'Four in 10 Sheffield schools' in need of more digital devices to help children's online learning

More than four in ten schools in Sheffield say more digital devices are needed to help children’s education as learning increasingly moves online as a result of the pandemic.

Child at home having remote school on laptop computer. Picture: Adobe Stock

A poll of more than 100 state schools in the city found 44 per cent needed more laptops or connectivity devices amid concerns a lack of internet access at home is harming the prospects of children in deprived families.

Headteachers reported some families have to choose between “eating or paying for internet services” and many are unable to get contracts due to their circumstances.

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Learn Sheffield, a non-profit company owned by schools and colleges, carried out the survey for Laptops for Kids, a charitable campaign launched in September 2020 to provide new and used laptops, tablets and PCs for schools.

The research, which included responses from nurseries through to post-16 education providers, revealed how school attitudes to technology have changed during the pandemic.

An overwhelming majority (94 per cent) of schools said they would either be definitely or were thinking positively about doing more general schoolwork online.

A similar number (96 per cent) said they would either definitely or were thinking positively about using technology to support disadvantaged children while 75 per cent said they would either definitely or were thinking positively about using technology with catch-up programmes including tutoring.

However, at the same time nearly half (47 per cent) said lack of internet access at home was definitely a barrier to making better use of technology for learning with a further 30 per cent saying it probably was.

Feedback from headteachers revealed the human cost of the shortages during and after school closures.

One said: “There is definitely digital poverty in our community – this is the difference between eating or paying for internet services.”

Others highlighted children being unable to access learning other than by phone, families being unable to get a contract for internet access due to their housing or background and difficulties finding money from budgets to provide expensive computer equipment.

David Richards, founder and chairman of software company WANdisco who launched the Laptops for Kids campaign with the Sheffield Star and Learn Sheffield, said: “Poverty is excluding young people from education simply because they cannot get online at home. This is a shocking waste of talent and is storing up social problems for the future.”

Stephen Betts, CEO of Learn Sheffield, said: “Schools and colleges are telling us they are committed to making greater use of technology to support learning, but we need to solve the issues of lack of access to devices and connectivity for all children in order to make this a reality.”

Northern Powerhouse Partnership director Henri Murison said: “The digital divide is yet another hurdle facing children, in particular those from less well-off families, in the education recovery. We know that the impact of the past year hasn't been felt evenly across the country. In the North – where widespread disadvantage already has a huge impact on education attainment – children spent far less time in the classroom than elsewhere in the UK.

“Children may be back in school but digital poverty means many are still locked out of further opportunities to learn and, with cases rising, there is a real risk the education disadvantage gap could get worse before it gets better."

A Department for Education spokesperson said:“We understand the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged children during this pandemic, which is why we invested £400 million to provide more than 1.3 million laptops and tablets to support access to remote education and online social care services.

“We based allocations for schools on estimates of disadvantaged children who need them most, using free school meals data and other information, as well as responding to requests for additional devices.”