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Revealed: How inadequate, expensive school broadband is holding our children back

Wednesday, January 13th 2016 by Ellen Branagh

Schools are struggling to get adequate broadband connections at a reasonable cost, leaving pupils at a disadvantage, teachers have warned.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, teachers said they are often left battling slow speeds that mean a whole class can't get online at the same time, and many schools have neither the know-how nor the budget to get the connectivity they need.

Both teachers and teachers' union NASUWT have warned that high prices could limit the ability of schools to acquire a broadband connection that serves the educational needs of their pupils, risking children being left behind.

The union, which represents 293,024 members across the UK, including teachers and headteachers, warned that when schools find the cost of broadband prohibitive, it can leave children and young people at risk of losing out.

General secretary Chris Keates said the government’s drive towards academies and free schools with greater autonomy means schools are less able to benefit from the purchasing power of local authorities.

“Unfortunately, the cost of broadband like many other things now falls at full price on individual schools following the massive fragmentation of the system by this government," she said.

“Schools no longer benefit from the economies of scale local authorities could command and so this means children and young people lose out when schools find costs prohibitive.”

Research carried out by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) last year suggested schools were still not achieving their ideal level of broadband connectivity and predicted slow progress in getting closer to the ideal speeds to teach children.

The association’s ‘Tablets and Connectivity’ research found that primary schools were just halfway towards an ideal level of broadband connectivity with secondary schools only slightly closer to their ideal speeds.

The nearly 30,000 schools in the UK can get broadband in a variety of ways – through their local authority, individually by putting contracts out to tender for commercial providers, from academic network JANET, or through Regional Broadband Consortia (RBC), set up by the government in 2000 to help schools get high capacity broadband.

The National Curriculum says that by the end of Key Stage 1, children should be able to create simple computer programmes and confidently create and retrieve digital content.

In Key Stage 2 pupils should be taught to understand networks including the internet and to use a variety of software on a range of digital devices – activities that require a reliable internet connection.

But teachers on the front line have voiced concerns that it is hard to get broadband suitable for their pupils' needs, and at a reasonable price.

Case study: Dassett Primary School, Warwickshire

Alison Hine, headteacher at Dassett CofE Primary School in Fenny Compton near Southam, Warwickshire, said their “dreadful” broadband often grinds to a halt.

“If we have a whole class sign on, sometimes some computers don’t work because the system can’t cope.”

The school currently has two iPads per class, but Mrs Hine said the broadband was not enough to allow them to download any apps.

“I had to take all the iPads home to do it,” she said. “That’s crazy."

Dassett Primary has around 170 pupils and Mrs Hine said it is more than just teaching that relies on good internet access.

“Everything is online now, pupil tracking systems, finance systems, everything. We rely on it so heavily that when it’s not as good as it should be, it’s really frustrating."

The school gets its broadband through Warwickshire County Council, paying a standard yearly amount that is the same as many other schools.

“We could sort it out ourselves but there’s me and my admin assistant and that’s it, so we haven’t really got the time or the knowledge,” said Mrs Hine.

The school has been advised that a fibre connection would meet its needs, but the village is not due to receive such an upgrade as part of the BDUK rollout until next year.

“I feel like we should have higher priority. I feel the children here in a village school with limited speeds are at a disadvantage."

Case study: Durrington Junior School, Wiltshire

Karl Caslin, deputy head at Durrington Junior School near Salisbury, Wiltshire, said the school lost its dedicated fibre line after changes to the way school broadband contracts are awarded meant it no longer acted as a 'hub' for other schools in the area.

The 170-pupil school, having to organise its own broadband connection for the first time, opted for a standard ADSL2 broadband line from the South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) – the RBC for the area.

The SWGfL Trust works with 15 South West local authorities and 2,500 schools to provide ICT services, including the Schools Internet Services.

But the school is struggling with 6Mbps download and 0.4Mbps upload speeds, Mr Caslin said.

“If you had 30 computers all on the internet it would slow down all the machines that were working in the admin office,” he said.

“Currently it will accommodate us, but it’s not futureproof. Our usage is going to go up and in the future a lot more of the curriculum is going to be based online, certainly with coding."

Durrington School has looked at alternative broadband options but faces a £60,000 construction charge for a fibre to the premises connection, with package prices for 'bonded lines' – expected to give speeds of 35Mbps download and 3.4Mbps upload – ranging from £5,000 to £12,000.

Mr Caslin said a government subsidy would help schools get the infrastructure they need, and also called on providers to offer more reasonable deals.

“It's been a bit of a nightmare really, schools are not businesses and we shouldn’t be having to barter with these places. They should realise we have finite budgets.

“We’re trying to educate the next generation. They should be doing us a service as cheaply as they possibly can.”

'Frustrated at the slow speed'

Last year Dr Stuart Humphreys, headmaster at Treffos School on Anglesey, told Cable.co.uk that limited internet access was hampering students’ progress.

He said: “We want to be a cutting edge school but the lack of this key resource means that the children are getting frustrated at the slow speed. The poor broadband is slowing down children’s enthusiasm.”

Providers like BT and Virgin offer schools packages, while a range of smaller specialist providers also provide specific broadband deals tailored for schools.

David Tindall, managing director of one such provider, Schools Broadband, said connections shouldn’t be subsidised for schools, but cash given to the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project.

“It is fine to help schools by partially funding their broadband but if they don’t have access to the right technology, the pupils will still struggle to access and use vital learning resources that a require a higher bandwidth,” he said.

BESA's ‘Tablets and Connectivity’ research, released in June 2015, which aimed to understand the suitability of broadband connectivity in schools using tablets, asked schools to rate their current level of broadband provision and to predict what level of improvement they will see in one year and five years' time.

Carried out independently, it was based on data from 632 UK schools (335 primary, 297 secondary), core curriculum subject leaders and ICT coordinators.

The study found that primary schools were just halfway towards an ideal level of broadband connectivity at 53% – a small increase on the 2014 answer of 50% – while secondary schools on average said they had 65% of the ideal bandwidth, up from 62% in 2014.

The research also suggested that teachers don’t predict fast progress, expecting to only be about 5% closer to their ideal level of broadband by 2016.

'Disappointing'

At the time, Caroline Wright, director general designate at BESA, said: “It is disappointing to see so many schools still struggling with wi-fi and broadband connectivity issues.

"With nearly half of schools reporting poor connectivity we run the risk of failing to equip our young people with the essential digital skills that they need for their future careers."

Responding to the latest comments from teachers on the state of broadband in their schools, she told Cable.co.uk: “We continue to urge policymakers to fast-track the government’s superfast broadband plans to schools, particularly in the light of the Prime Minister’s announcement on this issue [in October].

“Our students are the future key to the economic prosperity of the nation so we need to invest in digital infrastructure to help them get the life-skills that they need to compete in an ever more global market.”

Cable.co.uk has approached the Department for Education (DfE) for comment.

Additional reporting from Phil Wilkinson-Jones

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