Disadvantaged pupils mustn't be locked out of learning during lockdown

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Join our call on MPs and the four mobile telecommunications companies to waive data costs for educational websites, to help the one million disadvantaged students who have little or no laptop or internet access at home. 

Sign the below petition, which local Lib Dems Pippa Heylings and Lucy Nethsingha will present to MPs Gavin Williamson and Oliver Dowden, Secretaries of State for Education and for Digital, Culture and Media. It calls on them and the four mobile telecommunications companies to think again and stop the lockdown locking out vulnerable families from learning.

As the country goes into the third national lockdown and schooling moves online, families locally and across the country are being locked out of learning due to the punitive costs of mobile data.

The cost of internet access to the poorest families is the single biggest issue that is preventing all children being able to access learning during lockdown, and one that is exacerbating the disadvantage gap in education.

What about the laptops, you may ask? Well, it is true that the government has provided up to half a million laptops and a further 100,000 are to be distributed. However, that is in the context of the Department of Education’s decision last October half-term to slash the overall target of laptop allocation to disadvantaged pupils by 80%. Ofcom figures show that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK (9%) do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet.

Therefore, according to Ofcom, around a million children are trying to access online learning from a parent’s mobile phone. Even worse, an Ofcom survey in December found that one in five households reported problems with the affordability of their telecoms services – equivalent to 4.7 million households. What’s more, 5% of households had lowered how much they spend on clothes and even food to pay for data for their children to learn. Choosing between food and education is simply a choice no family should ever have to make.

As an example of the costs that are forcing these terrible decisions, Oak National Academy (which is one of the leading voices in this campaign) found that to download a lesson from its website uses 250MB of data. Based on a leading mobile phone provider’s standard UK charges for pay-as you-go data:

  • Four lessons a day would use 1,000MB of data to download and cost £97 a day 
  • A two-week isolation period would use up 10,000MB of data and cost £970

As a result of campaigning led by the Oak National Academy, the government has provided a data uplift for schools and also launched a scheme to make available a limited amount of free 4G access for disadvantaged families. But this scheme has to be implemented through schools and there is a lot of administration to identify those eligible. This goes against a key principle that education should be free and families should not have to ask for hand-outs to access it.

There is a simple solution: waive mobile data costs for the viewing and downloading of all education websites.

This comes as the BBC is extending its education programming this month, with much more being broadcast on television in a bid to reach pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide. It’s now time for the big four telecoms firms to step up and do their bit.

Join our call on MPs and the big four mobile telecommunications companies to waive data costs for education websites, to allow universal access to education throughout lockdown.

Sign this petition, which will be presented to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture and Media, and to Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education.

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