DfE denies it withholds laptops on form-filling grounds

Headteachers claim they have had difficulty accessing laptops for self-isolating pupils because they didn’t fill in an optional attendance form.

Schools have a legal duty to provide remote education to pupils who are forced to stay at home, and the government has promised additional laptops to assist.

But accessing the laptops is proving an uphill battle for some heads, despite rising absences, with leaders reporting being rebuffed on the grounds that they had not filled out the Department for Education’s “educational setting status” form, which is optional for schools.

According to the DfE’s latest attendance figures, the proportion of schools reporting one or more pupils self-isolating due to contact with a Covid case rose to 29 per cent last week, up from 16 per cent the week before.

Chris Dyson, head of Parklands primary school, Leeds, applied for additional laptops last week after being forced to “pop a bubble” of 20 children. 

But he said he was told he wouldn’t receive his allocation “because the DfE has not been informed your school has closed a bubble”.

“It’s absolutely nonsense because you have to ring up the DfE to burst a bubble and the local Public Health England team,” said Dyson, who says he was also told by his local council he was “highly unlikely” to receive the laptops unless he’d had to close half his school. 

When he chased again on Wednesday, an official at Leeds City Council informed Dyson the DfE had run out.

The council confirmed to Schools Week that it was told demand had outstripped supply – a claim denied by the DfE. 

Leeds council also said it understood that the process was “dependent” on schools completing the form, and that some heads had reported “administrative difficulties” in accessing laptops. 

After tweeting about the situation, Dyson filled out the attendance form on Wednesday this week and received an email from the DfE the following day to inform him that he could apply for the laptops.

But heads who filled out the form have also reported problems.

Andrew Dickinson, head of Uplands Manor primary school in Smethwick, West Midlands, has had to shut five bubbles since the start of October, which has seen over 500 pupils sent home to isolate. 

He completed the form, but weeks later, and despite repeated chasing, he has still not received a single laptop from his allocation, which was slashed from 118 to just 24 devices. 

A lot of other heads are “in similar boats”, he said. 

“The fact that it’s taking months to materialise suggests to me that the laptops are either not coming or they can’t deliver on what they promised.”

The DfE told Schools Week it contacts schools that state in their form submission that they have sent pupils home. Those schools that choose not to fill in the form will still receive support from when they get in touch, the department said.

The DfE also denied the claim that laptops are only distributed if more than half a school is sent home, and denied it had run out of laptops. 

“In the context of significant global demand, we have updated our allocation process to more accurately align orders with the number of students that schools typically have self-isolating, ensuring as many children as possible benefit from receiving a device this term,” a spokesperson said.

The department was unable to provide an update on the 105,508 devices delivered between September and October, but said over half a million would be delivered by Christmas. 

Concerns remain that the revised laptop allocation – slashed in October by around 80 per cent, to the dismay of schools – will see many children from deprived backgrounds unable to access online learning. 

“Ideally, the laptops need to be available before the children are sent home, and not after,” said a spokesperson for the NAHT school leadership union.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow schools minister, told the Schools and Academies Show yesterday that the situation for pupils needing laptops needed “sorting out”, adding that the DfE would not allow its civil servants to work at home “without the right kit”.