By Daniel Wood
Huddersfield Councillors have set up an emergency fund to pay for IT equipment and internet access for families affected by the “digital divide”.
Ashbrow Labour representative, James Homewood, acted after the Department for Education (DfE) told headteachers that allocations for laptops for disadvantaged pupils had been cut by around 80%.
The move came just two days after the government used Covid-19 emergency powers to impose a new legal duty on schools to provide a remote education to any pupil who is not able to attend lessons because of the pandemic.
Lessening the local impact of digital exclusion is seen as the main priority of the actions, and they have written to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, to raise their concerns.
Cllr Homewood said the effect of the government’s imposition of a legal duty on schools to provide online learning coupled with a cutting of laptop allocation was “really disappointing” and “counterproductive”.
He added: “We need to make sure that no child is left behind during this turbulent period.
“I cannot reiterate how important access to IT equipment and the internet is right now. This move is just counterproductive.
“If we don’t get this right, some young people and their families will be left behind, and existing inequities will be exacerbated. We are doing what we can locally to plug the gaps, but we need more urgency at a national level.”
An increased digital divide has come due to some families struggling to access IT equipment and broadband at home.
Cllr Homewood and his colleagues say the situation has got worse since the pandemic began and the restrictions were introduced.
Accessing appointments or education provision or attending job interviews has become an increasing struggle because of the lack of laptops or broadband in certain households.
Cllr Homewood said: “A recent audit of pupils at a local secondary school found that 20% were unable to currently access IT.
“Our community anchor, Local Services to You (LSTY) had a request for 19 laptops for one primary school as well as referrals from family support workers and social workers for IT support. There’s also been requests for IT equipment to support older people to access activities such as virtual choirs.
“We’ve established a ward emergency fund in Ashbrow for those individuals and families that have fallen through the gaps of support during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He also stressed that this helped to support some requests. However, there is greater demand out there, and they are looking further into developing a refurbished/recycling laptop scheme with local partners.
Over the summer Kirklees Council helped distribute more than 1,400 IT devices from the DfE including to foster carers. This had been planned since before the pandemic hit.
Residents in private and council sector care homes have also received some support, as well as community groups.