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11 January 2021updated 22 Jan 2021 6:45pm

Revealed: UK flew in thousands of school laptops from Shanghai in last-minute bid to plug shortages

The unusual logistics operation has raised concerns about escalating costs and poor government planning.

By Oscar Williams

The government flew thousands of laptops to the UK from Shanghai in an 11th-hour bid to meet targets for providing devices to disadvantaged students whose education has been disrupted during the pandemic, the New Statesman has learnt. 

The exercise, which came to light as schools were forced to close, is likely to have incurred much higher costs than shipping the devices directly from manufacturers. Air freight is significantly more expensive than conventional shipping and is typically reserved for very high-value products, perishable items and emergencies. It is likely that the government could have procured more devices for the same cost had it placed the orders earlier in the year and allowed time for them to be shipped instead.

Details of the exercise have emerged as the government faces criticism from headteachers and its own MPs over its failure to prioritise the provision of laptops to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a computer for home learning. Nearly half of school leaders said in a poll last week that they had received less than 10 per cent of their allocation.

The Department for Education (DfE) has stated that “the vast majority” of secondary schools were to have received their full allocation by Friday 8 January, while primary schools are set to receive devices over the next fortnight. The DfE has committed to providing 750,000 of the one million promised devices by the end of this week (15 January).

This still leaves at least a quarter of a million pupils without the ability to access educational resources from home two weeks after the government decided schools must shut. And that figure could be a conservative estimate; Ofcom has said that up to 1.8m children – nearly twice the government’s target – do not have access to a laptop, desktop PC or tablet.

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Students who cannot access online resources have been told they can still go to school. But teachers fear this could lead to schools being overwhelmed, while it may also increase the risk of transmission within families living in deprived areas, where Covid-19 death rates are already twice the average of those in the least deprived areas.

In a statement shared with the New Statesman, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union, NAHT, said: “We are very concerned that the government won’t be able to supply enough laptops to meet demand. We’re nearly a year into the pandemic and many schools and pupils are still waiting for their allocation to come through. The government really has really let young people down miserably on this one.

“There is also concern that because the government has not supplied enough laptops for all the children without them, it has made lack of internet access a vulnerable criteria, which has only added to the numbers still physically in school. It is critical that key worker and vulnerable child school places are only used when absolutely necessary in order to truly reduce the numbers in school and stem the spread of the virus.” 

The government’s critics have warned that this situation could have been avoided if the Department for Education had ordered more devices last spring. In April 2020, the government ordered 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged students through Computacenter, an established provider of public sector IT whose founder is married to a Conservative party donor. The deal, which did not go to competitive tender, was worth £60m and then expanded to the tune of £27m in July. 

After the summer term, the government purchased a further 340,000 laptops from Computacenter and two other IT resellers: XMA and SCC, which collectively procured up to 165,499 devices at a reported device cost of £180 each. But on 23 October, at the same time that one of the deals was coming into effect, the Department for Education (DfE) notified hundreds of school leaders that their allocations of digital devices had been slashed, in some cases by 80 per cent.

The move prompted an outcry from teachers and on 10 December, the government announced the allocations would be restored to original levels. But it wasn’t until 20 December that the government issued a statement revealing that while 560,000 devices had already been provided to schools and councils in 2020, it would procure a further 440,000 devices, taking the total invested in the scheme, which includes 4G routers, to £300m and the number of laptops supplied to one million. The timing of the delivery of devices flown in from manufacturers in Shanghai indicates they were ordered in the past two months. Other devices are also being carried in by road from warehouses in Europe.

The haphazard approach appears to have frustrated some ministers. During a recent meeting where laptop provision was discussed, the health secretary Matt Hancock is reported to have asked, “What have they [the DfE] been doing for the last six months?” Speaking to Sky News on Sunday (10 January), Hancock denied having made the remarks.

The continued shortage of devices has led to a rethink over how the items should have been procured. Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, told talkRadio last Wednesday (6 January) that “vouchers should have been given to headteachers to go down to the local Currys and buy Chromebooks for £200”.

Sam Freedman, a former senior adviser on schools at the Department for Education, wrote in an article for the New Statesman that “a national campaign to get people to give old computers directly to local schools is probably the only way to sort this out in a reasonable timeframe”.

Meanwhile, telecoms firms have promised to provide internet access to educational resources, although industry sources have told Sky News the scheme could prove difficult to roll out.

[See also: An urgent action plan to mitigate the damage of school closures]

The New Statesman asked Jon Bumstead, a logistics expert who has written about the UK’s creaking supply chains, about how he would have sought to source the goods.

“For the size of this order, I would have grouped it as one deal and approached the main tech providers directly”, said Bumstead, explaining that the government could have “maximised the discount on such a deal by taking away the middle men” and requesting quotes from large technology companies such as HP, Lenovo or Google rather than “wholesalers or value-added resellers”.

“I would not break down the deal size into smaller quantities unless I could not source the full amount from one supplier,” he added, “but if I had gone direct to the big boys, this would not be the case.[…] I would have also made sure these movements were scheduled around the late spring/summer and to be in time for school term starting in September.”

[See also: Boris Johnson’s decision to open schools for one day put lives at risk]

Bumstead also said that because “air freight has touched astronomic proportions” during the pandemic, he would “advocate moving by sea”. “The cost of air freight will likely eat massively into margins or factory-gate savings, but assuming it has come out of the Far East, would have at least three weeks lead times which have stretched to more than six recently on sea, so time could be a factor here.”

“You only move something by air if its value density is very high (i.e. Covid vaccines), it has limited life or the supply chain has failed and there is no other way of getting there in time. Typically when air is used, it usually is associated with a panic situation.”