THE Schools Commissioner for the North has spoken of the challenges of fulfilling a government pledge to offer laptops to disadvantaged pupils who are at home because of coronavirus.

Katherine Cowell, who is a former education adviser to prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, told a meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s children and young people’s scrutiny committee that matching supply with demand was proving “quite complicated at the moment”.

Ms Cowell was speaking after it emerged schools in the area were being offered a small fraction of the computers they needed to comply with a new legal duty on schools to provide immediate access to remote learning to pupils at home because of Covid-19.

The Department for Education has said it would provide devices for children on free school meals who do not have laptops and whose face-to-face education is disrupted, as well as any disadvantaged children shielding.

But it has emerged some schools have been told the number of laptops they were promised had been cut by 80 per cent after the government allocation process changed.

Julie Davidson, headteacher of Red Hall Primary School, said the school had two positive cases on the last day before half-term, affecting two year groups and up to 90 pupils.

However, she said while the school had 32 pupils with no access to a device at home, the school had been given eight laptops.

She said: “It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand their conclusion. We are one of the most deprived schools in the area so I don’t know what other schools are getting.

“We are expected to provide an education package but they have not provided the support. We are not going to be able to deliver what we are expected to do. It’s going to be a pencil and paper package because there’s no other way.”

Speaking to the commissioner at the meeting Red Hall councillor Hilary Lucas said: “There’s no point in having a law saying we need to teach from a distance if our children don’t have access to laptops or indeed the internet.”

Ms Cowell responded saying since Darlington schools had reopened about 1,000 laptops had been distributed.

However, the meeting was told laptops were only sent out when there was a period of isolation for 15 or more pupils. The commissioner said: “We are having to make sure we are focusing the available devices where there is most need. That’s why some schools will see when they go on to order the number of devices that might be available to them might have reduced. In some cases schools have had to close, but that’s been a small number so far and bubbles are isolating at a time. So the school will really need to think how many devices it needs at any one time to respond to the needs of children who are isolating.

“I don’t doubt that it is challenging for schools. If any school needs to close and finds it doesn’t have enough devices there is a route for them to come to my team and we will see what we can do.”

Cllr Lucas replied: “If my school is needing 32 and only has eight and that’s just one school in Darlington then there’s going to be a lot of people knocking on your door.”