Four families who say their children have received “little or no” education since schools in England were closed to most pupils have started legal action against the government.
Lawyers acting for the families say their intention is to sue the government over its failure to ensure access to the online learning that has largely replaced classroom teaching since March, because the four are unable to afford laptops or internet connections.
Clare Jennings, a solicitor at the law firm Matthew Gold, said the Department for Education’s scheme to provide laptops and internet access for some was restricted to only a small number of pupils, leaving many others without reliable access to online lessons.
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Teachers in England report pupils having to share laptops or tablets with family members, including with parents working from home. Many schools have distributed or bought their own devices to give to their pupils.
The four families living in the south-east of England are eligible for universal credit or local authority support, and include five children eligible for free school meals, aged between six and 13, attending local primary and secondary schools.
“The government really hasn’t engaged with the number of children who need access to the internet. They don’t seem to have really addressed how many children are missing out on their education because they don’t have a laptop,” Jennings said.
The DfE announced on 19 April it would provide devices to disadvantaged year 10 pupils, as well as pupils who had been in care or assigned a social worker. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told MPs that 200,000 laptops would be distributed at a cost of £85m. Internet access will be provided only to year 10 pupils.
But most of the devices will not be delivered until June, while an investigation by Schools Week found that schools were being allocated only a fraction of the devices for which they were eligible.
One school, Longdean school in Hertfordshire, said it had applied to the DfE for 66 devices for its year 10 pupils on free school meals but was told it would only get 21.
Jennings said the families had sent a “letter of claim” to the DfE to start proceedings, but she hoped the department would instead “respond positively” and provide extra resources to allow all children to learn online.
Researchers at the London School of Economics have said the schools closures could open a “chasm” between the education of low-income children and those from better-off families.
The work by the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance found that previous unexpected shutdowns had a large impact on children’s education. It said a four-week closure could be equivalent to moving an average child down into the bottom 30% band of achievement. “The effect is greater for children in low-income families,” the centre said.
Andy Eyles, one of the authors, said: “It is clear that children from more advantaged backgrounds attending schools where technology is in place to substitute for classroom teaching, and whose parents have both the time and skills to plug the deficit, are likely to be less adversely affected by the closures than others.”
The report said options that could help overcome the lost learning included: having pupils repeat the entire year; schools opening over the summer holidays; extending the school week by two hours for every week of closure; and a funding injection of £1,350 per pupil to improve teaching.
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