100k more laptops for schools – but access is slashed

The government has bought a further 100,000 laptops for schools – but headteachers have seen their allocations slashed by around 80 per cent to ensure the stock lasts longer.

The Department for Education told schools today the new approach, to be introduced after half term, will ensure “allocations are more effectively targeted to the children, schools and areas of the country that have greatest need”.

The government had worked out allocations for schools based on how many disadvantaged children they have in years 3 to 11, and has already delivered over 100,000 laptops since September. However the new system means schools will now only be able to claim around 20 per cent of what they’ve been allocated.

The move has angered headteachers and comes as more pupils are forced out of the classroom to learn at home as coronavirus cases rise. As of this week, schools are also under a new legal duty to provide immediate remote education for any pupils off because of Covid.

Headteacher Chris Dyson said the decision, communicated to heads on Friday evening, was “clueless”. His allocation was cut from 61 to just 13.

In an email sent to the DfE in response, he wrote: “You disgust me with the contempt you show disadvantaged schools. I am embarrassed to have you leading us. You are inadequate in every single way and should feel disgusted with yourselves.”

Another head, Vic Goddard, described the move as “disgraceful”. “Make a headline and then change the decision. Happening over and over again”.

His original allocation of over 120 devices has been cut by 100.

DfE attendance statistics published earlier this week showed one in five state-funded schools had one or more pupils self-isolating last week due to a potential contact with a coronavirus case inside the school.

The average size group of pupils asked to self-isolate in primary schools was 12 per cent of the total number of children on roll, compared to four to five per cent in secondaries.

A DfE spokesperson 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.

“We have purchased an additional 96,000 devices and continue to work closely with our suppliers to ensure delivery despite the increased global demand.”

The government has pledged to provide devices for disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 who don’t have access to one and whose face-to-face education has been disrupted.

Other disadvantaged pupils eligible are those in any year group who have been advised to shield because they or someone they live with are clinically extremely vulnerable or those in any year group attending a hospital school.

But access to the laptops is subject to specific requirements, such as schools having at least 15 pupils self-isolating to make an order.

Since September, 105,508 laptops have already been distributed under the scheme.

That’s on top of the more than 220,000 devices, and 50,000 4G wireless routers, handed to academy trusts and councils last academic year. However the government failed to meet its target of delivering the laptops by the end of June.

Under the new system, schools that are fully closed for a “sustained period” will get support from regional schools commissioners to ensure they get enough devices to meet the needs of all disadvantaged pupils in year 3 to 11 who don’t have a laptop.

Schools that aren’t full closed, but believe they have a “strong need”, can also request more devices. The ordering process will be suspended over half term before the new changes come in.

The announcement brings the government’s investment in laptops for schools to nearly £200 million.

But headteachers say the change in policy is just another example of the government not delivering on policies announced to much fanfare.

Schools Week revealed last week how nearly half of the £350 million cash promised for the National Tutoring Programme this year is still unspent.

It also comes the day after a new legal duty was put on schools to provide “immediate access to remote education” should a pupil miss school due to coronavirus.

The duty is enforceable by an injunction, but the DfE said such action would be a “last resort”.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary at the NAHT school leaders’ union, said on Saturday: “The government has been quick to mandate what it expects schools to be able to do when it comes to remote learning, but is clearly unable to deliver the necessary tools that schools and their pupils need.

“It beggars belief that within 24 hours of making immediate access to remote learning a legal requirement, the government has announced that it is reducing the number of laptops schools are eligible to receive.”

The news also comes as the government is under fire for voting down a request led by footballer Marcus Rashford to provide free school meals over the holidays. Instead, councils and businesses have offered to provide meals for those children.

Schools Week reported earlier this month that the firm supplying the laptops, Computacenter, was founded by a Conservative Party donor.