Maro Itoje digital divide laptops remote learning campaign - Tatler
1/19/21, 1:19 PM

How rugby treasure Maro Itoje is helping schoolchildren amid the pandemic

The England player and former Tatler cover star is campaigning to provide laptops to pupils disadvantaged by the ‘digital divide’

Being forced to learn from home during the pandemic is no doubt disruptive enough for schoolchildren. For those, however, whose families can’t afford the expensive equipment needed to participate in remote learning, the barriers are even greater.

Now England rugby player Maro Itoje, dubbed ‘Super Maro’ for his sporting prowess, has proved himself worthy of the accolade in the sphere of educational equality, too. The Old Harrovian and former Tatler cover star is helping tackle the school laptop shortage, which is leaving a huge number of young people unfairly disadvantaged. 

At a time when the government has repeatedly been accused of falling short in their obligations to the public, a number of high profile figures from outside the political sphere have stepped up to demand that they do better. Like his fellow sportsman, footballer Marcus Rashford, and his campaigning for free school meals, Itoje has utilised the platform afforded to him by his rugby career to draw attention to social injustice.

Itoje is calling attention to the current necessity of getting computers and free broadband into the homes of around 1.78 million children, who have been left unable to participate in online lessons. Post-pandemic, he’s seeking a review that could pave the way for every child in England to receive a free laptop as part of standardised state-school kit. The campaign has so far been backed by 2,000 head teachers in the WorthLess? Network, plus a number of cross-party MPs, such as Robert Halfon, Conservative chairman of the education select committee.

Quoted in the Sunday Times, Itoje cites Manchester United striker Rashford as an influence, stating: ‘What Marcus has done has been amazing, continually holding the government to account and being a voice for the most vulnerable children. For me it is about getting the kids what they need, and any way I can help do that I will… The absolute priority right now is guaranteeing children have devices to learn. When they go back to school, we need a review on access to laptops to support careers in a digitally driven world… In future, everyone needs a laptop, the way the world is moving.’

Both sports stars are represented by Jay-Z’s talent agency, Roc Nation, which has supported a number of social justice causes in America. Rashford and Itoje have large social media followings, which they utilise to help raise awareness and incite change. Itoje has been keeping his 259k Instagram and 87.4k Twitter followers updated on his mission, tweeting on 5 January: ‘There is a huge digital divide that could have a lifelong impact on the next generation. In June, EEF estimated the attainment gap could widen by as much as 75% due to school closures… As always the most under privileged individuals suffer the most.’

Like the government’s failure to provide school-meal vouchers to the poorest children during the pandemic, the push to provide laptops to those under-equipped for remote learning has fallen woefully short. In April 2020, the government made a promise to issue laptops to disadvantaged teenagers, but has so far handed out around only 700,000 of a planned 1.3 million. Head teachers across the country have been reaching out to charities, businesses, families and football clubs for old or spare computers, which can be wiped clean by IT managers before being distributed to those in need. For families who do have a laptop, but which is being used by a parent for working from home, even giving a child a smartphone for remote learning is not without its setbacks. It can cost around £37 a day to join in with lessons from the major online educational providers with a pay-as-you-go mobile phone contract.

At the Laurels Primary School in Worthing, West Sussex, where teachers are giving live online lessons three times per day, the school is still awaiting the promised government laptops. Deputy Head Beth Collins told the Sunday Times: ‘We put a plea out, and yesterday someone phoned and said, “I bought a laptop last year for my mum and she has passed away. Can you give it to your pupils?”... People have been donating mobile phones. The live lessons are a huge success for the kids who can access them. Even our youngest five-year-olds unmute themselves to speak – but 10 children have still not got a laptop, and of course they are falling behind. The government should give laptops to all children. Typing is already a more important skill than handwriting.’

Nicknamed ‘The Pearl’ (on account of being such a treasure to his team), 26-year-old Maro Itoje is said to earn as much as £1 million a year – and is tipped to be the next England captain. One of three siblings born to parents who came to the UK from Nigeria, he’d never even played rugby before starting aged 11 at St George’s School in Harpenden, Hertfordshire (a state school also attended by his future England team-mates, Owen Farrell and George Ford). Itoje won a sports scholarship at Harrow, the illustrious private school where boys don top hats and tails for special events, and describes his experience there as ‘undeniably positive’. Even while he honed his sporting talent, he secured three As at A-level, then becoming a professional rugby player for Saracens while studying for a politics degree at SOAS.

He recalls: ‘We had computers in our rooms to do prep and work, even though schools like Harrow do not need to provide laptops because their students come from backgrounds that can afford to buy them… When I first started playing rugby, the rugby master called my dad and said, “Your son is quite good.” My parents are Nigerian and they hammered home that education was the most important thing for me, so my dad was concerned. He said, “Maro I am happy for you to play rugby, but if your grades drop, your rugby stops”... You get drunk on the excitement of being a professional rugby player when you are young. I thought maybe I would take a year out of uni and focus on rugby, [but] that was a stone-cold “no” from my parents. They said, “You can play your rugby, but you have to study. When you finish studying you can do what you want”.’

Itoje’s father is a special needs teacher, with both parents having ‘constantly reinforced the importance of education … that if you work hard at school and get good grades you can create a better life for yourself.’ (No doubt Itoje has now made his family proud, even starring alongside them in Ralph Lauren’s Holiday 2020 campaign in December.) He notes: ‘Now in this pandemic we are taking that away from the children who need it most… There is a digital divide that could have a big impact on the next generation. There is a big disparity between the best schools and worst in normal times, and this will make it bigger.Itoje made headlines last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, when he spoke up against institutional racism as Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world. He’s demonstrated an ongoing commitment to use his platform for more than just his furthering his sporting career, as he told Tatler for his October 2018 cover interview: ‘When you see things that aren’t right – injustices and so on – you have to speak up about it, otherwise people will think it’s okay. They get away with it, and the ball starts to roll away from you.He went on: ‘I definitely support athletes who speak out. If there are issues you feel passionately about, use whatever platform you’re on to speak about it. People shouldn’t be silenced just because they’re an athlete or are in the entertainment world. I feel that with all these things, you make time for the things that are important to you.’

If you’d like to donate a laptop to help schoolchildren in England, contact:
Tech for UK
Laptops for Kids 
The Great British tech appeal



Published Date: 1/19/21, 1:19 PM

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