UK to give free laptops and broadband to poor students

11 Jan 2010

In a visionary stg£300-million move to remove a potential educational digital divide, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has revealed a plan to provide free laptops to more than 270,000 families across Britain.

In a programme that mirrors the Free School Meals scheme, the strategy recognises that although computing is becoming pivotal in education, a digital divide between children whose parents can afford up-to-date computers and connectivity and those who cannot is emerging.

The scheme unveiled today by Brown recognises the importance of computing in education and points to research that shows pupils could improve by two grades at GCSE if they have a computer in the home.

As well as this, unemployed parents say that having the internet has helped them apply for jobs and get better skills.

Closing the gap

Brown and the UK Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls have revealed a computing rollout that will give 270,000 low-income families a free computer and free broadband access, under a major drive to close the digital and educational divide between rich and poor and help keep parents in touch with their child’s progress.

“I believe everyone should benefit from new advances in technology,” said Brown. “It’s right that we break down any barriers to social mobility in order to give more children and families the opportunity to complete coursework, conduct research and apply for jobs online.

“This initiative means families can come together, learn together and reap the rewards together. Helping children succeed in school and get the skills they need will set them on the right track to get good quality jobs in the future,” Brown added.

Ministers at forum

The announcement comes as cabinet ministers host international ministers at the annual Learning and Technology World Forum, representing 1 billion children in the world, along with other leaders in technology and learning.

The UK, Brown claims, now leads the world in technology for education. UK education and skills exports are worth around stg£28 billion annually, making the UK a world leader in meeting the accelerating demand in this dynamic sector.

The stg£300-million investment in the Home Access programme will help make England one of the first countries in the world to ensure young people can use a computer and the internet at home for their education, and get parents better involved and understanding more about what their child does at school.

Studies show that 81pc of parents think having internet access at home has helped this – and increased parental engagement is proven to boost attainment at school.

“This is all about making sure no child is left behind
because of their background.”

– UK Secretary of State for Children,
Schools and Families Ed Balls

The British Government is currently legislating to make reporting to parents online by 2012 a legal guarantee in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Home Access computers are also loaded with a suite of software to support literacy and numeracy for all the family.

From today, families with children aged 7-14 who are entitled to free school meals will be able to apply for a grant to buy a computer and broadband connection from an approved supplier, after meeting strict eligibility criteria.

Looked-after children up to the age of 18 will also receive laptops, and the scheme will offer bespoke packages to provide more support for children with special educational needs.

The programme is being rolled out nationally after successful pilots in Oldham and Suffolk showed a positive impact on both the pupils and their parents. On average, children who received computers from the Home Access programme spent an hour more per week learning online, compared to their classmates who already had the internet at home.

Improvement in grades

A recent study from the Institute of Fiscal studies also showed that having a computer at home could lead to a two-grade improvement in one subject at GCSE.

“Families who are most in need cannot be left behind in the digital revolution we’re seeing in education,” said Balls. “We’re leading the world with the way we use technology in learning and we’ve shown our commitment to this by making ICT the backbone of every lesson in the new primary curriculum. Because of this, it’s absolutely right that we’re investing stg£300 million so children who need the most support have access to the resources they need at home.

“Being online at home provides educational, economic and social benefits that cannot be ignored. We estimate that around 1 million children are without the internet at home, and it’s clear they are at a disadvantage to their peers. Computers are no longer a luxury for the few, but are as essential a part of education as books, pens and paper.

“This ground-breaking new offer to the most in-need families goes much further than just helping children get ahead at school. More than eight out of 10 parents involved in the pilot said getting online at home improved their confidence in using technology, and many reported using their new laptop to access public services and to look for work.

“This is all about making sure no child is left behind because of their background, getting parents more involved in their child’s learning, and helping them get the skills they need to get back into employment or training.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has revealed the Home Access programme, a plan to provide free computers to more than 270,000 families across Britain

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years