Just imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be a child in lockdown. Stuck indoors, unable to play with friends and banished from school for weeks and months on end.
Now imagine how tough it is for the children from the poorest, most under-privileged homes in society.
Ask yourself if you could cope in a crowded flat in a tower block, cooped up with three or four siblings and a single parent who is struggling to help you access any sort of education at all.
And think, too, about children in rural homes where the broadband is weak to non-existent, competing for internet access with other siblings and a parent who needs to work from home.
Or maybe you don’t have a computer at all, because it’s been broken or stolen. You’re trying to download homework on your phone, but the screen is too small and you’ve used up your network’s ‘data allowance’ for this month.
Special visit: Lord Blunkett’s guide dog Lucy steals the limelight at a Sussex school in 1997
How on earth are you going to learn anything?
My own schooldays were long before the digital era, too, but the world has changed. Like every other aspect of our society, education relies on technology.
Quite simply, our children need laptops if they are to learn. And, as a country, we have allowed this situation to drag on for far too long without making sure they’ve got the technology they require.
That is why I’m backing the Mail’s campaign to get the equipment, connectivity and conditions right for youngsters to have everything they need — computers, software and support — to be able to learn at home and begin catching up in the months and years ahead.
And you can help, too. We all have to pull together. We have a duty to an entire generation, because they are the future of our country. We cannot allow their education to be blighted any longer.
Never in living memory have schoolchildren endured what the current generation is facing. The pandemic is tough for all of us but, for children, it’s often worse.
According to research published this week by the Sutton Trust, 50 per cent more children in middle-class homes have been able to access five hours’ teaching a day, compared with children in working-class homes.
David Blunkett said: ‘Just imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be a child in lockdown. Stuck indoors, unable to play with friends and banished from school for weeks and months on end’
Nearly twice as many parents on low incomes say they are finding the current lockdown harder than any that went before, compared with people in better financial circumstances.
Families with the largest incomes, which make up 19 per cent of the country, are spending on average £200 or more to make sure their children have the technology they need.
But in 31 per cent of homes at the bottom of the income scale, nothing has been spent at all — because there is no money to spare.
And the gulf between rich and poor is evident within the state school system, where 55 per cent of teachers at the less affluent schools report they are seeing a lower standard of work from pupils than they would normally expect — compared with 41 per cent at the better-off schools.
The evidence is stark: more than half of the teachers surveyed said that where pupils’ families can’t afford good-quality computer equipment and connections at home, their work is suffering.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, says: ‘The first period of school closures had a huge impact on all young people, but particularly those from lower-income backgrounds.
‘Never in living memory have schoolchildren endured what the current generation is facing. The pandemic is tough for all of us but, for children, it’s often worse,’ said David Blunkett
‘The repercussions of these months of lost learning are devastating, and will be felt for years to come. It’s imperative we don’t let this happen again.’
Frankly, I find it heart-breaking that one of the legacies of Covid now threatens to be a new kind of educational apartheid, as the gap between Britain’s most advantaged children and the most deprived only grows further.
Yet surely this is fixable. Only the most brilliant research scientists and the biggest pharmaceutical organisations can tackle the virus by developing vaccines and better treatments.
But all of us can contribute to ensuring that Britain’s children have the wherewithal to learn online.
We don’t know, and I suspect no one really knows, quite how long the lockdown will continue to keep our schools and colleges closed. Thankfully, they remain open for the children of key workers and those designated ‘vulnerable’, whose homes are not suitable for any kind of learning — online or off. But millions more are at home, unable to access the limited school places available.
That’s why getting the right technology into every home, with internet connections that work, must be an immediate priority for the weeks ahead.
David Blunkett said: ‘Frankly, I find it heart-breaking that one of the legacies of Covid now threatens to be a new kind of educational apartheid, as the gap between Britain’s most advantaged children and the most deprived only grows further’ (stock image)
At the start of this latest lockdown, Ofcom estimated that at least 1.1 million children did not have access to a computer.
