The Department turned down the offer of cut-price connections for the disadvantaged (Image: UK PARLIAMENT/AFP via Getty Imag)
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Gavin Williamson turned down an offer to get free or cheap broadband for thousands of disadvantaged families, the Mirror has learned.
Broadband giant BT offered to supply families basic connections to allow children to access online learning with schools closed for months during the Covid-19 pandemic.
And the firm’s Chief Executive revealed they had given free wifi vouchers to the Government in June but the Department for Education ‘struggled to distribute them effectively’ and returned them.
The embattled Education Secretary yesterday announced a string of mobile broadband providers would offer free additional data to disadvantaged families.
However, as early as spring 2020 BT asked the Department for Education to identify families who needed access to the internet, offering to provide them as a “priority” and at cost-price.
But in a letter to campaigning MP Sarah Owen, the CEO of BT's consumer brands, Marc Allera said the Department had "declined" the offer.
Labour ’s Shadow Schools Minister Wes Streeting said: ”Gavin Williamson must urgently explain why he is turning down offers to help get every child online during this lockdown.
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“Hundreds of thousands of children are struggling to access online learning, the government cannot just sit on its hands.
“It should adopt Labour's plan and rapidly scale up distribution of devices and internet packages, and provide the tech support that schools need."
The Department for Education said they did not offer the vouchers to schools after an initial pilot, claiming it did not meet children and young people's needs for a reliable and consistent internet connection to access remote education.
Mr Allera wrote: "BT was the first telecoms operator to have an offer for vunerable families, with BT Wi-Fi vouchers giving for free broadband access made available from June 2020.
“Unfortunately, the Department for Education struggled to distribute these vouchers effectively and handed them back to us."
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He went on: "We highlighted to ministers then that the best and most sustainable way to help these families was to get them on an affordable broadband tariff like BT Basic…
“We offered to prioritise getting these families connected, and suggested the Department identify families needing help to get online and to fund them to join the service for six or 12 months…The Department declined this route, wanting something faster.”
Mr Allera added: “We regret this decision, as had the Department of Education taken this approach then, many of these families would have affordable and unlimited broadband by now.”
It comes after more than 40 MPs, led by Luton Labour MP Ms Owen, wrote to internet companies including BT, urging them to provide internet access to children from families who can't afford it.
Ms Owen wrote: "This year has been difficult for everyone. I don't want to see the younger generation pay the price for a global pandemic and the huge inequalities that exist in this country."