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Johnson urged to help pupils who lack essential technology for remote learning

Boris Johnson must quickly act to give school pupils “on the wrong side of the digital divide” access to the necessary devices and internet connections needed to effectively participate in remote learning, according to leading political figures including Tony Blair and three former education secretaries.

In a letter signed by these high-profile figures, alongside charities, unions and other MPs, Johnson has been urged to tackle the issue. Ofcom estimates that around 9 per cent of UK children lack access to a laptop, desktop or tablet and that more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.

With the new school term starting today, children are returning for the first time since the Christmas break. However, with many children placed in learning “bubbles” due to the coronavirus pandemic, schools are operating at reduced capacity and some home learning will be necessary for most pupils. With Covid-19 cases rising rapidly, Johnson has said tougher measures will be introduced: this could include school closures that were imposed during the first lockdown in March 2020.

Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, who co-ordinated the letter, said: “Children on the wrong side of the digital divide have neither the data nor the devices to log in from home when their schools close. In a country with free state education, no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.

“We write to you following the news that school will be closed for millions of pupils for the opening weeks of the new term. At the time of writing, all secondary school pupils in England and more than one million primary school pupils will be reliant on remote learning to continue their education.

“In October, the law changed to require teachers to provide remote education to pupils who are unable to attend school because of Covid-19. So, whilst we welcome the remote education support offered to schools by the Government, the number of devices pledged falls far short of the number required.

“Furthermore, a device is only effective for remote learning if the pupil can access the internet at home, with 880,000 children living in a household with only a mobile internet connection, in addition to those children on the wrong side of the digital divide with no connection at all. These pupils were likely to be behind their peers even before the pandemic.

“With the new term starting today, we are calling on you to urgently ensure that every child away from school has the data and device that they need to log in and learn from home. This will require a register of which children are without the technology or connectivity and a clear plan for how they will quickly receive this.”

Among those who signed the letter are former education secretaries Lord Blunkett, Alan Johnson and Baroness Morris.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “As the prime minister has said, children’s education has consistently been a national priority, which is why we want classrooms to reopen wherever possible in the new term. It is also vital that, where public health advice means they can’t be, we have measures in place to prevent them from falling behind. We have scaled up our devices scheme, alongside our tutoring offer, to reach as many children and young people as possible.

“More than one million laptops and tablets have been purchased for disadvantaged young people through this pandemic, supporting schools and students to ensure remote education is as strong as it can be.”

Last month, the University of Nottingham began running the first virtual reality and simulation module in the UK, in which engineering students are taught entirely in VR

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