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Tech firms pledge to help with data and device access for students in lockdown

Martyn Landi, PA Technology Correspondent
·5-min read

Technology firms have pledged to work with the Government to ensure schoolchildren are able to adequately study remotely after coming under pressure to improve access to data and devices during England’s latest lockdown.

The Government has said that more than one million laptops and tablets will be provided to pupils by the end of the academic year to help with remote study, and previously launched a scheme to provide subsidised mobile data to those who need it.

But as schools close to most pupils under the latest lockdown restrictions announced on Monday, fresh concerns have been raised about a digital divide among pupils, with many unable to access or afford mobile devices or an adequate broadband connection, and technology firms being urged to do more to make data and devices available to those unable to afford to take part in remote learning.

Telecoms giant BT confirmed it was already working with the Department for Education (DfE) on an existing scheme which provides disadvantaged children with extra mobile data each month.

“Connectivity is absolutely essential to helping children keep up with their learning throughout the pandemic, which is why we partner with the DfE to give 20GB of free data per month to disadvantaged families,” a BT spokesperson said.

“The data is accessed through children’s schools, and will allow pupils to access whichever educational resource that their school subscribes to, to help make sure no-one is left behind while face-to-face teaching is paused.”

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for political pressure to also be brought to bear on tech firms to provide more free or subsidised data for children studying at home.

“Data is a big problem. Everybody needs to try and make this work and that includes the companies that can take away the charging for data,” he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said it was down to the Prime Minister to push network operators to make data more affordable.

“With child poverty figures on the rise, the challenge remains large – but action must be swift, immediate and game-changing,” she said.

“We must hear no more of rationing of equipment, as we did late last year. If the stockpiles exist, as the Department for Education claim they do, then they must be distributed urgently.

“We have heard too many stories of requests from schools not being met, or not being fully met.

“We must also see swift action to make internet connections and data allowance affordable for remote learning. This can only come from the top, with the Prime Minister speaking to communications companies and making that change immediately.”

Oak National Academy, the virtual learning hub set up last year to aid remote schooling, called on network providers to “zero-rate” educational websites and platforms so that accessing them did not incur any data charges.

Matt Hood, principal of the online academy, said the cost of internet access was the “single biggest issue” preventing children from accessing learning during lockdown, with pupils from the poorest families in danger of being “locked out of lockdown learning”.

“It’s time for the big four telecoms firms to step up and do their bit,” he said.

“It’s very simple: make education sites zero-rated. This cannot happen soon enough and we would urge them to do the right thing and to do it quickly.”

On Monday, a letter sent to the Prime Minister from senior public figures including former education secretaries and former prime minister Tony Blair, cited figures from Ofcom which estimate 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.

And according to the communications regulator’s Connected Nations report, published last month, about 190,000 properties across the UK cannot access a “decent” broadband connection.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the Government needed to treat pupils without laptops and access to sufficient technology as a priority.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is no doubt that remote learning and a large amount of time out of school has a very negative impact on children.

“Remote learning now needs to be a high priority for the Government and we need a plan around that to ensure there is consistency in what schools are able to offer but also that tech issue.

“A lot of pupils still don’t have laptops. They are surviving on broken phones – those children now need to be seen as a priority to get into the classroom and deemed to be a vulnerable child.

“There is also the issue of the cost of data, and I think this is something that tech companies and broadband companies really need to step up to now.”

A number of technology providers have pointed to schemes they already have running to help disadvantaged pupils.

Vodafone said its Schools.Connected initiative had so far distributed more than 330,000 Sim cards to primary and secondary schools across the UK in an effort to provide free connectivity to students.

Vodafone also confirmed that it was in talks with the DfE about joining the 20GB free-data-a-month scheme.

While broadband provider Virgin Media launched an Essential broadband service late last year which it says offers a reliable and affordable internet connection to those facing financial difficulty.