AS many children prepare to return to school today, a hearing has been told digital exclusion and home learning will remain a major ongoing issue for families.

A Darlington Borough Council meeting heard while some 3,600 devices had been issued to schools and trusts in the council’s area by February, the figure was a Government estimate of the need in an area based on criteria such as free school meals.

Educationalists, teachers and parents attending the meeting said the figure was a gross underestimate of what was needed to enable children to continue with lessons online, which councillors were told had become significantly longer and more complex since the first lockdown.

According to analysis from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership released last month, at least 55,000 families in the North-East do not have access to a laptop, tablet or desktop computer.

The North-East also has a high digital exclusion rate, with 53 per cent of the population completely offline or with limited internet use, compared with London and the south-east where the figure stands at 35 per cent.

Tony Murphy, the authority’s head of education, told councillors frustration had built up among school communities due to the lack of clarity over the qualifying criteria for devices and data packages.

While many children had theoretical access to devices, in practice many parents needed them for their work during the day and children were often being left competing with siblings to get online access.

Heighington Primary School headteacher Carly Spence told the committee she had only been able to access six devices for her 276 pupils.

She said: “Families that I have are generally well resourced, but probably have two full-time working parents who are using a device each and sometimes three or four children trying to do the same. The problem exists wherever you are placed, it’s just a different problem.”

The meeting heard the situation was being further complicated because more rural communities in the borough still had too poor broadband signals for online lessons.

Rydal Academy headteacher John Armitage said access issues for children also extended to parents’ knowledge. He said: “We have a number of families where we have provided the laptop, set up the data and they don’t know how to utilise the device.”

Councillors said with the potential for children having further time off school due to Covid, it was vital work to cut digital exclusion continued at pace.

Councillor Cyndi Hughes said: “This is a wider issue that isn’t going to go away, because young people are still going to have to isolate if they have potentially been exposed to Covid or their family has.

“We need to have a more concerted effort to deal with those problems wherever they are happening.”

n Back to school – page 13