Vulnerable children have been left sharing devices or unable to afford Wifi for remote schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic, a Ferret investigation has found, prompting campaigners to claim the Scottish Government’s provision for digital technology and access has been a “postcode lottery“.
Our investigation shows that while centralised funding helped to reach many excluded young people – providing them with essential online access at home from March until June 20 and from Jan to March 21 – others fell through the net.
Those supporting vulnerable children in some households said siblings were still taking turns at remote learning due to a lack of access to technology, while others were still unable to afford Wifi so had to limit the amount of data accessed. Charities are now calling for a national strategy to be implemented.
Scotland Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, who says he has consistently called for the Scottish Government to take a more consistent approach to address the digital divide, says it must now ensure that every child that needs a device to access education is provided with one.
His call was backed by Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra, who said it was “unacceptable” some families continued to struggle. He added that a consistent Scotland-wide approach was needed.
Over the last year the Scottish Government has used a combination of funding streams and announced a £25m investment back in May 2020 as part of a drive to tackle digital exclusion. Each council’s share was distributed on the basis of free school meals in the local authority.
The government purchased 25,000 Chromebooks, with councils able to use some or all of their allocated funding to secure these for their pupils. Funding was also available for routers. 14 out of 32 councils opted out the centralised provision, using their cash allocation to purchase other devices.
A further £45m was later made available to councils to support remote learning, according to the Scottish Government, to be used “flexibly by local authorities to deliver additional devices or connectivity where there is remaining unmet need, to recruit additional staff or for wider family support measures”. Reporting on the spend is not yet available.
Other funds aimed at addressing the digital divide include the Connecting Scotland programme, which does not address remote learning but was set-up to reduce digital exclusion during the pandemic for those on low incomes.
However, data released under freedom of information legislation on the £25m fund reveals that by the end of January 2021, a total of 63,382 devices – including tablets and laptops – had been distributed, 6,618 short of the Scottish Government’s stated target of 70,000 devices.
In addition 11,846 ‘connectivity solutions’, such as Wifi routers, had been provided to families in Scotland, less than two thirds of a Scottish Government target of 18,000.
The figures released to The Ferret also highlight significant variations in uptake across the country from local authorities.
The largest number of government-funded devices have been given out in Glasgow, which has provided 7,240 devices – 104 devices per thousand pupils in the local authority.
But several others provided higher numbers per head of pupils. Stirling benefited most from the scheme, providing 148 laptops for every 1,000 pupils in the authority through the funding pot, and Highland Council provided 4,517 devices (146 per 1,000 pupils).
But in the Scottish Borders just 20 pupils in every thousand received laptops or devices via the scheme. In West Dunbartonshire just 28 devices were provided per 1,000 and uptake was also low in more affluent areas such as Edinburgh City (50 per 1,000) and East Renfrewshire (34 per 1,000).
A total of seven councils – Aberdeen, City of Edinburgh, Moray, Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney, Renfrewshire, West Lothian – did not distribute any connectivity solutions such as internet routers to pupils via this government funding stream.
Others provided minimal help with internet access – a further eight local authorities provided connectivity support to less than 10 for every 1,000 pupils via the scheme, including East Ayrshire (seven per thousand) and Stirling (six per thousand).
Glasgow provided most routers through the fund, distributing 61 connectivity solutions for every thousand pupils. Dundee was the second highest local authority, with 46 per thousand provided.
Councillor Stephen McCabe, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) children and young people spokesperson, stressed that many councils had other systems in place to support people with access to devices and internet connections. He said the total numbers for both would be higher than those shown in the government statistics.
“With the pandemic and the closure of school in March, councils moved quickly to increase the availability of devices available to children and young people who were digitally excluded,” he said.
“Councils, schools and all our staff have worked incredibly hard to maximise the opportunities for children and young people to learn remotely throughout the coronavirus pandemic and will continue to provide as much support as we can against the challenging, and changing environment.”
Need for remote learning support
Yet children’s charities and support organisations said many people had been – or still were – struggling.
Satwat Rehman, director of One Parent Families Scotland said every local authority and school managed the situation differently, with some families getting “very supportive interactions” whilst others had “hardly any interaction at all”.
“There are families that are sharing devices and it is hard for single parents to juggle the learning of children at different stages of schooling,” she said.
“Families are very concerned about their children having fallen behind but more so about the wellbeing of the child and family which doesn’t seem to have been a priority when considering the challenges of home schooling, having to work from home and support children across different age ranges.”
One single mother in North Lanarkshire, who has home schooled her P4 and S2 children through two lockdowns, said that she found her school made assumptions back in March 2020 that everyone had access to devices, Wifi and printers.
