UK councils may face lawsuits over children’s access to proper education whilst in lockdown.
According to a group of legal activists, some poorer children may be being deprived of their education if they cannot access equipment such as computers and internet access whilst in lockdown. As a result, the government may face legal action if they do not ensure all children can fully continue their education.
The Good Law Project says it will sue local councils to push the government into action, claiming that the current reliance on online learning is putting students who lack access to adequate technology at an illegal disadvantage.
”Because schools are still teaching online, children who can’t access that teaching are missing out and likely to fall behind their peers.Jolyon MaughamGood Law Project Founder
If they are successful, this could lead to courts forcing the government to ensure the provision of internet connections and IT equipment to humdreds of thousands of children from poor or vulnerable backgrounds.
Good Law Project founder Jolyon Maugham said: “Local authorities in England have a clear obligation to ensure that all children can access teaching, so there’s a very strong claim against them to ensure they are doing so.
“Remember that the government hasn’t closed schools down, and because they are still teaching online then children who can’t access that teaching are missing out and likely to fall behind their peers.
“That’s what we want to stop happening.”
With schools currently closed to help reduce the spread of Covid-19, all students are continuing their learning online, with the use of live-streamed lessons through video communication platforms and virtual assignments through e-learning materials.
Of course access to a computer or tablet for each student is ideal for this current method of teaching to work. However, in many families, children are sharing a tablet or laptop with siblings and working parents, or may only have access to mobile phones.
Meanwhile, the internet access they might have had through schools, libraries or cafes has been cut off by the coronavirus crisis. According to a report by Ofcom in 2018, there are as many as a million families that do not have adequate access to a device or internet connectivity.
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The Good Law Project is to back legal action against the London borough of Southwark on behalf of parents whose children attend state schools in the area. They argue that the council has failed to meet it legal obligations.
“I have sympathy for the position of local authorities, who have found themselves landed with a new set of legal responsibilities to educate children remotely without matching funding from central government,” said Ms. Maugham.
“Southwark is an inner-cit local authority with a high percentage of children eligible for free school meals who we know to be unable to effectively access education online.”
Headteacher of Southwark’s Charles Dickens primary school Cassie Buchanan is supportive of the legal action. She is concerned at how many children at the school and others nearby have been struggling to get appropriate access to technology.
“We know from our own experience that for many families their only online access is via a parent’s phone, and we’ve designed learning material to cope with that,” she explains.
“But in secondary schools where the work is more interactive, these children really need to use a laptop and in many cases they can’t.
“It’s more complex than just giving everyone a computer; they also have to access broadband as well.”
Of the 500 students that attend Charles Dickens primary, about 150 are eligible for free school meals. Its multi-academy trust, the Charter Schools Education Trust, has been lending out computers to secondary school students and asking parents to donate laptops or tablets that can be loaned out.
The Good Law Project is being advised by special education solicitors and is hoping to crowdfund an initial £25,000 to cover costs. Lawyers say the government’s obligations to children in lockdown are strengthened by their wider national responsibilities to provide access to education as a human right, under the Human Rights Act.
Ms. Maugham says the group will write to education secretary Gavin Williamson asking him to consider the issue.