Legal action launched against Department for Education over remote learning

Campaigners say that the Government is putting its own reputation ahead of the health of poor families by advising children who cannot learn remotely due to a lack of devices to attend school.

Legal action was launched against the Department for Education this week as campaigners say its guidance exposes poorer families to health risks associated with Covid-19.

The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit organisation which says it uses the law to protect the interests of the public, has launched a Judicial Review Pre-Action Protocol to challenge “ongoing Government failures” in assisting poorer families to access online learning.

In April last year, The Good Law Project launched legal action to force Government to ensure all children could learn online, however the litigation was pulled after the Government gave assurances it would provide laptops and wireless routers to disadvantaged children. Ten months later, campaigners say hundreds of thousands of children are still without.

The Education Secretary has announced that a million laptops have been ordered, however only 560,000 have been delivered. Even when the remainder are delivered, there will still be a significant shortfall. According to Ofcom estimates, there are 1.7m children without devices and 880,000 of them live in a home with only a mobile internet connection.

In response to this inability to access remote learning, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson issued new guidance saying children who cannot learn remotely “due to a lack of devices…should attend school or college,” which campaigners say puts families and communities in danger.

“Parents should not have to choose between the education of their child and their family’s health,” Jolyon Maugham QC, Director of The Good Law Project said, adding: “forcing working class and BAME kids to go into school at the height of a pandemic because Government can’t or won’t provide devices for them looks suspiciously like sacrificing their health to protect its reputation.”

The Judicial Review proceedings challenge the government in four main areas:
1. To ensure adequate devices are provided to those who require them, in a timely fashion.
2. To set out clearly in its new Guidance that bringing children into school during the current period purely because of a lack of devices (or data) should be a last resort, and make clear that the cause (lack of device/data) should be tackled first.
3. To ensure that educational websites, including the taxpayer-funded Oak National Academy, are exempt from data charges; and to address data charges in relation to home learning for school children more generally.
4. To conduct adequate assessments of the impact of school closures upon disadvantaged children, and to put in place resulting contingency plans and mitigating measures.

The Good Law Project has instructed Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Adam Wagner and Dan Rosenberg of Simpson Millar for the case, and the government now has seven days to respond.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are acutely aware of the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged children during this crisis and have put in place measures to mitigate the impact on them. That includes buying more than one million laptops and tablets for schools and colleges to distribute, and partnering with the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data to disadvantaged families.”

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