On Thursday 22 October the UK Government used its emergency powers to make it a legal obligation for head teachers to provide online learning for all Covid-isolated children. On Friday 23 October, just after schools had closed for half term, emails were sent to Primary head teachers across England telling them the Department for Education (DfE) had cut their allocation of equipment for online learning by up to 80 percent.
The shocking discovery that promised technology for England’s most disadvantaged children was to be denied spread rapidly across social media. It became apparent that hundreds of schools had seen their allocation substantially reduced. On the same day, 26,688 new Covid cases were recorded, the highest number in one day since the start of the outbreak.
Threatening a social divide
Many schools had applied for technological help on the basis of predicted infection rates. But the DfE has altered its criteria to adjust for the increasing cost of technology on the global market, thereby threatening a social divide in learning and putting teachers at risk of breaking the law.
In April, Computacenter Ltd was contracted for £60 million to provide 230,000 laptops and tablets, £6.4 million for an undisclosed quantity of 4G wireless routers for homes without wi-fi, and £2.8 million for security software. Educators complained that the scheme covered fewer than half of children eligible. Even then, the company missed its end of June target by 30,000. A further 300,000 children were forgotten about in the calculations altogether.
Despite there being no open tendering process, the company was paid an additional £27 million to deliver a further 120,000 units for 7-16-year-olds by the end of August. Schools were encouraged to apply.
Many schools found themselves to be ineligible or were told the equipment was out of stock. Of those that received confirmation of allocation, many have now been told the rules have changed and so they will get their support reduced to almost nothing.
Calculations were based on the assumption that schools had more than 10 times the devices they actually had
The way in which the eligibility calculations are being made is also causing consternation. The DfE said the number was based on the number of children between years three and 10, the number receiving free school meals and the devices already delivered. But head teachers complained that the calculations were based on the assumption that schools had more than 10 times the devices they actually had.
The new DfE rules, announced in the emails, state that only schools that are fully closed will be prioritised as Computacentre is having to struggle against a global demand.
One head teacher, Michael Tidd of East Preston Junior School in Sussex, expressed his frustration to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘We’ve all been planning, we’ve had a legal requirement put on us since Thursday to plan for remote learning,’ he said. ‘The day after all those plans had to be finalised, then we get told the number of laptops we were expecting has been reduced massively.
The DfE says it hopes to have delivered half a million devices by Christmas
‘The legal requirement is that we must provide immediate access to remote learning. We have to wait now until we’re in a severe lockdown situation… we have to wait until we have 15 different cases in our schools before we can even apply for this very small number of laptops. And then we have to wait for them to be delivered, and there seems to be problems with that where schools are accessing them.’
The DfE says it hopes to have delivered half a million devices by Christmas but as there is a problem purchasing sufficient equipment due to global demand, new priorities had to be set.
In a statement, the DfE said, ‘As we move into half-term, and in the context of significant global demand, we’re updating our allocation process to more accurately align orders with the number of students schools typically have self-isolating, ensuring as many children as possible benefit from receiving a device this term.’
Where this places schools that cannot meet their new legal duties, the department did not say.