Are laptops reaching the children most in need under third lockdown?

Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson announced the areas in which primary school opening would be delayed. - Credit: Archant

With the third lockdown just begun, we looked at whether pupils have the tools they need to be taught remotely in Hertfordshire. 

In an echo of the first lockdown, the government has decided to close schools due to a huge rise in case rate, estimated at over 1,000 per 100,000 in some areas of Herts, and promised that vulnerable children will be able to tune into lessons from home. 

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said on Wednesday, January 6: "Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace.

"We have purchased more than one million laptops and tablets and have already delivered over 560,000 of these to schools and local authorities, with an extra 100,000 this week alone. By the end of next week, we will have delivered three-quarters of a million devices."

But will this be enough devices to meet the demand in Hertfordshire? Since the Autumn term, 5,000 laptops have been ordered by the county council. 

As HCC has told this newspaper: "[It] takes responsibility for ordering laptops and connectivity devices for maintained schools, but academies are responsible for their own ordering.

"We do not know how many devices academies have received, and thus we do not know the wider Hertfordshire picture."

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And the DfE's own figures say that around half, 2,641, of those ordered by HCC have been delivered or dispatched to the county council in the 2020 to 2021 academic year. 

When asked by this newspaper about how many the DfE estimates are needed in the UK and across Herts for vulnerable children, a spokesperson directed us to Mr Williamson's recent speeches on schools closing.

The MP said: "Schools and colleges are much better prepared to deliver online learning – with the delivery of hundreds of thousands of devices at breakneck speed, data support, and high-quality video lessons available. 

"We are keeping schools and colleges open to vulnerable children and those of critical workers and I would like to thank all our teachers, support staff and all who work in education as we deal with this evolving situation and know that together we will get through this and be able to reopen all our schools to all pupils."

This does mean those vulnerable children, who do not have access to the internet and are in receipt of free school meals, can still attend schools in the county if they cannot do their lessons from home. 

HCC added: "The DfE calculates allocations to schools on a formulaic basis and this is our full entitlement

"We believe, and the DfE accepts, that there are sometimes more children in a school who need laptops/connectivity than the basic allocation from the DfE.

"However, this varies from school to school and we could not put a county-wide figure on it. There is a process whereby schools can apply for extra devices, and we have helped some of our schools to do this; for example, for one of our maintained secondary schools we have secured an additional 40 laptops between us, in excess of the DfE quota."

Free school meals have also been seen as one way of calculating those who need free laptops, which is just shy of 25,000 pupils in Herts. And if this represents the laptops needed by pupils, the DfE's figure of around 2,500 is just 10 per cent. 

To meet this demand, the BBC has launched an appeal to the public to give laptops to schools with St Philip Howard Catholic Primary School in Hatfield benefiting from three. The people of Stevenage also came together to drop off unwanted or unused tech to a local hair salon, in a bid to help kids with homeschooling this year.

The DfE has also come under fire by the satirical and investigative magazine, Private Eye, for using Hatfield-based Computacenter to supply the laptops at an estimated £96 million - the bulk of the money for the scheme. 

Its founder Philip Hulme is a previous Conservative donor, whose wife Janet donated £100,000 to the party in the 2019 General Election, and his foundation Hadley Trust also donated to a "Conservative friendly" think thank, according to the Eye.

This paper asked the DfE and Computacenter about the Conservative party relationship and why laptops are failing to reach every child. 

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