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‘Digital divide’: scramble for lockdown laptops

Initiative aims to find computers for children left without online access

15 January, 2021 — By Helen Chapman

Mindy Jhakra with Resham Mirza, who is the headteacher at Tiverton primary school in neighbouring Haringey

A NEW project aimed at bridging the “digital divide” has been launched, with residents and businesses urged to donate unused laptops to families and schools.

Mindy Jhakra and Latifa Akay started the Community Laptops initiative after hearing about the difficulties that children from poorer families were facing when asked to learn online during the corona­virus lockdown.

She said: “People say they do have things lying around but don’t know where to go. Our main focus is to lobby the big tech companies for their unused devices to get them distributed back out to families, schools and people in isolation.

“We have had families and schools reach out to us and let us know the level of the need.”

Ms Jhakra said she has been contacted by five different schools, with a total of 300 pupils in need of a device so far.

The government announced last year they were aiming to provide for all pupils who needed a laptop by June.

Community Laptops co-founder Latifa Akay with Dana Dajani, assistant headteacher at a school in east London

Schools subsequently signed up to an allocation service but in November last year it was announced that the numbers available had been cut.

The Tribune reported how schools were left dismayed after finding their allocated number had been lowered – Hanover primary school had theirs cut from 39 to eight.

Ms Jhakra said: “One school had 185 children who don’t have a device.

“The government said they would provide about 30 – already on the low side – then in November that number was cut by 80 per cent and they only got seven.”

She added: “I think it is super-alarming that the pillars of our society have to be addressed and held up by community local aid and charity.

“The NHS relies on charity now because it is being cut and slashed, and we are seeing the same with education.”

The issue has exposed how the rush to do everything online has left behind large sections of the community in north London, and huge variations over who can afford devices for their children and a reliable internet connection.

Headteacher Jack Sloan with Hanover pupil

“There is a legal responsibility now for schools to provide a means for pupils to learn remotely – how can they do that without the funds? It’s uncomfortable,” said Ms Jhakra.

“We have incredible people at schools reaching out to us and it is really alarming.”

Ms Jhakra works as a manager of tech teams for a hotel business and outside of her day job spends her time on local community initiatives.

A drop-off event is taking place at Elizabeth House in Hurlock Street, Highbury, tomorrow (Saturday) from 11am to 6pm. Community Laptops has partnered with Highbury Mutual Aid to deliver the service to families and schools.

Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz, the deputy leader of Islington Council, said: “Digital inequality is a reality for many of our poorest families and we have worked tirelessly since the first lockdown last March to make home learning workable for them, sourcing around 3,000 laptops so far and rolling them out to schools and families since April.”

She added: “We have worked with schools, local charities and business groups, including Islington Giving, The Cripplegate Foundation, Richard Reeves and Arsenal In The Community, in a collective effort to get laptops to the children who need them.

“We know there is still unmet demand and we continue to work with the charitable sector to meet this. Our secondary schools are also starting to receive laptops ordered from the DfE [Department for Education] and primary schools are now placing their orders, too.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs that half-a-million devices had been given out to schools last year and a further 50,000 went out last week.


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