that. Instead he stacked shelves in a supermarket in the evening.”

It’s not too late for the Government to turn the tide. Good people in business stand primed to support it. Inaction, though, will lead to a lot of people turning their backs on it the next time Boris Johnson travels up here to sell us another ‘levelling up’ agenda.

For more information on the Laptops For Kids initative visit: https://www.ltfk.co.uk/

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James Mitchinson