Last Wednesday following the debate with the Prime Minister on the theme of lockdown, there was a debate with Gavin Williamson on the subject of Covid-19: Educational Settings. My blog yesterday focused on one of the the themes in that debate, the need that I support for teachers and other educational professionals to be placed on the list of priorities for vaccinations. Sadly it was very evident that despite the final phrase from Gavin about that subject which was “in terms of vaccinations and testing, we will always be pushing at the boundaries to maximise that for our education settings right across the country.” that in fact he does not believe that vaccinations are a priority at all based on all that he said earlier and his only serious focus is on testing schemes. Along with that subject another theme that emerged during the debate was the provision for people on low incomes to have access to computers and the internet as an alternative to going to school and there is a clear connection between this because even by Gavin Williamsons view, the more people there are at school the greater the need for vaccination for teachers. However even when it comes to testing in schools Williamson made it clear that primary schools are still not something he has a solution for. Anyway back to technology, at least two MPs during the debate raised the need for pupils who do not have access to computers to be able to go to school to retain their education. The first was Robert Halfon who was the second person to speak after Williamson and he asked.
I strongly welcome the Government’s laptop scheme, but we know that there will still be possibly hundreds of thousands of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those students who just do not have an internet connection or computers at home will be able to go to school alongside children of critical workers?
The response from Williamson was
The reason we are rolling out and expanding our devices package is that we realise how important it is for all children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In the previous situation where schools had to be closed, during the months of March, April and May, children who did not have access to digital devices were able to access education in school, and I can confirm that we are issuing the same standard and the same guidance today.
The last person in the debate was Nusrat Ghani who asked a similar question
I share my right hon. Friend’s concern over schools being closed, especially for children in Wealden who do not have access to technology. Can he double confirm that those children without access to tech are now seen as vulnerable, and can immediately access physical education—I mean, attend school—and will not have to jump through hoops to be able to get into school?
And this was the response.
I can absolutely confirm that. That was issued in our initial guidance on school closures back in March last year. We have repeated that self-same guidance all the way through where schools have been in an unfortunate position, because we have had to recognise that during the latter stages of last year, there were schools that were closed, and even during that time children who did not have access to that type of education were able to access education settings.
He has made it clear that until students have access to a computer, they will need to go to school but he seemed to suggest in his opening speech as shown here that a great deal of the computer provision is already arranged. However later on it was made clear that in fact the gap is much bigger. Clearly it is important to acknowledge what he and his team have done but there is also a long way to go. So here is his starting point.
Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace: we have purchased more than 1 million laptops and tablets and have already delivered more than 560,000 of them to schools and local authorities. With an extra 100,000 being distributed this week alone, by the end of next week, we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for key educational sites. We are grateful to EE, 3, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodafone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet.
After his initial speech, the next person to speak, just before Robert Halfon is Kate Green who is the Labour Minister for Education. As part of her speech she states
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on digital devices, and I am glad he has listened to Labour and to the charities across the country that called for zero rating of educational sites, but Ofqual estimates that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, under his plans, every child who needs a device will have one as soon as possible and that every one of those children will be able to learn remotely? May I also repeat the question the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister earlier: will the welcome data deal done with mobile providers take effect immediately?
So given the gap between 0.56 million as it was during their debate and the additional 1.78 million that Ofqual have identified one might expect a response from Gavin to explain how things will be expanded as things may need to be a total of 2.34 million. Sadly all he says is
The hon. Lady raises a number of very important points, including the roll-out of digital devices and our commitment to deliver 1 million digital devices across the country. We will be getting three quarters of a million of those devices out by the end of next week, supporting schools in delivering the full allocation of devices that they need and looking at how we can go further.
So the next person to try to get an answer to the numbers is much later in the debate and he is Bill Esterson who asks Gavin
Ofqual suggests that as many as 1.78 million children do not have access to a computer. What the Education Secretary has announced today is just a 10% reduction in those numbers by the end of next week, which will still leave 1.6 million children unable to access a computer. Bridging the digital divide is essential, so when will those 1.6 million children receive their laptops, and when will he address the situation of the 900,000 children who do not have data access?
And Gavin states
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my statement earlier, which covered most of the points he raises.
Which is clearly not true. Along with the issue of numbers there was also a question relating to the contract which came earlier in the debate from Mike Amesbury who is another Labour Minister
Given that the company Computacenter, which was awarded the £96 million contract with no competition, failed to deliver all the laptop kits to vulnerable children in the first lockdown, why is the Secretary of State sticking with Tory party donors from that company this time?
And the response was
I pay tribute to Computacenter, which has done an amazing job of distributing hundreds of thousands of devices right across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we did a direct award on the first contract, as Computacenter was one of the few businesses that was in a position to be able to assist us at that time. Since then, tenders have gone out and Computacenter has won those tenders through fair competition.
Now clearly if Computacenter has won the contract for the 1m there is a need for some new contracts for the remaining 1.34 million computers.