“I had a laptop and the kids had tablets but they were cheap ones from Amazon not suitable for school work,” she said.
“So at first my older son got first dibs on the laptop and I would use my phone and get access to online work for my younger son that way.
“We have a printer but the inks and paper are really expensive so even to this day I stay up in the evening writing things like sums out by hand into my son’s jotter so I don’t have to print them.”
Her older son was finally able to borrow a tablet for the last two weeks of the summer term in 2020 and during the most recent lockdown has had a laptop provided by his school. But it still leaves the family juggling two laptops between the three of them, meaning it is not possible to follow traditional school timetables.
“For my primary child it’s better this time,” she says. “It’s more structured than previously and clear what work is expected of them. But for my older son things have not been good.”
She claims his additional needs have not been supported and, after several meetings and mediation with the school and the council, is planning to complain to Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.
In East Dunbartonshire, for Tracey – a mother who fled domestic violence with her five children just weeks before the first lockdown in March – remote schooling has also been hugely challenging.
This time she has part-time places at school and nursery for the children – aged one, four, eight, ten and 13. But they are not always keen to go. She feels there is a stigma attached to attending while most others are at home. Her children are often reluctant to go when their friends are not in class.
It took until June for her oldest son to be given a tablet and router. His device is now being fixed after one of the young children spilled something on it, meaning he is attempting to follow his S2 timetable while sharing a tablet used by his younger siblings in the same crowded space.
“It can still be hellish,” she admits. “But I do understand why they don’t want to go in to school to some extent. It must be daunting.”
The Ferret found stories of young people achieving against the odds during lockdown. In Glasgow’s Govan, 16-year-old Idris is working for his National 5s using a laptop purchased by children’s charity Aberlour. The charity was able to source additional laptops from the Scottish Governent during the first lockdown.
Idris arrived from Sierra Leone with his mother and three sisters last March and is seeking asylum. He hopes to study law at University after school.
Restrictions meant he was not offered a school place until November last year – an eight-month wait. So he found it was “very frustrating” that schools were closed again just a couple of months after he was allowed to attend.
He said online teaching methods “don’t feel like learning”, adding: ”They are not as effective as being in the classroom.”
He is facing other challenges. “Having three sisters is one,” he said. He currently saves tasks that need concentrated reading until late at night when he won’t be disturbed by their music and the level of activity in the small flat. “It’s not healthy and I’d rather be asleep,” he added.
John Hendry, a youth worker for Aberlour children’s charity, says in Govan alone the charity has a 15-strong waiting list for computers. “We really appreciate that the city has given out tablets,” said Hendry. “And I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but it’s not meeting all their needs. Young people need computers for some of their courses.
It is claimed more than a third of primary school children in the city don’t have access to a device for home learning.
“We also still also have some people that don’t have internet access and we’ve highlighted that for months,” added Hendry. “Financially the internet is out of reach for a lot of people we are working with and so the time out of education has been stressful for them.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of young people really, really struggling mentally in the next few months and we’re going to be picking up the pieces. They are going to try and catch up and it will put a lot of pressure on them.”
Aberlour is calling now calling for an end to the “postcode lottery” of access and for all political parties to commit to a national digital inclusion scheme.
Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, said it was essential that older children – who will continue to learn at home for the majority of the next two weeks – got consistent support for online learning.
He added: “A national approach is needed, backed up by national guidance and support for schools and teachers. Inconsistent delivery of IT to children and young people who need it to learn continues to widen the attainment gap between rich and poor and can lead to poor mental health.”
While he said it was was “hugely positive news that most younger children are returning to school”, he stressed those left learning at home must not be forgotten.
“The Scottish Government must ensure that every child that needs a device to access education, has one and that they are able to access meaningful support for education online,” he said.
Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said the data “laid bare the stark digital divide facing the pupils of Scotland”.
“Despite the best efforts of our teachers, this pandemic has hugely disrupted the education of many thousands of students,” he added.
“The digital divide between the rich and poor, the urban and rural, meant we went into the pandemic completely unprepared.
“The SNP government should have mandated full provision of digital access and then provided local authorities with the resources to deliver that access.
“With the risk of further national or local lockdowns very real, we need an urgent national audit on preparedness for online learning. It is unacceptable that over a year into this pandemic these issues continue to prevent our children from learning.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “These figures cover the £25m investment announced in May last year. Given that schools know their learners and families best, local authorities themselves were responsible for identifying those in need of support and for securing and distributing devices and connectivity solutions using allocated funding.”
Image thanks to iStock/piyaset