George Crivelli: Conservative councils have quietly got on with the job of getting laptops to children who need them

25 Jan

Cllr George Crivelli represents East Putney Ward on Wandsworth Council.

London children are learning from home across the capital. Conservative councils have quietly got on with the job of getting laptops to children who need them. We are determined there should be no digital divide.

In my own borough of Wandsworth, for instance, every single child identified by schools last term, as needing a laptop, has received one – 2,700 so far, with another 800 on the way to meet any further needs this term.

How have we done it in London? Residents, businesses, local and central government, pulled together to help those in need. There are three pillars to our work to tackle digital poverty.

First, councils distributed London’s fair share of the amazing 1 million laptops being provided by the government. Across Hillingdon, Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, Bexley, Bromley and Wandsworth, we’ve provided around 5,500 laptops through this route.

Schools have been ordering their own devices directly from the government too. In Kensington and Chelsea, for instance, 14 schools have ordered over 300 laptops on top of this.

There were no special favours from the government. All local authorities received this support. But in our boroughs, an old-fashioned mix of motivated council officers and teachers, good logistics and great relationships with our schools, helped get these out quickly.

Second, we harnessed the community spirit of the crisis to go further, getting even more laptops where schools told us they were needed. Wandsworth Council and Battersea Power Station, for example, teamed up to launch ‘Power to Connect’ to refurbish computers for kids. Throughout the pandemic, residents and local businesses have been donating old laptops and tablets. The council itself provided hundreds of retired laptops from a recent IT upgrade. In one of our community centres, a busy team of tech volunteers clean the devices securely and transform them into Chromebooks. These fast devices run like tablets and can be used to access online learning.

Then the council makes sure they get to those who need them. The smiles when our young people receive their laptops make the hard work worth it. We’ve refurbished around 500 computers for kids so far. We were so proud to win the national Tech4Good Award. I know there are similar schemes out there. Barnet is working through the Live Unlimited charity to provide dongles. Kensington and Chelsea has distributed 114 refurbished laptops.

It’s not just devices, of course. Across the capital, when a family says it needs internet access for learning, councils are getting them a wireless dongle or a top-up voucher.

Third, the government recently gave all local authorities special extra funding for children. Councils were given a choice of how to spend this. In Wandsworth, we spent these funds not only on Free School Meals for all eligible children but also on 600 more laptops. Kensington and Chelsea made £260,000 available for schools to buy more laptops. Bexley made funding available for extra laptops for looked after children.

There are media reports in some Labour boroughs of schools without laptops. With the funding and schemes available to well-organised local authorities, residents should be asking their councils what has gone wrong. Our Conservative councils show how to do it. No special favours from government. No sitting back waiting for someone else to fix it. It just takes good government and community spirit.

Alongside our work to support digital inclusion since March 2020 we’ve also been working in many other ways to support our brilliant schools. We’ve worked to provide free wellbeing support to our teachers, secured over 100 nursery places for key worker children, and put together a new council team focused on helping schools with covid testing.

While most children are now studying at home in lockdown, many of the borough’s schools remain open for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers. To keep classrooms safe, the council is working closely with our schools to support testing of teachers to help ensure they remain virus free.

Over the Christmas break, the council distributed testing kits to 69 schools across Wandsworth ahead of the anticipated return of pupils. This term we have supported secondary schools to put in place plans to test pupils and staff and have also delivered tests to our maintained nurseries and special schools. We have also supported local testing of our primaries pending national roll out next week. Testing is a major weapon in the fight against Coronavirus ensuring that staff who are not infected can continue teaching. This will help keep pupils safe and schools open.

There’s also been support for catch-up tutoring for pupils during school holidays and free parking for teachers. In Wandsworth, we will continue to do everything in our power to support a quality education for all.

If you have a spare laptop gathering dust, please visit www.powertoconnect.co.uk. At times like this, it is important that communities pull together more than ever. Any support you can give will go to those most in need in the local area and will be greatly appreciated.