I say computer because working on a smartphone, particularly sharing one with siblings or with a parent, simply doesn’t hack it.
You can’t, for hour after hour, use a smartphone for purposes for which it was never intended — even if you have one in the first place.
Ten months ago, the Government promised to equip all children with the necessary tools to continue learning. It repeated this promise in the autumn.
Thus far, some 800,000 devices have been handed out to those most in need. More are on their way as stock becomes available, at a time when all nations are competing for the same resources. But more can and must be done.
I might have been a Labour Education Secretary, but I want to emphasise that I’m not making a party-political point here. I’m merely stating a fact, underlining how difficult it has been so far to get the equipment in place.
This can’t be done without a concerted effort from all of us, putting aside our differences — Left and Right, unions, government, businesses, individuals, everyone. We all have a part to play in this crucial project.
‘At the start of this latest lockdown, Ofcom estimated that at least 1.1 million children did not have access to a computer. I say computer because working on a smartphone, particularly sharing one with siblings or with a parent, simply doesn’t hack it,’ said David Blunkett (stock image)
Not for the first time, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper is using its clout to bring everyone together.
The Mail’s initiative will be welcomed from all sides. All sorts of people have been doing what they can though, until now, their efforts have not been co-ordinated.
I know in my own city of Sheffield what a difference businesses as well as individuals can make. At least some form of learning will bring joy and might help to rescue an otherwise lost generation.
The comedian John Bishop has donated 100 laptops to his old school in Runcorn, Cheshire.
‘As a child, I qualified for free school meals,’ he said, ‘so I know I would have been in one of the families that needed help to gain access to a laptop. When children are sent home without the tools to facilitate their education, they are basically being written off, and that is unacceptable.
‘When this pandemic is over,’ he added, ‘we do not want a generation of children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves left behind. Allowing that to happen would be shameful.’
I applaud every word he says, as I also applaud all the generous donations made by individuals off their own bat — such as Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford, who has given £5,000 to a local primary school to purchase iPads for pupils, and Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. which is donating 100 laptops to schools as part of its community support programme.
David Blunkett said: ‘Ten months ago, the Government promised to equip all children with the necessary tools to continue learning. It repeated this promise in the autumn. Thus far, some 800,000 devices have been handed out to those most in need’ (stock image)
But this is also about our young people in further education and sixth-form colleges. Sheffield City College has thousands of students between the ages of 16 and 19, many of whom have been really struggling with both vocational and academic subjects.
That is why the college has heroically begged, borrowed and bought 2,000 computers over the past few months, to help youngsters to continue learning.
Just at the time when the Government has published its policy paper on the future of further education and an offer of support in lifelong learning, those who have often lost out the first time round are in danger of losing out all over again.
Get this right and all of us gain. Get it wrong and we all turn out to be the losers.
And there is another reason why a campaign to equip our nation matters. When we get back to some form of normality, then working differently, learning differently and opening up new, creative opportunities will be possible only if people have the resources to do it.
Having the right equipment will allow schools and colleges to be able to connect in completely new ways.
As Secretary of State, I was a great advocate for old-fashioned homework. I still am. But technology is so versatile now that it can be used for much more than traditional learning.
Video conferencing software, for instance, can link students with each other, their tutors and with the world of work.
This equipment is needed now and in the future for the Government’s own online tutoring programme, to help students catch up on lost learning.
So far, this has been taken up by only 30 per cent of young people. It remains unavailable to the many who simply don’t have the means to participate.
Nothing can substitute for getting our children back into the classroom and our young people back into the laboratories and lecture theatres. The imperative must be to return to full classroom teaching as soon as humanly possible.
Whatever it takes, we must make the next few months an opportunity to re-establish hope and optimism, positive ideas and collaborative working, to replace the doom and gloom which have pulled so many of us down over the past, terrible year.
Now is the moment to focus on the future and to work together to make Britain a better, more equal and creative country, ready to regenerate and rebuild our economy.
Lord Blunkett was Education Secretary from 1997 to 2001.