How the school laptops scandal let down teachers and pupils

Schools across England are still struggling to gain access to the devices they need to continue teaching the poorest students. 

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On 23 October, seven weeks into the autumn term, Stuart Guest logged into the Department for Education (DfE)'s website to check the status of the laptops he had ordered for disadvantaged pupils at the primary school he runs in Birmingham.

The number of devices earmarked for the school – 28 – was already lower than needed to support the pupils through any closures, but it was set to be cut further. As the site loaded, a message appeared on screen. "You've been allocated six laptops and tablets," it read. "This allocation could change. If there are widespread school closures, we might reduce it."

Guest's school, Colebourne Primary, was one of hundreds around the country that had their allocations of promised devices cut by up to 80 per cent. While the government eventually agreed to restore Guest's allocation following a strongly worded letter and an intervention by the school's local MP, others were not so lucky. Thousands of schoolteachers had to wait nearly two months before the government U-turned in mid-December and restored their allocations.

But now, more than month later and a fortnight after schools were forced to close, some teachers are still struggling to access the devices they need to continue teaching the country's poorest pupils.

Shortly before Christmas, the DfE announced it would procure an extra 440,000 devices, bringing the total available up to one million. But the assessment on what was needed was taken before the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) warned the government it would have to shut schools in the new year, and several weeks before Boris Johnson decided to follow that advice. It appears therefore that the calculation on how many devices were required was based on schools remaining open, when demand was significantly lower. It wasn't until last week that Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, announced that a further 300,000 devices had been purchased, reflecting the reality of school closures.

Guest still has problems. Over Christmas, he emailed the Department for Education requesting further supplies. He says he needs at least 100 devices to ensure all his students are able to continue their education online. And although he had been able to previously secure tablets through alternative funding, not all of those devices supported up-to-date software.

Like many other head teachers at both primary and secondary level, Guest was told by the DfE that he would be able to order more devices on 13 January. But when he logged in last Wednesday (13 January), a new message appeared saying that he would have to wait indefinitely. Two days later, he received an email from the Department for Education announcing additional devices would be available by the start of February. But having been let down twice before, he is sceptical that this latest deadline will be met.

While Guest is frustrated that the government didn't procure more devices earlier in the pandemic, he is not entirely unsympathetic to the DfE's predicament, given that there is a global device shortage. But what exasperates the head teacher most is how the challenges have been communicated. "If they said we understand your frustration and we're doing everything we can, then that would be one thing. But they're not being open, honest and transparent. Broken promises really do frustrate us, as we're on the other end of having to pass the message on to parents."

Helen Slack, the head teacher of another primary school in Birmingham, told the Birmingham Mail earlier this week that parents had been calling the school in tears over concerns their children would fail to keep up with other pupils. Only one of the 156 Birmingham schools that responded to a recent city council survey said they had a sufficient number of devices.

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

Last week, the Department for Education said it was on track to hit its target of supplying 750,000 devices to schools across the country by today. But, as the New Statesman reported last week, this leaves a quarter of a million students without devices more than two weeks after Boris Johnson told schools they must close. And while the government has since increased its total device provision to 1.3 million, that number is still likely to fall short of the true number needed to meet demand. According to telecoms regulator Ofcom, up to 1.8 million students across the UK lack access to a laptop, desktop or tablet computer. Students who do not have access to a device at home can go into school, but this risks putting families living in deprived areas – where Covid-19 death rates are already twice the average of those in the least deprived areas – at even greater risk of infection.

[see also: Ten years of data reveal how austerity weakened the UK’s pandemic response]

For Guest and his fellow head teachers, the laptops debacle is merely the latest in a series of promises that have been broken in the austerity era. "School funds have been decimated over the last eight to ten years and we’re struggling to make the right provisions for children," he says. "We’re making some really tight decisions around staffing and procurement. If we really want to level the playing field, they need support to access to proper broadband and devices. We're one of the schools that had to go to a four-and-a-half-day week. It saved us £60,000 to £70,000. We manage the budget really well here, but it's very challenging."

Oscar Williams is a senior journalist at the New Statesman covering technology.

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