Why the pandemic has exposed the scale of Yorkshire's digital divide

The pandemic has shown how so-called 'digital inequality' is a real issue in Yorkshire, where tens of thousands of families are without a laptop or device to learn remotely, according to a senior councillor.

Campaigners are threatening legal action against the Government if it fails to step up its efforts to ensure all children can access remote education during the lockdown. PA Photo.
Campaigners are threatening legal action against the Government if it fails to step up its efforts to ensure all children can access remote education during the lockdown. PA Photo.

The number of children in the region unable to learn while schools are closed during the third national lockdown has been described by a Yorkshire businessman as a "scandalous waste of human potential" which is storing up serious social problems for the future.

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One school still short of 171 laptops as pressure grows on Williamson

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Under-fire Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says his department has bought more than a million laptops and tablets to help children learn from home and will have delivered three quarters of a million devices by the end of this week.

And he said last week that pupils without access to technology such as laptops can attend school during the third national lockdown.

But the Government has faced criticism over the speed at which it got the devices out to schools, with one in West Yorkshire 171 short of what was needed for its pupils.

And Wakefield council has been forced to start its own donations scheme and is appealing for anyone with a device they no longer use to be handed over so it can be restored for use by local children.

Labour-run Kirklees council has had 3,857 laptops or tablets sent to it by the Department for Education as of December, the highest total for any local authority in the region.

Carole Pattison, the authority's Cabinet member for Learning, Aspiration and Communities, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had its most severe impact on vulnerable families and we are providing a huge range of support across our communities.

“We are making maximum use of the scheme to obtain and distribute IT equipment so that children and young people are helped to achieve good outcomes.

“The pandemic – in particular when the majority of pupils rely on home learning because they can’t go to school - has shown that digital inequality is a real issue, not just in Kirklees but around the country."

Mr Williamson said last week that schools in England are "much better prepared than last March" to implement home-learning.

But according to new analysis from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, based on data from Ofcom and ONS, there are at least 116,000 families in Yorkshire and the Humber without access to a laptop, tablet or desktop computer, around 10 per cent of the total population.

In September, CEO of Sheffield-based software company WANDisco David Richards joined forces with the Sheffield Star and Northern Powerhouse Partnership to launch a campaign to help close the digital divide.

Since its launch, Laptops for Kids has virtually met the initial need with pledged donations of more than 4,000 devices in Sheffield and is working with business and civic leaders in other northern cities to roll out its model.

Campaign partners include leading global data security expert Blancco, education software publisher Twinkl and educational social media platform Natterhub. The charitable campaign sources donations from employers and individuals.

Mr Richards said: ""With schools closed to the majority of pupils for an uncertain amount of time, it is essential that young people are able to access remote learning. Denying children their basic right to an education is storing up serious social problems for the future. It is a scandalous waste of human potential.

"We urge employers of all shapes and sizes to donate surplus devices to Laptops for Kids. We have proved our model of erasing and distributing devices with our business, civic and education partners in Sheffield and we are rolling it out across other northern cities including Newcastle and Leeds with more to follow."

A Wakefield councillor says the district urgently needs more laptops to ensure local children do not suffer during the third lockdown.

The council’s WFConnect digital donations scheme was launched just before Christmas to support disadvantaged children in the district to access IT equipment for home learning.

A number vulnerable children received vital equipment to support them to learn at home, thanks to early donations from local businesses and partner organisations.

But Maureen Cummings, Wakefield Council’s Cabinet Member for Environment, Communities and Poverty, said: “We are so very grateful for all the equipment that has already been donated. It is a making a real difference to children and their families.

"But we urgently need more to ensure that our children and young people do not suffer during this lockdown. Please donate your old or spare equipment so we can continue to support families with home learning during this difficult time.”