How can England's schools educate isolating children if families can't afford wifi?

Laura McInerney
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Flavio Coelho/Getty</span>
Photograph: Flavio Coelho/Getty

From Thursday it becomes illegal for any school to let isolating children sit at home without work to do. It’s not clear who will police this – perhaps the mythical new Welsh border force? Or the people tasked with raiding our living rooms to check we’re not visiting our elderly relatives? Now, as if headteachers were not stressed enough already, unless they start sending home packs of work they will be breaking the law.

Children do, of course, need to access learning while at home. Owing to the government’s incompetence over track and trace, there still is no functioning system that can quickly get isolating students back into class. Currently, on any given day about one in five schools has either a whole class or a whole year group at home. It will be a two-week wait before most of those pupils get back to school.

The government has issued rules for how remote learning should look. Daily assignments must be set. Frequent, clear explanations of new content should be provided via video or other “high-quality resources” (do they mean books?). And, ideally, all pupils will receive daily teacher contact. It is not at all clear how this will happen when staff are also teaching a full day’s timetable, plus covering for absent colleagues.

Related: 'It can be life or death': the parents in England refusing to send their children back to school

Despite the burden, most school leaders have taken it on the chin. They have prepared online materials, rotaed staff to chatrooms, sent home a thousand passwords so parents can help pupils log in. There is just one snag. What about children who don’t have laptops? Or broadband? Or phone credit? The government promise to provide laptops fell miserably short. And, as we get to winter, with joblessness rising it’s touch-and-go whether some families will even have electricity and heating. Schools must now, somehow, ensure these children learn along with the rest.

Many parents are doing their best, too. Oak National academy, the government-backed online resource, has a year’s worth of free lessons for pupils in every year group, and was used throughout the summer term by thousands of families. Oak’s data shows that pupils were accessing lessons through all kinds of devices – games consoles, really old tablets, and a lot of mobile phones. But for those on pay-as-you-go the cost of streaming online lessons is huge, with TES magazine costing it at about £37 a day.

Academic learning isn’t the only thing at risk. A friend working in music education got in touch this week. Many of the orchestras and music services that work in deprived communities have happily pivoted to teaching online. Instruments are packed for delivery, tutors are ready. But a huge number of families simply don’t have money for the data packages to cover the video calls. “The reality of so many kids in limbo this year, while everyone is going around saying that it’s fine because classes are online, makes me feel like crying and screaming at the same time,” she said.

Related: Near breaking point: headteachers worn down by 'non-stop Covid crisis'

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, announced back in April that “major telecommunications providers” would – note the certainty – waive the data charges on selected educational websites. It came true for just one app, Hungry Little Minds, aimed at preschoolers. Another disappointment.

The Department for Education is trialling a partnership with several local authorities and mobile phone operators, including EE, O2, Three and Tesco Mobile, to increase data allowances for families in need. The programme is a pilot only, but if Williamson can make this one thing happen, it would at least be something.

Otherwise, schools will find themselves at the end of October – in a pandemic and in flu season, when self-isolation is likely to be at its peak and families’ financial position is getting worse – without the means to carry out their legal duties. What happens then?