Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Fintan O’Toole: Why no laptops for schoolchildren?

A study last summer found that one in 10 parents of primary schoolchildren in Ireland lacked an appropriate digital device for home schooling. Photograph: iStock



source: Irish Times, 9.2.2021

One of the things I least like about Ireland is that it is hard to do a simple thing like giving some money to charity without having very complicated feelings. Voluntary efforts are a wonderful part of Irish society. But, far too often, they are not a supplement to a properly functioning system of social decency, but a substitute for it.

Last week, I made a small donation to the Trinity Access Programme’s nationwide effort to get laptops to second-level students whose families can’t afford to buy them. Rather than making me feel good as a person, it made me feel a bit sick as a citizen.

This is not in any way a criticism of the campaign. It’s a great initiative being run by terrific people. But what on earth is going on here? How warped does a system of values have to be when the right to a basic education is dependent on charity?

If a government takes the decision to close schools and move classes online, it takes on an absolute duty to ensure that every student is able to access digital learning.

In a lockdown, a laptop or tablet is as essential as a copybook and pencil used to be. If you don’t have one because you can’t afford it, you are being subjected to systematic discrimination.

Even the Tory government in Britain understands this. It committed itself to buying a million laptops or tablets for disadvantaged pupils. As of January 24th, it had delivered 876,013 of them. There has been criticism that this is not enough, but at least there is tangible recognition of the state’s obligation.

Last April, during the first lockdown of schools, the Government created a fund of €10 million to allow schools to buy IT equipment – €7 million for second level, €3 million for primary schools.

It’s a pittance. It represented a deliberate decision to leave thousands of children and young people without the means to access education online.

Poorest communities

In October, The Irish Times interviewed the principal of Moyross National School in one of the poorest communities in Ireland. He spoke of fundraising for technology: “We purchased 60 digital devices, and it nowhere near met the demand. We would need a further 60-80 at a minimum.” So more than half of his pupils most at need did not have proper access to digital learning.

In August, by contrast, Simon Harris announced a fund of €168 million to allow third-level institutions to buy digital equipment. The Government went out and bought 16,700 laptops directly from Dell for distribution to third-level students.

Spot the difference. Universities are important. Their students are counted as an economic asset. It matters that none of them is left without access to classes.

Meanwhile, a study last summer found that one in 10 parents of primary schoolchildren in Ireland lacked an appropriate digital device for home schooling.

The Trinity programme mounted a huge effort during the first lockdown to raise €300,000 and supply 1,000 reconditioned laptops or tablets to disadvantaged school students in the Dublin area. It is now trying to replicate that effort on a national scale and to supply 5,000 devices.

Even without a discount for bulk purchase, the Government could buy 5,000 new laptops today for well under €2 million. We know it could deliver four times that number because it already did that for college students.

Compare this with the Government’s commitment of resources to the Stay and Spend scheme introduced last October to stimulate the hospitality sector. It proved to be useless – only €300,000 was actually claimed in tax relief under the scheme before pubs, restaurants and hotels had to shut again.

But the Government set aside €250 million for it. A fraction of that would solve the immediate problem.

Stamp of exclusion

This could and should be done right now, today. Children and young people who are already coping with disadvantage do not have time to waste. Every day that goes by with a kid struggling to write an essay on a phone and giving up in tears of frustration is a day on which this State is putting a stamp of exclusion on that kid’s forehead.

So where the hell is Norma Foley? What is Roderic O’Gorman, supposedly the voice of children and young people at Cabinet, actually doing for those experiencing this acute educational crisis? If Simon Harris can get laptops to college students, why can’t they do the same for the pupils to whom they have a moral and political responsibility?

As well as being disgraceful in itself, the unwillingness to ensure that every pupil has the basic tools needed to keep up with the rest of the class points to a larger problem. It suggests a lack of thought in Government about the social consequences of the pandemic.

Coronavirus may not discriminate but our social system most certainly does. It is our collective handling of it that is determining the shape of the society that will emerge.

As things stand, we are deciding by default to handicap even further those who already face the highest obstacles. That is surely not what most citizens want to see on the far side of this trial.



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