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Tue, 26 January 2021

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Children have been let down by a shameful lack of support from this government

Children have been let down by a shameful lack of support from this government

Between 1.14m and 1.78 million children in the UK have no access to a tablet or laptop at home. And yet, the government has funded only 500,000 laptops, writes Daisy Cooper MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The Chancellor's decision to ignore children’s needs in the Spending Review is unforgiveable. Those from poorer households have borne the brunt of the government's failings.

Children and young people living in poverty have already paid too high a price for the difficult times we are living in, and the impact in their early years could last a lifetime. Which is why the Chancellor's decision to ignore their needs in his Spending Review on Wednesday was so unforgivable. 

While school leaders, teachers and parents have worked as hard as possible to minimise the disruption to education in recent months, they have been let down by a shameful lack of support from the government. In particular, it is children and young people from poorer households who have borne the brunt of this.

Research by the IFS this summer found lockdown widened the learning gap between children from richer and poorer families. With children from wealthier families spending more time studying, more likely to have access to online learning, more likely to have their own space to study and more likely to have access to a computer or tablet. All of this may be unsurprising - but what is shocking is the woeful inadequacy of the government’s efforts to address this imbalance. 

To begin to remedy this, ahead of the spending review I called for the government to make good on their promises to distribute laptops to every child from a disadvantaged home who needs one to keep up with lessons remotely. And also go further than its current commitment on Free School Meals, by extending FSM entitlement to every child whose parents are in receipt of Universal Credit, with no recourse to public funds or are destitute asylum seekers, so that no child living in poverty goes without. 

And yet the government came up woefully short on both. 

The government’s commitment on the supply of laptops and tablets has fallen short time and again. In October, the government wrote to head teachers telling them that the number of new laptops they expected to receive was going to be slashed, leaving teachers despairing as to how they could possibly ensure their most disadvantaged pupils would not miss out. 

Ofcom estimate that between 1.14m and 1.78 million children in the UK have no access to a tablet or laptop at home. And yet, the government has funded only 500,000 laptops - suggesting there may still be around a million in need of one.  

Yet the funding announced to assist pupils in catching up on learning which was disrupted by coronavirus, is only £0.4bn for 2021-22 (compared to £1.4bn for 2020-21).

Given the likelihood that education will continue to be disrupted, whether by future lockdowns or periods of self-isolation in the coming year, pupils across the country will suffer because of this shortsighted decision. 

Of course, this is not the only way in which the government has overlooked children from low-income households and failed to meet their needs during the pandemic. 

Councils across the country are highlighting the massive deficit in the funding they are allocated in order to meet [disabled] pupil’s needs

After the initial refusal to provide food vouchers during the summer and Christmas holidays to pupils who would usually be eligible for free school meals, the Conservative government had to be forced, under considerable public pressure and tireless campaigning by Marcus Rashford, to do the right thing. Even now, the short-term solution they have proposed does not go nearly far enough. The Government should have taken this opportunity to permanently extend access to free school meals - all year round - to any child who needs them. 

I also urged the government to address an issue of vital importance to another group of young people whose support has been overlooked: those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Councils across the country are highlighting the massive deficit in the funding they are allocated in order to meet these pupil’s needs. 

One in five pupils with an Education Health and Care Plan has still not been able to return to school due to coronavirus restrictions and many parents report they are currently not getting enough support to help their children learn remotely.

It is completely unacceptable that SEND pupils could effectively be denied their right to an education because the government has not given schools and local authorities the resources they desperately need. Even with the funding the Chancellor allocated to councils, there is no guarantee this issue can be solved when there are so many competing demands on that money. 

Last week the Chancellor had an opportunity to address the fact that his government has been failing some of the most vulnerable children and young people at the most critical time of their learning and development - to give every child the best start in life. It will be those same children who pay the price for his failure to do so. 

 

Daisy Cooper is the Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Education. 

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