Southwark Council and schools across the borough will imminently launch a crowdfunding appeal for laptops, broadband and tech equipment for pupils – with Tooley Street match funding up to a quarter of a million.
Councillor Jasmine Ali, the local authority’s cabinet member for schools, said she and Southwark’s Teaching School Alliance felt enough was enough after months of delays and limited funding from the government, and that it was time to bridge the ‘digital divide’ so a generation of children are not left behind.
Around 2,500 pupils in Southwark are believed to lack the equipment they need to work remotely.
Cllr Ali told the News. “We’re switching people on, getting devices to them, and tackling the digital divide. It’s a real engine room here. We’re tackling the problems from all fronts.”
Funds will pay for equipment but in-kind donations are also requested, including used laptops and tech experts to help wipe them before being repurposed.
The incredible effort comes after it emerged that not only are many pupils still without suitable devices to use at home, but education secretary Gavin Williamson had even turned down an offer of free broadband for vulnerable families.
The £250,000 the council can match fund up to is being taken from an emergency government grant for COVID-19 related services. Ali says if this isn’t urgent COVID-19 work, then what is?
“This is lockdown number three now, I’m not listening to him,” she said of Williamson’s past promises to schools. “The worst case scenario is that his laptops turn up and then we’ve got too much equipment that we can then give to some of our amazing young people.”
She says rather than waiting for people to come to them in need of help, every sinew her team can flex is being put into finding people who need help but may be embarrassed to ask or feel they do not want to ask for too much help given scarce resources.
“We need to force the issue here,” she explained. “Trying to find people without connectivity is not easy, but we’re doing it. Broadband is like water or electricity these days. Everyone needs it.”
Incredibly, before publicly launching the appeal, they have already received a £20,000 donation from the New Common Collett Foundation – enough to pay for 130 devices.
All funds raised will help 92 schools all of which say they have pupils struggling due to lack of WiFi, broadband or laptops.
Cassandra Buchanan, the head of Charles Dickens Primary School who was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list, urged News readers to get behind the campaign.
“In March last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, over half the pupils in Charles Dickens Primary School did not have access to a suitable device to enable them to fully engage in online learning from home.
“Many children were trying to access online learning provision using shared phones and data plans which didn’t last longer than a few days.
“This experience is typical across Southwark and schools like ours have since worked hard to provide laptops for our disadvantaged children to use at home.
“The Department for Education has also provided some laptops to support this effort. However, there are still 2,500 children in Southwark who don’t have access to a laptop or other device which allows them to engage with learning at home.
“With schools likely to remain closed well into the spring term and beyond, the learning gap between disadvantaged children and others is set to get wider.
“Schools have done their very best to close the digital divide and we now need our Southwark community to help the remaining families who need this extra support.
“We have come together as an alliance of schools to call on residents and the business community to help us to ensure that every child is able to learn online at home.
“Southwark council have generously offered to match-fund all donations, and this provides a powerful opportunity for us to make a real difference for more children.
“Without immediate action and help from our wider community, the life chances and prospects of many Southwark children could be permanently damaged.”