The left-behind children of Tower Hamlets

Despite government promises, and a year into the pandemic, many children in the borough still don't have the laptops they need to access online learning

School from home. Pic: Fiona Holland

Thousands of children in Tower Hamlets have been unable to access online learning during the January 2021 lockdown, despite more laptops and tablets being sent there than in any other London borough.

Under the Department for Education’s Get Help with Technology scheme, electronic devices are made available to pupils between Years 3 and 11 based on whether they are entitled to free school meals (FSMs). But this one-dimensional evaluation of need has left many children slipping through the cracks – not to mention those who are eligible but still haven’t been able to get a device. Now, over a year since schools first closed, EastLondonLines asks whether the government has delivered on its promise to ensure every child has access to online learning.

I know my children need to learn online but I just don’t have the facilities “

Single mother Sarah*

At the start of February this year, government figures showed that 8,214 devices had been sent to Tower Hamlets, which should be enough for around 25 per cent of children in Years 3 to 11 in the borough. But data from 2019 estimates the number of children eligible for FSM is around 34 per cent in Tower Hamlets – double the average in the capital. This suggests that even when compared to the government’s own much criticised metric, there are many local children still not being reached.

In mid-January, Tower Hamlets and Hackney councils both issued a plea to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson for urgent supplies of devices and reliable broadband connections to support children learning from home. Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs said the borough was still 10,000 devices short. Hackney said they needed 4,000. When this appeal was launched in Tower Hamlets, DfE data showed that 7,259 devices had already been sent. Since then, that figure has only risen to 10,089 by March, meaning fewer than 3,000 of the requested 10,000 have been received.

Sarah’s* story

One such struggling resident is single mother Sarah*. She has four children – three at school, aged seven, 10 and 11 – but since the pandemic started a year ago, they have been unable to access to online learning. Although her children receive free school meals and are therefore eligible for a device, she has been left on a waiting list.

“I’m on a benefit cap of £1,792 a month and my rent is £1,550,” Sarah said. “I’m left with £242 a month, so I can’t afford a laptop. I know my children need to learn online but I just don’t have the facilities.  

“When I pay off the rent, I can’t survive. I’ve been living on food banks and donations for months. I’m going back and forth trying to get help from the schools, help from the food banks, hoping the landlord will make compromises, it is a vicious circle.”

She says the headteacher of the primary school two of her children are at is reluctant to continue sending out laptops because some have been broken.

“I’m worried about getting one because people have been told that if the laptop breaks, they’ll have to pay £300 for it. That’s just scary. That’s more than my monthly budget after rent.”

The family has managed so far by collecting printed worksheets from the school, but this involves Sarah taking all her children with her to pick them up, and the worksheets only offer so much, as the lack of internet access means the children are missing online lessons with their teachers.

“It’s not fair for a mother of four kids to be put in this situation. I know a mother who’s struggling the same way; she has two kids. We both had no idea what to do. She’s got a partner, someone who could help her save a little bit and then buy a laptop, so she’s in a better position than me. I know about 10 families that still haven’t got a laptop.”

Sarah was fortunate enough to have a laptop donated to her after a post on a Facebook support group. Three of her children now share it to do their schoolwork. 

“At least they can take turns now. At least they have something, even if they can only use it for an hour. I know it sounds silly, but this is the way we work. My kids are so happy, they take care of it and wipe it down after they’ve used it. We’re really blessed by the kindness of that person to give us a laptop. Not a lot of people were willing to do that, especially not the school.”

But even with the laptop, getting the basic knowledge of how to use it has been difficult. All her children are at different education levels and it is a struggle teaching all three whilst being on her own.

“Hopefully we can get another device from the school soon so my children can spend more of the school day online.”  

Leaving charities to pick up the slack

The task of bridging the digital divide is increasingly being left to concerned citizens, charities and social enterprises, who are picking up the slack the DfE has left behind, despite their weekly figures claiming the laptop issue is being solved.

One of these charities is Tech Inclusion UK, a tech donation charity which refurbishes disused and unwanted tech and then distributes them to schools and social organisations. The organisation was started during the peak of the national lockdown in 2020 and has been vital in providing devices to vulnerable children in Tower Hamlets.

Rachel Parkin, head of North of England at Save the Children, said: “We already know that the last time schools were closed, the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers widened.  

“Data and devices mean that parents can access support and advice for playing and learning at home, print resources, have contact with professionals, and access their support networks.” 

“We are concerned that not all children in low-income households have the access to the tools or support to use them, and the main barrier to this is cost. Many families can’t justify the cost of getting online when they’re struggling to put food on the table or keep the house warm.”

*Name has been changed

Click here to read more of the London’s Digital Divide series: #LondonsDigitalDivide.
Check back tomorrow for the next articles in the series: online bereavement support and the story of one digitally-excluded Croydon woman.

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