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Tories urged to take a leaf out of Labour's 2019 manifesto and provide free broadband to families

Fresh concerns have been raised over the ‘digital divide’ among pupils during lockdown

THE government was urged today to take a leaf out of the 2019 Labour manifesto and provide free broadband to families homeschooling children during lockdown.

In Parliament Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked why the government hadn’t planned for the contingency of closed schools – and why 1.8 million children are still without access to a computer.

Under new measures in England, schools, colleges and universities have moved most of their teaching online for the third time since the pandemic hit in March last year.

Three months before the start of the pandemic, Labour under former leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged to provide free high-speed broadband to every home in the country — a scheme that was notoriously framed by the BBC as “broadband communism.”

The Tory government has promised more than one million laptops and tablets for pupils in disadvantaged families by the end of the academic year, and previously launched a scheme to provide subsidised mobile data to those who need it. But it has failed to deliver on previous promises, slashing the number of laptops promised to schools as recently as October.

Fresh concerns are being raised over the “digital divide” among pupils during lockdown.

About 9 per cent of children in Britain do not have home access to a computer or tablet and more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection, Ofcom has estimated.

In the Commons today, Labour MP Diane Abbott said: “For poor families in areas like Hackney, the cost of pay-as-you-go broadband is completely prohibitive.”

She said that PM Boris Johnson was focusing on cut-price arrangements with broadband providers, but that “what so many families need is access to free broadband, an excellent policy which was in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.”

“No child should be deprived of an education because their parents can’t afford the broadband costs,” she said.

“So will he look again at the question of providing free broadband when it comes to accessing online education?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I think the arrangements that are being put in place by the mobile phone companies and others will cover the vast bulk of the cost at the very least, but [I’m happy] to come back to her about exactly what is being offered.”

The Labour Party called for every disadvantaged child to urgently receive a laptop and free broadband, as most children will be learning remotely until at least February half-term. 

The party also proposed “zero-rating” of educational websites – exempting them from mobile and other data packages – to prevent mobile data charges from pricing disadvantaged families out of education.

National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted welcomed Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s pledges on digital devices and data support, but slammed the “dither and delay” that will slow down provision.

“By the Education Secretary’s own estimate, the roll-out of one million devices will not be reached until the end of January – two-thirds of the way through the proposed period of lockdown,” she said.

The University and College Union (UCU) said that all students in post-16 education must also be supported during the lockdown.

General secretary Jo Grady said that Mr Williamson has failed to set out how students in colleges, universities and prisons would be supported to learn remotely.

Meanwhile, Mr Williamson confirmed that teacher-assessed grades will replace GCSE and A-Level exams this year.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of teachers’ union NASUWT, said that it is the “only sensible course of action.”

But he warned against risking a repeat of the “chaos” last year, when Mr Williamson U-turned to allow students to use teacher-assessed grades rather than grades moderated by an unfair algorithm, and called for “urgent clarity and further detail of how the arrangements for teacher-assessed grades will be made workable.”

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