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Government threatened with legal action over lockdown schooling ‘failures’

The Good Law Project has called on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to address access to devices and data for disadvantaged children for schooling during lockdown.
Image credit: FotoRieth/Pexels

The Government is facing a court challenge over its alleged failure to make sure children from all backgrounds can access school work from home during lockdown.

The Good Law Project, named a Big Issue Changemaker for 2021, said the shortfall in devices and broadband given to low-income households is forcing disadvantaged and BAME children into school where there is a risk of them picking up Covid-19.

“We all know that health outcomes for working class and BAME families are especially poor,” Good Law Project director Jolyon Maugham QC said.

Forcing children of those families to go into school at the height of a pandemic because Government can’t or won’t provide devices for them looks suspiciously like sacrificing their health to protect its reputation.”

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Good Law Project lawyers sent a pre-action letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson proposing a judicial review into government “failures”, including the provision of devices, making education websites free to access and travelling into schools during the current high-risk period of the pandemic a last resort.

The Government has seven days to respond to Good Law Project’s pre-action protocol letter and has been approached for comment by The Big Issue.

Last month Williamson pledged one million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged young people access schooling online. Up to 560,000 of those were given out in 2020, with another 440,000 to come – a total the Good Law Project said was insufficient to help the 1.7 million children estimated by Ofcom to be without devices.

The same research showed that 880,000 children can only access the internet from home using mobile data.

New Government guidance published earlier this week said children who cannot learn remotely due to a lack of devices “should attend school or college”.

“Parents should not have to choose between the education of their child and their family’s health,” the legal justice organisation said. Government inaction is endangering families and communities who are already more at risk of Covid-19 by forcing working class kids into school “at the height of a deadly pandemic”, it added.

The Good Law Project launched similar legal action against the Government last April, but agreed to pull the litigation after ministers said they would provide devices and internet to disadvantaged young people. 

But last month Teach First research showed 84 per cent of schools with the poorest pupils still did not have access to enough devices.

Earlier this week the Mirror reported BT CEO Marc Allera’s claims that the education secretary had returned free wifi vouchers for vulnerable families to the telecom giant after struggling to “distribute them effectively”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was “completely wrong” to suggest that the Education Secretary turned down BT’s offer.

The first lockdown left most children three months behind on learning, according to the National Federation for Educational Research. But pupils at schools in deprived areas lost four months or more and there are concerns the same children are now falling behind further.

“The Government must ensure that councils and education authorities have enough funds to supply free computers and internet access to all children who do not have access to them,” Apsana Begum, Poplar and Limehouse Labour MP and education select committee member, told The Big Issue.

“For once education secretary Gavin Williamson must not dither and delay, as a failure to act on this will mean young people from socially deprived backgrounds living in child poverty, in constituencies such as my own who are still awaiting laptops, miss out on critical learning and development opportunities.

“Free broadband should also be rolled out to every household at the bare minimum for the duration of the pandemic, so that no family is socially excluded due to the affordability of digital services to access learning. The Government should also think about extending access to free broadband for all in this country – it is an essential service.” 

In April the education secretary also promised education sites would be exempt from data charges, which has not been implemented – though BT pledged to zero-rate “some of the most popular educational websites” before the end of January.

The Government could be in breach of the Equality Act, the Good Law Project warned, alleging there is no evidence ministers have assessed the impact of remote learning on those with protected characteristics like race.