Schools in some of the most deprived areas of the country were told on Friday night they would not receive the laptops they were promised to help their poorest and most vulnerable pupils learn remotely.

Headteachers across England received emails from the Department for Education on the eve of half-term informing them that their allocations of laptops for disadvantaged pupils had been slashed by around 80%.

The blow comes just two days after the government used its Covid-19 emergency powers to impose a new legal duty on schools to provide a remote education to any pupil unable to attend lessons because of the pandemic.

Vic Goddard, a co-principal at Passmores Academy in Essex, was appalled to discover his original allocation of 129 laptops is going to be reduced to just 26: “We weren’t allocated enough in the first place.”

One in every four students at his school – about 300 pupils – do not have access to a device they can use to learn online at home during local lockdowns or periods when they need to self-isolate, he said, disadvantaging those children further. “It’s unfair on the children and it puts financial pressure on their families, who have all this anxiety that they’re letting their children down.”
Headteachers will now spend the half-term break worrying about how they can fulfil their new legal responsibilities for remote learning without the resources they need to provide their most disadvantaged pupils with an education online. “We are now in a position where we have to offer remote learning within 24 hours of young people being sent home. We are actually breaking the law if we don’t,” said Goddard.

“Headteachers are going away for half-term thinking: ‘How am I going to do this?’ and feeling anxious. It’s inhumane on us.”

At Parklands primary school in Leeds, one of the most deprived schools in the country, the number of laptops being allocated has been cut from 61 to 13. Headteacher Chris Dyson said: “I’m absolutely devastated. What am I going to do with 13 laptops in the event that a bubble has to be sent home? It’s ridiculous.”

He said it would “massively” widen the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children who need to self-isolate or learn remotely. “If you’re going down the online learning route, everybody needs access to a laptop. It’s nothing short of an absolute scandal and an absolute robbery – another nail in the coffin for disadvantaged children.”

Jack Sloan, a headteacher at north London’s Hanover school, said he found out at 5.50pm on Friday that his laptop allocation would be cut from 39 to eight.

The allocation for Millfield high school in Blackpool has dropped from 81 to 16, according to its headteacher, Nicola Reagan. “That’s thousands of pounds from our school budget to help our children. So now schools are penalised by the DfE for not having a positive [Covid-19] case,” she said.

Michael Tidd, the headteacher of East Preston junior school in Sussex, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the DfE’s change seemed disingenuous.

“Like many schools, we’ve all been planning, we’ve had a legal requirement put on us since Thursday to plan for remote learning,” he said. “The day after all those plans had to be finalised then we get told the number of laptops we were expecting has been reduced massively.”

Wes Streeting, the shadow schools minister, said: “Only this incompetent government could introduce a legal duty on schools to provide online learning for pupils isolating at home and then cut their allocation of laptops the very next day.

“We know that many families do not have the laptops or unlimited broadband they need for their children to be able to access lessons and resources from home.

“Education has been a total afterthought for this government throughout this pandemic and it’s a disgrace. Making sure pupils are learning must be a top priority and ministers need to get their act together to make sure schools and pupils have the laptops and internet access they need to make sure that no child is left behind.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said allocations of laptops were being “more effectively” targeted to the children, schools and areas of the country that have “greatest need”, such as those in higher tiers where children are more likely to be isolating.

She said: “The scale and speed at which the department has delivered laptops and tablets to children who need them over the past six months is unprecedented, with deliveries now set to total over half a million by Christmas.

“As we move into half-term, and in the context of significant global demand, we’re updating our allocation process to more accurately align orders with the number of students schools typically have self-isolating, ensuring as many children as possible benefit from receiving a device this term.

“We have already purchased an additional 96,000 devices and continue to work closely with our suppliers to ensure delivery despite the increased global demand.”

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