Since then, a high proportion of children have been required to self-isolate. On a single day in November, an estimated 876,000 secondary pupils in England did not attend class for Covid-related reasons. My son was one of them after being sent home from school in Leeds for the third of four occasions last term.
But he had one piece of good fortune on his side after putting a basic laptop on his 2019 Christmas list. His younger sister had also been lucky after I coincidentally bought a new laptop just a fortnight before lockdown, freeing up my ancient old machine for her to do school work.
Throughout the months, I have been acutely aware that a high proportion of other kids have not been so blessed. A recent survey conducted by education charity Teach found that four out of five schools with the poorest pupils in England do not have enough devices or internet access to ensure all self-isolating pupils can keep learning.
The Government initially pledged to provide devices for children in Years 3 to 11 on free school meals who did not have laptops and whose face-to-face education was disrupted, as well as any disadvantaged children shielding. But then Ministers chose to slash the allocation by up to 80 per cent for some schools.
Alternative solutions were urgently required and, here in Yorkshire, my savvy friend Ben McKenna was already on the case. In 2017, he founded Solidaritech to provide refurbished tech kit to asylum seekers and refugees in Yorkshire and Humber. More than 250 devices have since been provided to beneficiaries.
Ben contacted me in August to say that he had joined forces with an eclectic group of individuals from the cultural, education and community sectors to form Digital Access West Yorkshire (DAWY).
Its mission was to acquire, refurbish and distribute unused IT equipment – preferably laptops – to digitally excluded children in the region, enabling them to catch up on their schoolwork from home and achieve their full potential. In the four months from April, DAWY had distributed over 50 machines to those in need. And Ben had more exciting news which he asked me to help him promote.
Thanks to funding from Leeds Community Foundation and support from Ahead Partnership, Leeds City Council and Zero Waste Leeds, DAWY was preparing to significantly expand its work. The new project – with the objective of properly equipping digitally excluded children and young people in Leeds – was subsequently named Leeds Tech Angels and went live at the beginning of December.
It has two broad target groups. First, businesses, other employers and voluntary organisations across the city. Laptops are again at the top of the wanted list, but decent quality tablets and smart phones are welcome too – in addition to useful extras such as keyboards, chargers, batteries, dongles and laptop bags.
Items can be deposited at several secure locations including Unity Business Centre in Chapeltown, Armley Helping Hands, Hyde Park Book Club and the Old Fire Station in Gipton. A collection service is also available. Each piece of kit is fully wiped of data and returned to its original factory settings by a Leeds Tech Angels IT specialist.
The same process applies to the second target group which, essentially, includes anyone and everyone with a spare laptop or other device at home that could help a young person in Leeds. It is that time of the year when many choose to spend some cash upgrading their personal laptops or tablets.
Rather than allow old machines to gather dust, Leeds Tech Angels can work their magic and enable a digitally excluded young person to get back on track with their studies. We would be immensely grateful if The Yorkshire Post’s readers could step forward to help and also spread the word to others.
It is clearly hoped that 2021 will herald better times. But we must never forget the lessons learnt through the curse of Covid, including the light shone on the digital divide. Empowering children disconnected from learning is one such example.
More information about Leeds Tech Angels including how to donate tech kit can be found at tech-angels.net
Barry White is a partner at Leeds-based communications agency Vanbar Associates.
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