Coronavirus: £85m free laptops scheme falls short

School leaders have lambasted the government’s free laptops scheme after some were allocated a fraction of the number they were expecting.

Some academy trusts have been given an initial allocation of less than a fifth of what they need – and leaders say conflicting messages from the government have left them fending off demands from desperate parents.

We’re the ones in the middle, dealing with the parents’ expectations

Earlier this week, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, revealed that the government’s £85 million scheme would pay for about 200,000 devices, the first of which he hoped would reach pupils by the end of next month.

However, school leaders have already encountered problems ordering the devices, less than a week after it went live.

Councils and academy trusts – so-called “responsible bodies” – are given an initial allocation based on the number of eligible pupils in their schools and a DfE estimate of how many of those will not have access to appropriate devices.

These responsible bodies can state how many of each type of device they need before they are given a final allocation.

But some leaders fear they won’t get what they need, and it is unclear how they can request more.

Longdean School in Hertfordshire has 66 pupils in year 10 who are eligible for the pupil premium, but was allocated just 21 laptops by email from the DfE’s chosen supplier, Computacenter. The school has been told it cannot order more.

“It seems to be about grabbing the headlines with something that sounds good, and then not really following it up,” said Tracy Doyle, the finance director at the school’s single-academy trust.

“And we’re the ones in the middle, dealing with the parents’ expectations, which are reasonable expectations.”

An email to trusts from Computacenter, seen by Schools Week, tells them they will be given “a fixed number of laptops and tablets”.

This will be based on “the number of eligible children and young people for whom you are responsible and who the Department for Education has estimated do not have access to a device through other means”.

Gavin Williamson unveiled the scheme last month

After receiving their initial allocation, trusts were asked to fill in a “forecast survey”, which the department said it would consider when making final allocations.

However, the email also said that “it is important that you do not order above that quantity in the ordering process for your responsible body”.

Karen Hayler, the chief finance officer at the South Downs Educational Trust, which runs Worthing High School, said her school had been offered ten laptops, despite having 34 disadvantaged year 10s, and given no instructions on how to challenge the allocation.

The problems come as leaders and business managers struggle with the system for ordering free school meals vouchers for disadvantaged families.

“I think for us, with the free school meals and with this, because they’re communicating it publicly first, it’s raising an expectation within families, understandably, and then we’re not able to deliver on that expectation,” Hayler said.

“I’ve had at least six or seven emails from parents . . . saying ‘where is the laptop’. And we can’t answer them.”

Farmor’s School in Gloucestershire has been allocated three laptops, despite having more than five times that number of disadvantaged year 10 pupils.

“I was going on the basis that the aim of the scheme seems to be to mitigate disadvantage where it’s most needed, and obviously that has to be quite carefully targeted,” said Matthew Evans, the school’s headteacher.

“I had imagined that the free school meal figures would play a significant role, because if someone is on free school meals, it’s a fairly safe assumption that expenditure on IT equipment is not high on the list of priorities.”

Evans said the school would challenge the allocation, although he was “not hopeful”.

“If the initial formula has generated just three laptops, I don’t imagine that we’re going to be able to get anywhere near the level that we were hoping to get.”

A DfE spokesperson said the department had “already placed a mass order for all young people eligible for a device”.

“If organisations feel their allocation is insufficient, they should contact the department setting out their additional need.”