United Kingdom

Get these kids the laptops they need, writes former Education Secretary ALAN JOHNSON 

The future of an entire generation is on the line today. And that is not an exaggeration, writes former Education Secretary Alan Johnson (pictured)

The future of an entire generation is on the line today. And that is not an exaggeration.

We have been worrying about foreign holidays, football matches and music festivals, and while these things are important, they are all secondary issues compared to the overwhelming crisis in education.

Britain needs a concerted national effort, with all sides joining together, to make sure schoolchildren are not left behind during the pandemic. We have to put them first.

That’s why I am giving my full backing to the Daily Mail’s campaign to get laptops and other computer equipment to every child who needs it. It’s a brilliant initiative and we need everybody to focus on it.

Suffering

Children are taking the brunt of this lockdown, and that’s simply unacceptable. It’s morally wrong, as well as bad for the future of our society. All pupils are suffering, but it’s the ones from less well-off families who are the worst hit. 

And because of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, more families than ever are falling into the disadvantaged category.

I was aghast to read in the Mail this week that, according to the latest poll, a third of children do not have the equipment they need to learn at home.

Most parents will be doing all they can to provide support, but there are millions of pupils struggling to download their lessons on phones, or sharing a computer between three or four around the kitchen table, while the broadband repeatedly cuts out.

Almost three quarters of parents of 16 to 18-year-olds say school closures have set their children’s education back — a figure that rises to 81 per cent of the poorest parents. Pictured: A girl with a laptop takes part in a virtual lesson (file photo)

Almost three quarters of parents of 16 to 18-year-olds say school closures have set their children’s education back — a figure that rises to 81 per cent of the poorest parents. These are dire problems but they are fixable. And we all have a responsibility to make sure they are solved.

The response to the campaign, launched on Saturday, is already hugely heartening, with an incredible £375,000 raised from selfless donations by Mail readers, matched by the generosity of British businesses Peak Scientific and Direct Line, who gave £250,000 and £125,000 respectively.

David Walliams deserves particular credit. As a bestselling children’s author, he’s giving back to his readers by putting in a five-figure sum. That serves as a shining example to other celebrities, and I know many of them will be eager to contribute.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the godfather of the home computer revolution, has also lent his support to get the campaign up and running. He, more than anyone, knows the potential of a laptop to change a life.

But it’s the generosity of ordinary readers that moved me most. I had a lump in my throat to read the letter from a pensioner, who signed himself or herself ‘retiree’ while donating £250 along with the comment, ‘happy to help the young’.

I’ll bet my back teeth that kind soul doesn’t find it easy to spare so much, but knows what a real difference the money will make. Even school pupils have chipped in with their pocket money.

My passion for this campaign is rooted in the knowledge that I would have been one of those kids without the equipment to keep learning at home. That certainly wouldn’t be the fault of my mother, who did all she could for me and my sister. We just didn’t have a lot of money.

And we weren’t alone, at the beginning of the Sixties. One of my friends at primary school passed the 11-plus exam to earn a place at the local grammar school, but couldn’t go — because his parents couldn’t afford the school uniform. I passed too, partly motivated by the desire to make my mum proud and partly out of fear at the reputation of the secondary modern school on the Portobello Road.

With classrooms shut until possibly Easter, and a third of families saying they do not have enough devices, countless youngsters are falling behind with their studies

I went to Sloane Grammar in Chelsea, which presented its own problems: when the school register was read each week and dinner money was collected, I was the one boy who had to pipe up, ‘Free, sir’ — because I was on the list for free meals.

I was the only one in my class on free school meals, which were essential — but they carried a stigma that many children still feel today.

In those days, the equipment necessary for learning could just be a book . . . and those were available for nothing from the library. When I was 14, my inspirational English teacher, Peter Carlen, gave us a list of about 40 novels to ignite our love for literature.

I left school the next year, but spent the next ten years devouring those books. I believe my lifelong enthusiasm for writing as well as reading was sparked by that list.

Revolution

These days, the resources available for learning online are infinitely greater than existed before the digital revolution. All human learning is laid out, just a few clicks away. But it comes at a price. To gain access to this universal library, children need computers. That’s what this campaign is dedicated to providing.

And this has to be seen as the start of an even bigger drive, to ensure children are able to catch up. They’ve already missed almost a year in the classroom and there is no substitute for face-to-face lessons in a place designed for learning. Home-schooling can never replace that. We know from extensive research that, in families where home-learning and reading are not encouraged or even possible in the long summer holidays, children’s education regresses.

If they lose ground in just six weeks, imagine how grim the situation is for many after ten months with intermittent lessons, mostly online.

The Government has to lay out a schedule immediately, to open schools throughout the holidays in 2021. It will be no good to lift the lockdown before Easter and immediately declare a three-week school holiday — or to shut the gates again for a month-and-a-half in the summer.

The Daily Mail poll illustrates the effect of school closures on children and shows four in ten parents say the cost of computers and other items they need is too high

Noisy

This will be tough on everyone, and teachers will have to be rewarded appropriately. But if this generation is to be given a chance to catch up, there is no other way.

Schools should also be strongly urged to open on Saturdays. This was done in London, when I was Education Secretary in the mid-Noughties. I can’t take any credit for the idea — in fact, when one of my civil servants suggested I should take a look at a school in Brixton where Saturday morning lessons were under way, I assumed it would appeal only to pupils who were already succeeding.

As I chatted to the children, working-class kids from poor families told me studying at home was impossible — it was too noisy, with too many other problems pressing in. In the classroom, on the other hand, they could concentrate and make real headway. All of them were grateful to their teachers for giving up their Saturdays for extra lessons.

Now, more than ever, children want to learn. We all have a moral responsibility to make that possible. It’s going to be a long road to recovery, demanding a unified effort on a scale I can’t remember seeing in my lifetime in politics.

I believe we can do it.

The first step is to provide the equipment. Every laptop makes a difference.

Alan Johnson was Secretary of State for Education from 2006-07.

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