Siobhain McDonagh urges Boris Johnson to address the digital divide between students

Labor MP Siobhain McDonagh has urged Boris Johnson to address the digital divide that could hold many students back, despite distance learning being compulsory, while coronavirus is preventing some schools from reopening.

With the reopening of secondary schools in England being staggered and the planned reopening of elementary schools in many Tier 4 areas being postponed for next week, millions of children will receive distance education.

However, McDonagh has concerns that remote learning for some students is being hampered by lack of the devices or internet connection required to log into home, which is likely to put them back.

The MP for Mitcham and Morden organized a letter about the digital divide to be sent to Boris Johnson. It was signed by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former education secretaries, experts and dozens of MPs.

It cites Ofcom’s estimate that between 1.14 and 1.78 million children in the UK – 9% – do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, and says that over 880,000 children live in a household with just one live mobile internet connection.

The Labor MP has indicated that students may benefit from the government distribution of laptops, which she said was “nowhere near sufficient” but devices can only be used by people with data or an internet connection.

Commenting on the letter pertaining to the Oak National Academy’s online hub, McDonagh said, “The Internet has been a lifeline through the lockdowns, keeping us connected at a time when we were being forced apart.

“But kids on the wrong side of the digital divide don’t have the data or the devices to log in from home when their schools close. In a country with free government education, a child’s education shouldn’t depend on their internet connection. “

The letter welcomes Oak Academy’s development in response to the limitations of the coronavirus crisis, but describes it as “inaccessible” to some students and says that it “must be freely available to every student in every school”.

Below is the full text of the letter to Boris Johnson.

Dear Prime Minister,

RE: School closings and distance learning

We write to you after the news that the school will be closed to millions of students in the first few weeks of the new semester. At the time of writing, all secondary school students in England and over a million elementary school students will depend on distance learning to continue their education.

In October, the law was changed to require teachers to offer distance learning to students who cannot go to school due to Covid-19. However, the lockdown exposed the digital divide across the UK. About 9% of the children did not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom estimates the number at an extraordinary 1.78 million children.

While we appreciate the government’s support for distance learning schools, the number of devices committed is well below the required number. In addition, a remote learning device is only effective if the student has access to the internet at home. 880,000 children live in a household with only one mobile internet connection, in addition to all of the children on the wrong side of the digital disconnected divide.

These students were likely behind their peers even before the pandemic. After five months of lack of education, they returned to school further back and are now starting the new year with weeks of even more lack of education.

While we welcome the development of the online Oak Academy, we recognize that it remains inaccessible to all students on the wrong side of the digital divide, and it is fundamental that a child’s education does not depend on their internet connection. In a country with free state education, the Oak Academy must be freely available to every student in every school.

With the new term starting today, we urge you to ensure that every child outside of school has the data and devices they need to sign up and study from home. This requires a registry where kids are without technology or connectivity and a clear plan for how to get it quickly.

We urgently ask for your answer.


Siobhain McDonagh MP

CC: Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Education
Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Secretary of State for Schools

Rt Hon Tony Blair, Former Prime Minister
Rt Hon Baroness Primarolo, Former Minister of State for Children, Youth and Families
Rt Hon Lord Blunkett, Former Secretary of State for Education and Employment
Rt Hon Alan Johnson, Former Secretary of State for Education and Qualifications
Rt Hon Baroness Morris von Yardley, Former Secretary of State for Education and Qualifications
Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Former School Secretary
Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MP, Former Secretary of State for Children
Dr. Patrick Roach, Secretary General of NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union
Action group for child poverty
Sutton Trust
Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation
Liz Williams, CEO of FutureDotNow
Sharon Davies, Managing Director Young Enterprise
Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho CBE
Baroness Tyler von Enfield, APPG co-chair for children and APPG for social mobility Baroness Massey von Darwen, APPG vice-chair for children
Keith Sonnet, General Manager, Computer Aid
Jaine Stannard, school home support
Barry Matthews, Founder of the Social Mobility Business Partnership
September for the schools working group
Jonny Shipp, founder of OneLaptop.org
Professor Thom Brooks, Dean and Professor of Law and Government at Durham University Inigo Woolf, CEO of the London Diocesan Board for Schools
Debbie Abrahams MP
Paula Barker MP
Apsana Begum MP
Clive Betts MP
Ian Byrne MP
Liam Byrne MP
And Carden MP
Rosie Cooper MP
Daisy Cooper MP
Peter Dowd MP
Julie Elliott MP
Mary Foy MP
Andrew Gwynne MP
Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP
Mike Hill MP
Rachel Hopkins MP
And Jarvis MP
Kim Johnson MP
Dame Diana Johnson MP
Darren Jones MP
Barbara Keeley MP
Emma Lewell-Buck MP
Caroline Lucas MP
Rt Hon Pat McFadden MP
Catherine McKinnell MP
Ian Mearns MP
Navendu Mishra MP
Layla Moran MP
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
Virendra Sharma MP
Andrew Slaughter MP
Derek Twigg MP
Munira Wilson MP
Mohammad Yasin MP

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