IF 1870 is remembered as the start of universal elementary education and 1944 for secondary education for all, then 2021 must be remembered as the year that online standards for education were set.
If schools are to be closed and pupils are to be at home, they need devices, reliable network coverage and a secure platform for schooling to be delivered.
We need a set curriculum, oversight and support for pupils, and a structured feedback loop from pupils to teachers.
There cannot be lockdowns and school closures, with no full-time alternatives at the ready.
The Government have taken steps. Laptops are going to pupils, guidance is in place and there are independent educational providers coming forward — Oak National Academy, BrainPOP, Creativebug and the BBC — but there is not a comprehensive system in place.
A survey conducted by the Sutton Trust has reported today that only one in 10 teachers feels that their pupils have adequate access to laptops. A similar percentage feel that their pupils have adequate access to the internet. We have falling standards and a division in provision.
The National Foundation for Educational Research found the average learning lost for all pupils was three months, but that more than 50 per cent of pupils in the most deprived areas had lost four months or more.
They also said that while one per cent of pupils in the wealthiest areas had lost an estimated six months in effective learning due to the lockdown, in the poorest areas more than 10 times as many were affected as badly.
If we believe in social mobility — and I certainly do—then this is not good enough. We need to act to support our pupils, and at pace.
Education is the great equaliser. We have to adapt and adapt quickly. I say that because I look at how businesses have adapted to cater for their customers and upgrade their capability.
Online demand has increased by over 100 per cent in retail and for online video subscriptions. Microsoft Teams has grown from 20 million users in November 2019 to 115 million daily active users in October 2020.
If businesses can develop, adapt and meet the need, then schools must do exactly the same thing: they must react with speed to give pupils the education that they need.
Like it or not, online education is here to stay, and once developed it could become an exceptional resource with wider uses, such as allowing children to catch up at home if they have been ill or helping to cater to the 60,000 pupils who are taught at home — that number leapt up by 13 percent in 2018-19. It could even support pupils who have an exceptional capability in a subject to surge ahead.
Where do we begin? We have to get teachers, unions, Ofsted and the Government to come together to set out that standard, because if unions, teachers and local councils are arguing for pupils not to return to school, and with the Government’s announcement of a third national lockdown, they must come together to provide for a full, accessible online curriculum.
There is joint responsibility; therefore, joint action is needed. The Government need to reinstate their manifesto pledge of 1 gigabit capability for everyone by 2025, so that pupils, irrespective of where they live, can get a proper online connection.
In 1969, the Open University was created to give open access to higher education, increase social mobility and support the economy. We need a similar game-changing moment now in online education, where we could become a global leader.
The Open University now qualifies as one of the world’s largest universities and has a £3bn benefit to the UK economy.
It is time we took a leap forward in online education, and 2021 needs to be the year that happens. I hope Ministers meet me and my Blue Collar Conservatism colleagues to set out the new online curriculum that needs to happen, and the online connection and devices that need to be given, to ensure that social mobility happens and that we have an education fit for all.
Esther McVey is a former Cabinet Minister who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on online learning – this is an edited version.
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