Education secretary Gavin Williamson turned down a BT offer of cheap broadband for children, it has been revealed.
The broadband giant offered to supply families basic connections to allow access to online learning with schools closed for months during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The firm’s chief executive also revealed they had given free wifi vouchers to the government in June, but the department of education returned them after it “struggled to distribute them effectively”.
Yesterday, Williamson announced a string of mobile broadband providers would offer free additional data to disadvantaged families.
Last Spring, BT had asked the Department for Education to identify families who needed access to the internet, making them a “priority” 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.
“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 the 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 a pilot, claiming it did not meet young people’s needs for a reliable and consistent internet connection to access remote learning.
It comes after more than 40 MPs, led by Luton Labour MP Sarah Owen, wrote to internet companies including BT, urging them to provide internet access to children from families struggling to afford it.
Owen said: “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.”
A department of education spokesperson said: “It’s completely wrong to suggest that the education secretary ‘snubbed’ this offer. The DfE has worked closely with the telecommunications sector since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to help ensure disadvantaged children who lack internet access at home can continue their remote education.
“We considered a range of options, including BT Hotspot, and decided on schemes that ensured pupils who needed it were provided a reliable and consistent internet connection.”