Support for children entitled to free school meals should be about
far more than just the food. Because when schools closed, it wasn’t just lunch
that disadvantaged children missed out on. It was connectivity.
Through the lockdown, millions of children started the day with
Joe Wicks’ online exercise classes, they completed schoolwork sent remotely by
their teachers and they joined their classmates in live remote learning lessons.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was an extraordinary feat achieved thanks to the dedication
of our teachers and the support and patience of home-schooling parents.
But the lockdown exposed the digital divide in our society. Whilst
around 30% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons per
day during the first lockdown, just 6.3% of state school pupils did the same. That’s
no surprise considering 1 in 5 children did not always have access to a device
for online learning while schools were closed.
How did those children log in and learnt from home? The answer is
simple: they didn’t. They have fallen even further behind.
The Government’s rollout of devices was nothing short of shambolic.
5% of teachers in state schools reported that all their students have a device,
compared to 54% at private schools. The National Audit Office even concluded in
March that the Department for Education didn’t even aim to
provide equipment to all children who lacked it. Every click simply widened the
attainment gap. So much for levelling up.
With schools open and lockdown lifting, this is no problem for the
past. The days of pen and paper are long gone and the technological age we now
live in is here to stay. Homework. Research. Resources. Catch up. So much is
now online. The consequence for those children on the wrong side of the digital
divide is that they are now even more disadvantaged than before.
And so I say that support for children entitled to free school
meals must be about more than just the food. I am calling for all children
entitled to free school meals to have the support of internet access and an
adequate device so that they can log in and catch up from home. I recognise that
free school meals are an imperfect indicator of need, but it’s the best one
Compared to the vast sums squandered throughout the pandemic, this
is a low cost, straightforward and tangible step forward. It’s no silver bullet
but it would make a life changing difference to those children on the wrong
side of the digital divide.
Take 10-year-old Abi in our constituency. In lockdown, she secured
entry to Tiffin Girl’s, one of the most prestigious grammar schools in the
country, working in a cramped homeless hostel with only a refurbished, donated Tesco
Mobile to get her connected.
Social mobility… Levelling up… Call it whatever you want. The
impact for Abi will be lifelong.
What will it take before we all agree that no child should be left
behind because of their internet connection?