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1. Background

1.1      School Meals

During the initial, spring 2020 coronavirus lockdown, schools were closed to most pupils, and meals or food vouchers were provided to children staying at home. The provision of support outside of term time has been contentious issue throughout the pandemic. Vouchers were provided during the 2020 Easter, May half term and summer holidays. A Covid Winter Grant Scheme, to be run by councils in England, has been announced to provide support from December 2020-March 2021.

Most pupils are again not in school during the national lockdown that began in January 2021. Families entitled to free school meals are being offered food parcels or vouchers, funded by the Government.

The Education Secretary announced on 6 January 2021:

  • Free school meals: extra funding will be provided to support schools to provide food parcels or meals to eligible students. The national voucher scheme will also re-open so that in the event schools cannot offer food parcels or provide an alternative local solution, every child can access free school meals while they are learning at home. […]
  • Further details on the national voucher scheme will be provided shortly. Schools should work with their catering providers so that meals continue to be available to any eligible pupils still attending school – including all infants and those receiving benefits-related free school meals – as well as for meals or food parcels for eligible pupils staying at home where necessary.

Wider information on school meal support during the pandemic is available in section 5 of the Library briefing School meals and nutritional standards.

1.2      Free School Meals data

A pupil is recorded in the school census as eligible for free school meals (FSM) if they meet the eligibility criteria and their parents make a claim.[1] The eligibility criteria can be found in full here.

In January 2020 there were around 1.4 million pupils known to be eligible for free school meals attending schools in England.[2]

Source: Schools pupils and their characteristics: Jan 2020, DfE

Constituency level figures can be built up from the published school level figures. These figures are based on the location of the school, not where pupils live. A breakdown of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals by each constituency in England is provided in the excel file attached to the debate pack landing page.

This is the most recent data available but may not reflect the number of pupils currently eligible for free school meal vouchers (which are provided to eligible children staying at home). This is because of the changes in economic circumstances since January 2020 which have likely increased the number of pupils which meet the eligibility requirements. In addition, pupils currently attending schools that are eligible for free school meals will receive them in school instead of receiving vouchers.

1.3      Provision of Laptops

On 7 August 2020 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that further laptops for disadvantaged children would be made available, in addition to the 200,000 already distributed earlier in the year. These laptops were intended for children who could not attend school, either because of local lockdowns or because they are clinically vulnerable or otherwise unable to attend school. The DfE stated:

  • In the event of a disruption to face to face education at schools due to coronavirus (COVID-19), DfE can provide devices to help children and young people who are otherwise unable to access remote education.

Examples of this include:

  • children with no digital devices in their household
  • children whose only available device is a smartphone
  • children with a single device in their household that’s being shared with more than one other family member

Orders would be placed through schools. The announcement set out further information on eligibility and when orders could be placed:

  • Schools, maintained schools, academy trusts, hospital schools and further education providers who have enrolled 14 to 16-year-olds are included within this offer. They will receive an allocation of devices to be used to support the following groups if they do not have access to a digital device through other means:
    • pupils in years 3 to 11
    • clinically extremely vulnerable children across all year groups who are shielding or self-isolatingon official advice
    • children in all year groups unable to access remote education whilst attending school on a hospital site
  • Device orders can be placed when:
  • The criteria for device allocations will be continually reviewed to ensure support is offered in the most effective way in relation to the extent of lockdown restrictions and the number of devices available.

The previous run of laptops had been allocated to local authorities and schools on assessments of local need. A previous PQ response from the Schools Minister had noted that:

  • Nick Gibb: […] Local authorities and academy trusts are best place[d] to identify and prioritise children and young people who need devices. The Department is agreeing the number of devices allocated to each local authority and academy trust based on its estimates of the number of eligible children that do not have access to a device.
  • [PQ 47479, 20 May 2020]

Concerns were raised about the distribution of laptops during the autumn term, with schools concerned that they were in line to receive fewer laptops than they had originally been told. The Schools Minister recently provided an update on laptop provision, including statistical information on the laptops already distributed, and stated that changing allocations of laptops had been caused by the differing severity of Covid-19 outbreaks in different areas:

  • Nick Gibb: The Department has invested £195 million to support remote education and access to online social care. In addition to over 220,000 laptops and tablets being delivered during the summer term for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access, we have supplemented this support by making an additional 340,000 laptops and tablets available in the event that face-to-face education is disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since September 2020, over 100,000 of these have already been delivered to schools. More information about the allocation of laptops to date can be found here: (opens in a new tab).
  • The targeting of laptops and tablets through this scheme has continually been reviewed to ensure support is offered in the most effective way, to reflect the numbers of schools that have been disrupted and the number of laptops and tablets available at any time. In the context of significant demand, we have updated our allocation process to more accurately align orders with the number of students typically self-isolating, ensuring as many children as possible benefit from receiving a device this term. On 24 October 2020, the Department communicated this change in allocations to all schools. If schools are experiencing disruption to face-to-face education and believe they have a need for additional devices, they should contact the Department‘s service team via (opens in a new tab) to request additional laptops or tablets.
  • [PQ 115644, 19 November 2020]

