Why school pupils deserve better than this – Tracy Brabin

I WANT to take this opportunity to thank the teachers, the teaching assistants, the heads, the parents, the BBC, and others for their fantastic online lessons – all supporting our children to get an education during this new lockdown.

Schools are facing a digital divide as a result of the lockdown, says Tracy Brabin.
Schools are facing a digital divide as a result of the lockdown, says Tracy Brabin.

Teachers have had to redesign lesson plans at the last minute and get to grips with a new way of teaching, while maintaining standards. Although many children are still going to school – the children of key workers and others – there are thousands back at home with their parents, potentially without resources to learn.

We know that the digital divide is real, and the lockdown has identified that inequality. Many of the most disadvantaged children rely on schools and libraries to access the internet.

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With those closed, children and young people are now struggling to get online. The need is urgent, and I reiterate the point made by the Sutton Trust: just one in 10 schools across the country say that their pupils have access to technology. It is urgent, and it is a crisis.

Tracy Brabin is Labour MP for Batley and Spen. She spoke in a Parliamentary debate on education.

As a young girl growing up on a council estate in Batley, on free school meals, I definitely would have been one of those youngsters who did not have the tech. I know the impact it would have had on my prospects.

This is about lost potential. I definitely would not be standing in this place if I had had to scramble around for tech or share a mobile phone with my sister, my mum and my dad. This is a crisis for this generation.

Only the other night, I received an email from Andrew Barker, a parent at my old school, Windmill Primary School, which is an outstanding, excellent school with great leadership.

He asked whether I could help him and other parents source 20 recycled, used or spare devices for children who might not have access at home to learning and the devices to support it.

What can be done to speed up the provosion of laptops to schools?

Andrew, a software company owner, has also offered his tech support to help the school and teachers.

I thank him and so many other parents around the country who are using their skills to support teachers – something that is desperately needed.

Ofcom and SHINE, the Leeds-based charity, have said that 1.78 million children lack access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet.

That is a seriously depressing number, given that children were already lagging behind their peers before Covid. Now, after five months of missed education, they will be even further behind.

It is not just about the tech, is it? It is also about supporting the educators, the teachers, the teaching assistants and the mums, dads and carers, many of whom may not be natural teachers or may have a job to do at home while also trying to home school their children.

They will need support. Leaving pupils without tech and their parents without support means the deprivation gap will only widen.

Kids will suffer not just in terms of their education, prospects and future; potentially, their mental health will suffer too.

A telling admission of failure was when the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told children that if they did not have laptops at home, they could go to school, whereas the Government’s plan was to close schools to all children except vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Of course, the pledge to deliver 750,000 laptops to families without a suitable device is extremely welcome.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating – those children should have had them already. We cannot forget either that Government deliveries to special schools have not been fit for purpose.

The Government have offered 
desktop computers to children who are not mobile and able to use desktops. Those children need tablets or smaller devices.

Councils around the country have had to step in where the Government have failed to deliver.

My local authority, Kirklees, has distributed 3,857 devices since lockdown, but it decided that that was just not enough and allocated its own substantial funds to deliver tech for schools.

This is also about social mobility. There is a correlation between children being on free school meals and their access to tech. There are more than 62,113 children on free school meals across West Yorkshire, so it is evident that the need is great, but it did not have to be that way. The Education Secretary and his Department knew that this crisis was coming.

Our children need care, but they also need resources. Our families need practical support. Schools need timely, realistic guidelines.

We need an Education Secretary who is on top of his brief, but so far we have seen the Government continue to fail the children of Batley and Spen and West Yorkshire, whose futures and destinies depend on their leadership.

Tracy Brabin is Labour MP for Batley and Spen. 
She spoke in a Parliamentary debate on education – this is an edited version.

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