Boris Johnson must take urgent action to help hundreds of thousands of pupils lacking the devices or connections needed to learn at home as schools shut down during the Covid crisis, senior public figures have said.
Former prime minister Tony Blair and three ex-education secretaries are among those who have written to the Prime Minister calling on him to act regarding shortages of remote learning equipment and accessibility.
Charities, unions and current MPs have also co-signed the letter with ex-Cabinet ministers in a bid to highlight the issue as controversy continues over how many schools should be closed.
The letter was co-ordinated by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, who said Ofcom estimates that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK (9%) do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and that more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
Data from the Office for National Statistics says only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have internet access, the MP said.
Ms McDonagh said: “Children on the wrong side of the digital divide have neither the data nor the devices to log in from home when their schools close.
“In a country with free state education, no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.”
The letter to the Prime Minister comes as ministers and teaching unions have clashed over how many schools should be shut down as Covid figures surge.
It says: “We write to you following the news that school will be closed for millions of pupils for the opening weeks of the new term.
“At the time of writing, all secondary school pupils in England and more than one million primary school pupils will be reliant on remote learning to continue their education.
“In October, the law changed to require teachers to provide remote education to pupils who are unable to attend school because of Covid-19.
“So, whilst we welcome the remote education support offered to schools by the Government, the number of devices pledged falls far short of the number required.
“Furthermore, a device is only effective for remote learning if the pupil can access the internet at home, with 880,000 children living in a household with only a mobile internet connection, in addition to those children on the wrong side of the digital divide with no connection at all.
“These pupils were likely to be behind their peers even before the pandemic.
“With the new term starting today, we are calling on you to urgently ensure that every child away from school has the data and device that they need to log in and learn from home.
“This will require a register of which children are without the technology or connectivity and a clear plan for how they will quickly receive this.”
Among those who signed the letter are former education secretaries Lord Blunkett, Alan Johnson, and Baroness Morris.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “As the Prime Minister has said, children’s education has consistently been a national priority, which is why we want classrooms to reopen wherever possible in the new term. It is also vital that, where public health advice means they can’t be, we have measures in place to prevent them from falling behind.
“We have scaled up our devices scheme, alongside our tutoring offer to reach as many children and young people as possible.
“More than one million laptops and tablets have been purchased for disadvantaged young people through this pandemic, supporting schools and students to ensure remote education is as strong as it can be.”