Lancashire schools to get £1m worth of kit to help pupils with home learning

Councils in Lancashire have stepped in to bridge the digital divide faced by disadvantaged pupils who have had difficulty learning during lockdown.
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Lancashire County Council has sourced 1,800 laptops as part of a £1m support package designed to help those pupils who have been shut out of effective homeschooling because of a lack of access to the necessary devices.

Several district councils have also developed schemes to help those youngsters who have slipped through the net of nationwide government programmes to supply tech to families in need of it – either when schools have been closed to most pupils, as they are currently, or when individual children have been self-isolating.

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The authorities include South Ribble Borough Council, which has secured more than 150 tablets which it will distribute to schools in the most deprived parts of the district.

Some children have been struggling to learn at home because of a lack of equipment (image:  Getty Images)Some children have been struggling to learn at home because of a lack of equipment (image:  Getty Images)
Some children have been struggling to learn at home because of a lack of equipment (image: Getty Images)

As part of the county council scheme, schools across the region have this week been asked to provide details of how many laptops they need.

According to a report detailing the process, the authority will then prioritise allocations of the equipment based on criteria including the percentage of vulnerable children in a school, the number receiving free school meals and other indicators of deprivation “to ensure that those most in need receive a laptop”.

They will be distributed directly to schools and become their property, with deliveries expected to begin from 20th February.

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The laptops so far acquired have cost the authority £630,000 – meaning it has another £370,000 to spend on kit to help assist homeschooling under the £1m emergency decision taken by County Hall leader Geoff Driver and schools cabinet member Phillippa Williamson last week.

The urgency was as a result of the fact that the devices – priced at about £350 each – had become available at short notice via BT Lancashire Services, with which the county council has a contract.

However, there was a risk that they would have been bought by another organisation if the authority had not acted to acquire them ahead of the next formal cabinet meeting, where authorisation for such spending would usually be given.

The remainder of the allocated cash could be spent on other much-needed equipment to complement the laptops.

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The decision report highlights that hardware is not the only requirement for effective home learning – but also data, with families facing a particular challenge if they are without home broadband and reliant on mobile phones to access the internet.

The document adds that direct assistance may also be required, “as many parents and carers may not have the knowledge or resources to support digital skills development”.

There are also indications in Lancashire that the learning of disadvantaged early years pupils has been especially affected by lockdown, because none of the government schemes have provided equipment for the youngest age groups.

County Cllr Driver said it was “absolutely vital that we do our best to help those children who don’t have access to IT equipment.”

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“We said at the outset that we would do whatever was necessary to see the people of Lancashire through this crisis and we are able to make this £1m available because we have resolved the council’s serious financial position that we inherited in 2017,” he added.

County Cllr Williamson said that Lancashire’s schools were doing “a brilliant job ensuring pupils are able to continue with their education, which is so important at this really difficult time”.

“This move will ensure that no child misses out because they do not have access to the right equipment,” she said.

Meanwhile, in South Ribble, the borough council has set aside £20,000 to provide devices to schools in four locations where the need is likely to be greatest – the Broadfield and Wade Hall areas of Leyland, the Kingsfold area of Penwortham and also Bamber Bridge.

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Cabinet member for finance, assets and resources Matthew Tomlinson said he was “filled with pride” that the council had found the cash to purchase 151 tablets “for some of South Ribble’s most vulnerable children”.

“I am really looking forward to hearing stories of school children receiving and then using their new kit – it will be such a highlight among what is a really tough time at the moment.

“I am really pleased to say that all the devices allocated to children will remain in the ownership of the school even after this period of homeschooling comes to an end – so it will also help schools with learning resources in the long run.

“This council is determined not to let the Covid-19 pandemic disrupt children’s education and development and we are confident that this £20,000 will go a long way to supporting their learning.

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"Initiatives like this remind me why I first became a councillor in 1999: to create opportunities, hope and prospects to those who are not afforded them - and to find creative solutions for our community so that we can all thrive and prosper," Cllr Tomlinson added.

According to the county council report, Chorley Council is also undertaking to provide devices in its area, while Wyre and Lancaster councils are distributing laptops as part of a Northern Powerhouse initiative.

“SOURCE OF FRUSTRATION”

Kingsfold Primary School in Penwortham has had one delivery of 27 devices since September under the government programmes to supply equipment to children without the necessary kit to fully engage with home learning.

Headteacher Kellie Tierney said that the school had had to identify those children who were most in need.

“Although 27 seems a lot, they were allocated very quickly.

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“Families are often having to share devices, which can be problematic for parents when staff are providing live lessons and question sessions. This can be a huge source of frustration for them,” Mrs. Tierney said.

It is for that reason that she says the additional help now being provided by the county and borough councils will be gratefully received – both by the school and its families.

When it first started providing assistance last summer, the government initially offered devices to vulnerable pupils, those in year 10 and care leavers. Co-ordinated in Lancashire via the county council, more than 4,700 laptops and 500 internet routers were distributed.

During the autumn term, when schools fully reopened, a direct-to-school scheme was launched to provide equipment for pupils in years 3 to 11, who were isolating or shielding, or in situations that required them to learn from home.

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The government then stepped up the initiative at the start of the current lockdown – pledging to distribute one million devices – with schools making requests based on their need.

Figures show that it had achieved 800,000 by the middle of January, while OFCOM research found that 1.8 million children nationally are without a laptop or computer and 559,000 do not have internet access at all.

Out of seven schools that have so far responded to a recent survey by South Ribble Borough Council, none had received the full allocation of kit that they had requested under the national scheme, nor even been promised it.

Several had been told that they would receive between 50 and 75 percent of what they had sought – with one having already done so – while four were yet to hear.

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Kingsfold has turned to a company with which it has a technology contract and which has rebuilt some of its old laptops for use by the eldest pupils so that they are not disadvantaged in their preparations for the move to secondary school.

“Many of them can now access the key teaching in upper key stage 2 to prepare them for the transition to key stage 3.

“We also ordered 50 BT Hotspot wi-fi codes which we have been sharing with families to help them when accessing the internet.

“We have found that there are many companies and support networks out there willing to help, it is just finding the right support for each family to enable them to access the learning.”

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Mrs. Tierney says that it is not just access to learning for which the devices and data bundles are needed – but as a way of combating lockdown isolation.

“More than ever, families need access to school staff and to the wider school support – not just for the curriculum, but for emotional and mental health support.

“We have been trying to strike a balance between prompting new learning and supporting wellbeing, as we recognise more and more that families are suffering with the challenges that this lockdown has left them facing.”