As hundreds of families in the borough struggle with expensive broadband connections or are having to use shared laptops for homeschooling, community groups have rallied round to help. ELLA HOPKINS reports
It was little more than a year ago that John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour election manifesto pledge of providing free broadband for all was being derided as “communist”.
Just days into 2021, and the need to urgently address Britain’s “digital divide” has become an urgent national issue with schools closed and children forced to learn at home during the latest coronavirus lockdown.
After reports that the 1.8million children in the UK who do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, the government added pupils in England without laptops to the list of “vulnerable children” that can go into school for face-to-face learning, to avoid them falling behind their peers.
That digital deficit is being felt keenly in Croydon, too.
A survey for the Keep Croydon Connected campaign, conducted among 24 Croydon schools, suggests that 383 families in the borough do not have access to IT devices or the internet, that there are at least 600 families who have to share devices in their homes, and 326 families who have only limited access to the internet.
During the first lockdown last year, and right through the summer, teaching unions warned the government of the need to address such inequalities in access to learn, to be prepared for the situation we are in today. It has arisen after the Conservative government fell short on its promise to deliver 10,000 laptops to schools by June. Only 70 per cent of schools received promised 4G internet routers.
As a consequence, teachers are reporting that schools are “rammed”, as 30 per cent more pupils are attending than in the March lockdown, raising fears that schools will remain “vectors for transmission” of the deadly virus.
Though the government announced it had delivered 560,000 devices to schools last year and bought a further 440,000 before Christmas, Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union said the government was still “weeks away” from an “adequate response”, leaving schools to “plug the gaps”.
Laptop access is not the only barrier to online learning. In the UK, 9 per cent of children in live in households without an internet connection. Using pay-as-you-go to access education platforms could cost families a whopping £37 a day.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson faced questions last week when it emerged that he turned down BT’s offer last June to provide cheap broadband to disadvantaged kids.
At South Norwood secondary Oasis Academy Arena, staff estimate that at least 10 per cent of pupils do not have suitable IT equipment at home.
The Oasis academy chain is providing children with devices through its own efforts. Each pupil will be given an iPad through the Oasis Horizons scheme rolled out this month, with vulnerable youngsters given laptops in the meantime.
“There are three aspects to accessing remote learning,” Tom Raymond, the principal at Oasis Arena, told Inside Croydon.
“First, having your own device; second, being able to use a good internet connection; and third, what people often forget, is the need to have a quiet space at home where you can concentrate.
“A significant minority of our students face challenges in one or more of these aspects,” Raymond said.
“We are working hard to reduce the risk as much as possible at the Academy so young people with key worker parents, those who are vulnerable and those who can’t access remote learning easily at home can be at school.
“To maximise the space at school and therefore to reduce risk even further, we are providing devices to students who do not have one so that they can access online learning – but again it is important that it is not only broadband and a device we consider, but whether they have a quiet space at home so they can engage fully.”
Online retailer Go2Games and charity Croydon Commitment have joined together to raise enough to pay for 288 laptops and tablets for families through its Keep Croydon Connected project. Alongside Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones, Croydon Voluntary Action and Palace for Life, they are also asking residents businesses to make donations to their crowdfunder, which has so far raised more than £4,000.
“Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that the most vulnerable members of our community can keep connected,” a spokesperson for the campaign said.
“Our appeal is to reduce the communication gap and provide access to education and services.”
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