Coronavirus: Gavin Williamson set to face legal challenge amid claims children are being denied right to education during lockdown

‘Educational performance and wealth correlate quite closely, and for those kids to be left further behind in primary school feels to us intolerable’

Vincent Wood
Tuesday 21 April 2020 15:58 BST
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Over the weekend Mr Williamson announced the government would provide devices and internet routers to disadvantaged year 10 students, care leavers and those with access to a social workers
Over the weekend Mr Williamson announced the government would provide devices and internet routers to disadvantaged year 10 students, care leavers and those with access to a social workers (Reuters)

Education secretary Gavin Williamson is set to face a legal challenge after claims he has failed to do enough to make sure an estimated one million children across the country have everything they need to access education during lockdown.

Schools across the country returned for summer term this week despite classrooms for the most part remaining empty – with the majority of the nation’s pupils learning through online portals and video lessons.

However, campaigners from the Good Law Project have claimed primary and secondary school pupils from low income families who do not have access to the internet will fall behind unless the department helps to provide funding and clear guidance for local authorities.

An estimated one million pupils across the country do not have adequate access to a mobile device or an internet connection at home, according to data from the Institute for Public Policy Research.

“It will surprise nobody that educational performance and wealth correlate quite closely, and for those kids to be left further behind in primary school feels to us intolerable”, Good Law project founder Jolyon Maugham told The Independent.

“It’s unlikely that there is a stock sufficiently large with tablets and laptops in the country”, he added, “but I think you have to plan ahead you have to contemplate a world in which there was a second wave of Coronavirus in the winter term – and people need to be able to be confident that their children aren’t going to fall still further behind”.

The crowdfunded legal action, which is expected to proceed in the coming days, comes after Mr Williamson announced the government would provide devices and internet routers to disadvantaged year 10 students, care leavers and those with access to a social worker – a policy unveiled after the Good Law project sent a letter reminding the department of its obligation to provide education for all.

However the measure falls short of offering help for a large range of children based on the government’s own definition of who vulnerable pupils are during the pandemic – including adopted children, those on the cusp of receiving support from social services, and those who normally depend on local institutions to support their wellbeing.

Mr Maugham added: “He seems to be envisaging that he’ll look after kids doing their exams at secondary school – and that seems to be the extent of the obligation that he said that he had.

“If you ask any teacher, you’ll be told by them in pretty firm terms that you can’t expect kids to rock up at their GCSEs or their A Levels and perform if they’ve fallen behind in early years”.

While the legal right to ensure all children have access to education falls on local authorities, lawyers for the project have argued the department is obligated to provide guidance and resources to make sure this can happen.

“Local authorities didn’t budget for ensuring that kids have access to the internet and they didn’t budget for ensuring that poor families have devices with which they can access education”, Mr Maugham added.

It comes after a report for the Sutton Trust found only 23 per cent of pupils were taking part in live and recorded lessons online every day since lockdown began, with pupils from middle class homes much more likely to do so when compared to working class pupils.

Meanwhile at private schools were more than twice as likely to have accessed online learning on a daily basis as their counterparts in state schools.

Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said school closures without proper support “will only widen inequality between children further still”.

She added: “It is imperative that the government ensures those disadvantaged year 10s and vulnerable pupils who are eligible for a free device to access online materials receive them urgently.

“And the scheme must be expanded so that the one million children who do not have access to a device or connectivity at home are not left behind.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the guidance on who should receive devices did not cover all vulnerable children as defined by the government – but added that individual schools would be able to make decisions on a case by case basis to make sure they went to those with the greatest need.

In a statement, the department added: “The Education Secretary has been clear we will do everything possible to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus.

“That’s why the most vulnerable children – those with social workers – that need devices will get one, whether they are in primary or secondary school.

“This is in addition to care leavers and disadvantaged students in Year 10 without access to a device, to help keep them safe and support their learning during the build up to exams.”

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