Deprived families describe “impossible choices” over remote education

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Increasing school and education-related costs have contributed to the financial pressures facing the poorest families this year, with parents reporting stress, guilt and feeling like they are in a "permanent battle".

New research findings about the impact on families during the most recent lockdown have sparked new pleas for a “concerted joint effort” from government, local authorities and schools to equip students for remote learning.

A survey of 1,570 parents and carers and 785 children and young people undertaken by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Children North East reveals that 35 per cent did not have the home learning equipment they needed during the last lockdown.

Most commonly, they lacked devices such as a laptop or a tablet or did not have enough to meet their family’s needs. A quarter of pupils on free school meals said they had to share a device with other family members.

Parents had to make “impossible choices”, deciding who got access to digital devices and bandwidth while schools were closed.

Higher bills during lockdown, inadequate space for learning, and juggling schooling with work caused “stress and guilt” for parents, who felt they were in a “permanent battle”.

The recent lockdown has heightened families’ fears about money, with 90 per cent having spent more on bills since January. School-related costs have soared too, with many families saying they spent more on the back to school effort in September, including on uniforms, clothing for outdoor learning, masks, hand gel and so on.

The research states that where schools have reduced costs – for example by relaxing uniform policies or lending digital devices – it had made a positive difference for families.

With thousands of children likely to be forced to return to home learning due to local lockdowns, self-isolation or contact-tracing in the coming months, the charities want action now to solve these problems.

This week, almost a year on since the first national lockdown, the Department for Education (DfE, 2021) reported that its free laptop scheme to support vulnerable learners has dispatched 1,267,451 devices of the 1.3 million allocated under the scheme, including 705,030 since January this year.

The laptop scheme has been beset by problems, including a slow roll-out and not enough devices. According to figures from Ofcom, 1.78 million children do not have access to a laptop or computer at home. This figure does not take into account those without sole access to a device. Furthermore, 559,000 children have no internet access at all and 913,000 are only able to access the internet through a mobile network.

Schools are still angry at the DfE’s decision, quietly pushed out before the autumn half-term, to restrict access to its free laptop scheme. The move meant that schools could only claim about 20 per cent of their allocation.

And of course, learning resources consist of more than just technology. Recognising this, the National Education Union (NEU) launched in January a £1m fund to pay for learning materials during remote education such as paper, pens, books and maths and science equipment. An NEU survey at the time found that 95 per cent of its members surveyed said they were teaching students who lacked basic learning materials at home.

This latest report urges “a concerted effort to ensure pupils have the learning tools they need at home”, as well as reductions in the cost of the school day, and a review of the free school meals eligibility threshold to include more families.

Alison Garnham, chief executive at CPAG, said: “The digital divide was exacerbated during school closures, but it didn’t start with lockdown and it won’t go away with pupils back in the classroom. We must bridge the gaps in resources so pupils can fully access their education – whether at school or at home.

“We have seen some great examples of schools working alongside families to make learning during lockdown easier. However, the pandemic has hit hard and low-income families need far more financial support from government itself. By providing that support and reducing the cost of the school day, all children can have a chance at fulfilling their potential in life.”

Luke Bramhall, poverty proofing manager at Children North East, added: “It is sadly no surprise that children caught in the grip of poverty are drowning as they continue to suffer from the digital and resources divide which has been highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis. We encourage schools to take these findings and consider how they can inform the great work they are doing to support the most vulnerable children in our society.”

Parents and carers responding to the research gave some insight into the challenges they have faced when it comes to resources for learning.

A mother of one from Wales told researchers: “It’s making it difficult to access videos just using my mobile. My mobile is cracked and starts hurting your fingers after a while. It just makes me feel we can’t access what others are.”

Another mother from England said: “I have had to spend extra on stationery, crafting equipment, learning books etc. We have been using my phone as a means of online learning which isn't ideal. We’re unable to join in with interactive activities.”

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