The digital divide continues to disadvantage our students

29 May 2020, 10:41

Despite big promises, the government has failed to deliver for our disadvantaged students and left us to pick up the pieces, writes Gerry Robinson

Chantelle shares a single room with her 3 siblings and mother in the temporary bedsit that she has been living in for the past few years. The temporary home – if you can call a single room a home – could be taken away from them at a moment’s notice. She tries to do her homework on her bed, zooming in on the text on her mobile phone, pixelated because she took a screenshot so as not to waste expensive data reopening emails. She keeps the screen brightness very low to preserve battery charge – another expense. To email her work back she has to use her mother’s phone as it’s the only one with any credit left. Her fingers fly across the settings at lightning speed, turning on the data and swiftly turning it off again.

Our students have to make a hundred such calculations and judgements every day. Can they turn that plug on? The heating? Wash their uniform? We are used to seeing students in school during winter with no coat but wearing their pyjamas under their uniform for extra warmth. Some wear plastic bags on their feet inside their shoes which are so full of holes their feet are soaked in seconds.

Imagine being the parent of that child and having to apply for free school meal vouchers every two weeks on a website that crashes, takes hours to log into and even then does not give you access to vouchers that work.

Imagine thinking that those same students can access over 200 hours of learning using a computer, with a webcam, using wifi, at a desk, with a comfortable chair, in a room that is private and quiet.

Well over 50 per cent of our students still have no access to computers

Technology has revolutionised education and will undoubtedly be a huge part of our students’ lives. That’s why, if you come to Woodside High School at 7:30am or at 6pm on any regular day, you will find students using our computer hubs to complete their work. But it’s now 10 weeks since we’ve had anything like a regular day.

The day the school closed we loaned out our in-school stock of laptops (which is a concern regarding what happens when we reopen to all). They were useless to families without wifi so we invested in dongles too, but this has only scratched the surface; we estimate that well over 50 per cent of our students still have no access to computers. Well-publicised initiatives such as Oak National Academy sound fantastic, but most of our students wait for the post to arrive with a pack of worksheets and photocopied text book pages.

Four weeks later, the government announced it would support home learning by providing laptops and dongles for disadvantaged students. Woodside serves a community with some of the highest levels of socio-economic deprivation in the UK. According to our own measures, we estimate that there are at least 770 ‘vulnerable’ children in our school. We have been allocated 32 laptops. Nobody can confirm how this number was arrived at, and our appeal for more has not been successful.

We have to somehow decide which 32 of the 770 children are deserving, but as yet – six weeks on from that announcement – we still don’t know when we will actually receive them.

Throughout this pandemic, our staff have been doing the most incredible job and I am hugely proud of them. But the truth is we are so often just keeping families’ heads above water. Our foodbank is no substitute for long-term food security, and like their housing and so much else in their lives, our loaned laptops are temporary and insufficent.

Government officials and politicians have repeatedly argued for reopening schools so that vulnerable children get the support they need. It is extraordinary that they feel comfortable using the catastrophic impacts of austerity as their justification when it is a clear admission of the additional services schools are required to provide.

That aside, the phased reopening announced by the PM last night will rely heavily on continued home learning for most, and our students still won’t have the same access as their more affluent peers.

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One comment

  1. Peter Harold Groves

    I feel sick to my stomach reading this.

    Gerry, I am so sorry for your students and staff. As vacuous as that sounds, I don’t know what else to say.

    I have dealt with both the disadvantaged laptop allocation process and also the Edenred omnishambles in my own school and have been enraged by the chasm between the televised promises of practical support and failure to deliver. It is a lack of political will amounting today negligence.

    Peter H Groves
    AHT (Secondary)