Councillor Tim Roca
Councillor Tim Roca

Speech delivered by Harrow Road Councillor Tim Roca, Shadow Cabinet Member for Education and Economic Development, at the Council meeting on 20th January 2021.

Last year Councillor Hug reiterated locally what Sir Keir Starmer said nationally, that during this pandemic labour would support government where action was needed, but we would also take our duty to provide constructive opposition very seriously. Our motion is therefore in that mould.

All of us are well aware of the impact the pandemic is having on children’s education and well-being.

What’s also clear is that the closure of schools is having a disproportionately negative impact on those who are already disadvantaged. On those who lack the resources for effective online study.

Even before the crisis, the digital divide was holding many children back

Ofcom has estimated that between 1.14 and 1.78 million children in the UK – 9% – have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom further estimate that over 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection. And their Technology Tracker 2020 says 2% of households with children just don’t have access to the internet at home

We don’t have, certainly we haven’t been provided with, solid or hard numbers for the gap that exists in our city.

This is very simple. Every child must be able to access online learning. And though some schools are in a very good place, others aren’t. So, what has the council done so far.

It helped distribute 764 devices over the spring and summer. These were provided through an allocation from DfE and council provided devices.

The Council has helped promote to schools the availability of devices in the Autumn Term and currently schools have ordered 973 of these for children on their rolls.

And the Council with the young Westminster foundation launched a programme called Digital Futures.

In response to needs identified by schools, the council has purchased 1,050 devices, which will be delivered by the end of January. I don’t know if there is any double counting going on, but assuming not, that suggests 2,777 devices – Not all of them delivered yet.

Councillors will remember from our motion on feeding hungry children year that there are over 6,000 children now eligible for and in receipt of free school meals in Westminster schools.  2,777 vs 6000. So clearly there are few problems here.

We’re in January, and there are still over 1,000 laptops that haven’t reached people that we know for sure need them.

We’re in January and it is not clear what data is collected or how. I have horrible feeling that we’ve just asked schools how many they need without any system, rigour or common criteria.

We’re in January and Councillors are still finding children and teachers in need of support.

We’re in January and we don’t seem to be clear on how big a problem a decent internet connection is for some families, or the pressure it is having on their finances – particularly the less well off. That’s before we even think of the difficulties of study space or printed materials for our school children.

9 months has elapsed since the pandemic first started, it is deeply frustrating we are in this position. I do welcome a relatively constructive amendment in comparison to the past. That is to say it isn’t a wrecking amendment that guts the motion.

The amendment is still problematic, – it removes mention of free school meals – the metric many of our schools have used. I presume out of embarrassment over the council’s record in failing to support hungry children. It removes mention of direct funding as a last resort, which seems an admission that the council just will not go the extra mile to support our children. So, I expect many won’t be able to support the amendment. But its progress. It’s certainly more mature and I welcome that.

These are extraordinary times, and so our council needs to take extraordinary measures – even if their 9 months late.

  1. Provide access to a device for every child and teacher who needs one
  2. Provide internet access for every child who needs it,
  3. Let’s collect the data we need, and should have been collecting and
  4. Let’s Redeploy council staff if necessary to help identify and meet technical support needs in our schools

We cannot continue to take the Gavin Williamson/Mr Bean approach to supporting our children. We can’t fail them again as we did over free school meals. We have to do better.

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