Following the announcement of a renewed national lockdown at the start of 2021, the Education Secretary announced further support would be provided:

  • The government has committed to providing over one million devices to help schools and colleges throughout the pandemic – with over 560,000 of these delivered through 2020. The scale of deliveries has now been increased, with a further 50,000 devices sent to schools across the country on Monday alone. The government will deliver well over 100,000 devices over the course of this week.
  • The government is working with the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide access to educational sites. Schools can already request free mobile data uplifts for disadvantaged families, via the Department for Education’s website.
  • The level of additional data for families will vary by provider, but for example Three customers will receive unlimited data and EE customers will receive an extra 20 gigabytes per month. Other providers supporting the offer include Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and O2.[3]

Vulnerable pupils and critical workers’ children can continue to attend face-to-face provision during lockdown. DfE guidance on accessing school places sets out that pupils “who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)” come under the definition of a vulnerable pupil and may attend school.[4]

1.4      Electronic devices delivery data

The Department for Education has published several ad hoc data releases about the progress in delivering and dispatching electronic devices (laptops and tablets) and 4G routers to local authorities and academy trusts.

The most recent national progress data is as of 18 December 2020:

  • Around 562,400 devices were delivered or dispatched since the start of the scheme (2020 summer term).
  • Of these around 341,900 devices were delivered or dispatched since 10 September 2020. Data broken down by local authority and academy trust can be found on p7-50 of the release.
  • Around 54,600 4G wireless routers were delivered or dispatched since the start of the scheme.

The release provides information about the small-scale pilot mobile network operator programme (which is currently in the process of being rolled out to all schools), as well as the BT Wifi voucher scheme which has ended.

The mobile network operator programme refers to requests for an increase in mobile data allowance raised by a Local Authority or Trust to the DfE. These requests can be made when they experience disruption to face-to-face education or for clinically extremely vulnerable children. As of 22 October, 205 requests were made.

In early 2020, Ofcom’s Technology Tracker estimated that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children under the age of 18 lived in households without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet in the UK.

Ofcom estimated that between 227,000 and 559,000 lived in households with no access to the internet at home, while a further 473,000 to 913,000 lived in households whose only access to the internet was via mobile.

These estimates are expressed as ranges because they are based on a survey. Estimates broken down by local area or school year group are not published.

1.5      Remote education expectations

On 7 January 2021, the DfE updated its guidance to schools for the current lockdown. Remote education expectations are covered from p46 onwards.

To summarise:

  • Remote education should be equivalent in length to the core teaching pupils would receive if in school, and as a minimum:
    • Key Stage 1 (ages approx. 5 to 7): 3 hours a day on average across the cohort, with less for younger children
    • Key Stage 2 (ages approx. 7 to 11): 4 hours a day
    • Key Stages 3 and 4 (ages approx.. 11 to 16): 5 hours a day

It should include either live or recorded direct teaching time, and time for pupils to complete work independently.

For younger age groups (i.e., reception and key stage 1 pupils), there is an acknowledgement that online provision often needs more support from parents, and that this can create challenges. As such, the DfE doesn’t expect schools to use solely digital means to teach these pupils.

Provision should also take into account pupils’ special educational needs.

In terms of actual content, schools should teach a “planned and well-sequenced curriculum”. They should also:

  • Select and use an appropriate digital platform
  • Distribute school-owned laptops to overcome digital barriers
  • Provide printed resources
  • Allow vulnerable and critical worker pupils to attend in person, where appropriate.
  • Have systems to check whether pupils are engaging
  • Identify a senior leader with responsibility for remote education

1.6      Oversight of remote education

Ofsted can inspect providers where there are significant concerns about the quality of remote education provided under Section 8 of the Education Act 2005, as amended. Routine inspections, in general, are suspended at the moment, but the intention is that Ofsted will continue to inspect schools graded inadequate, and some of those graded ‘requires improvement’ in the spring of 2021.

In his Statement to Parliament on 6 January 2021, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that parents who had concerns about the education provided should first “raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher and failing that, report the matter to Ofsted”.

[1]     DfE, School census business and technical specification version 1.7, December 2019

[2]     Includes state-funded nursery schools, primary schools, secondary schools, special  schools, non-maintained special schools, and pupil referral units

[3]      DfE, Education Secretary outlines plans to support young people, 6 January 2021

[4]      DfE, Children of critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings, 5 January 2021

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