Coronavirus: AET to spend £2m on laptops as others call for tech donations

One of England’s largest academy trusts has said it will spend £2 million on laptops to help poorer pupils access digital learning.

However, the plan by the Academies Enterprise Trust, which will involve live-streamed lessons for some pupils, could set the chain at-odds with unions, which have warned that their members cannot be expected to “home school the nation’s children”.

The decision earlier this month to close schools to most pupils has brought into sharp focus the inequalities between poorer pupils and their better-off peers.

A Teacher Tapp survey for Teach First last week found the vast majority of teachers in the most disadvantaged communities doubt their pupils have access to the right devices to access the internet.

AET has responded to the crisis by pledging to spend £2 million buying 9,000 Chromebook laptops, which will be to help pupils in receipt of free school meals or with an education health and care plan (EHCP) to access its programme of digital learning.

It follows a tumultuous period for AET, which previously posted deficits as high as £8 million and at one point had future expansion paused by the government. The trust’s finances have improved in recent years, however, and CEO Julian Drinkall said it was “now in a position to be able to invest some of our surpluses in new devices”

“You can have the best digital learning strategy in the world, the best content, and brilliantly trained teachers to deliver it, but if pupils can’t access it at home, then they will learn nothing,” he warned.

It follows calls from other organisations and politicians for unused technology to be donated to hard-up families to help their children learn at home.

The Bohunt Education Trust, which runs schools in the south of England, has asked anyone living near its schools in Petersfield and Liphook with spare iPads, Chromebooks or laptops to drop them off at local supermarkets for the schools to use.

“Remote learning is vitally important to enable children to continue with their education, and BET schools including TPS and Bohunt School are working with partner organisations to provide extensive and first-class online resources to support our students,” a spokesperson said.

“However, there are hundreds of children across these schools who are unable to access online learning because they do not have access to computers at home.”

Emma Hardy, a shadow education minister, is also calling for donations in her constituency of Hull West and Hessle.

Emma Hardy MP

The coronavirus crisis and subsequent school closures have prompted a debate about how much learning parents and teachers should be providing for pupils stuck at home.

Parents have complained of being put under “unnecessary pressure” to set and check schoolwork, and unions have warned that it is “not possible to replicate a usual school experience at home”.

Joint guidance issued by the National Education Union and leadership unions NAHT and ASCL states that it is “not reasonable, or feasible for schools to continue to provide a ‘normal’ school education during this time”.

“Many schools do not have the resources to do this and we know that children and young people have very different home circumstances. Some will have good access to the internet. Others will not.

“As schools start to think about how they might want to support those pupils at home, they need to be mindful of these very different circumstances, particularly pupil’s access to technology which may have changed as whole families are working from home.”

At AET, all 32,000 pupils have been set up to use Google Classroom, which allows pupils to remotely access assignments, course materials and feedback. Trust staff are being offered twice-daily training on how to use Google tools “so that learning can continue”.

The trust will also create 15 days of “live streaming lessons” for years 5, 6, 10 and 11 in English and maths.

However, the union’s guidance states that until arrangements for summer assessments are confirmed by Ofqual, teachers “should not be setting exam-related work for year 11 and 13 students, grading and marking it, collating ‘portfolios’, and/or doing predicted grades”.