How to keep homeschool costs down: Our guide to the best digital deals

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Digital divide: A third of families do not have the computers they need to ensure the children can continue their education during lockdown


Lockdown now demands that millions of parents have to juggle work and their children’s schooling from home.

Yet despite this, a third of families do not have the computers they need. The Daily Mail is campaigning to ensure all Britain’s pupils are equipped with a laptop or tablet – so no child is prevented from learning in lockdown. But it’s not just a lack of hardware causing difficulties.

As this newspaper reveals today, almost one million children do not have access to broadband at home, which they need to do lessons.

Digital divide: A third of families do not have the computers they need to ensure the children can continue their education during lockdown

Many instead rely on their mobile phones to access the internet. But this can be very costly, particularly for those with pay-as-you-go contracts.

Research by the Mail shows that even on the cheapest deals, a family with four children could easily rack up a mobile data bill of £80 a month.

In a bid to help those struggling, many major providers have launched a string of discounts and are providing free access to educational websites.

But with each firm offering something different – and some nothing at all – families face navigating a maze to get the help they need. 

Consumer experts say much more needs to be done to close the digital divide, and are calling for firms to give out devices known as dongles, which create a wi-fi signal.

In the meantime, here’s Money Mail’s ultimate guide to getting up to speed with the internet savings your family could make in lockdown…

Free data

Under the Government’s Get Help With Technology scheme, mobile giants have teamed up with ministers to dish out free data to children with access to a mobile phone. 

Their phone can then be used as a hotspot, which allows other devices, such as laptops, to connect to the internet.

To be eligible children must be in Years 3 to 11 and learning from home as a result of lockdown restrictions.

They must also have no broadband at home, with their parents unable to afford additional data for their mobile devices. Those who qualify must then ask a school, trust or local authority to apply to the scheme on their behalf. 

Schools do not need to provide proof that children are eligible – decisions will be based on their understanding of who needs support.

However, spaces are limited and the amount of free data up for grabs varies depending on your provider.

O2 is offering 40GB (GB stands for gigabyte, a measurement of data usage) a month to families struggling with connectivity, while Virgin Mobile customers can get 20GB a month. Others, such as Three, are offering unlimited data as part of the scheme.

Some providers have their own rules about who is eligible, too. O2 customers must have been with the network for at least six months, while Vodafone customers must have a Big Value bundle costing £10 or more.

The Department for Education is also giving schools, trusts and local authorities 4G wireless routers, which provides the same type of connection as your smartphone, which can be lent to disadvantaged children. 

For more details see gov.uk/guidance/get-help-with-technology-for-remote-education -during-coronavirus-covid-19.

Mums are paying the price of being teacher 

by MILES DILWORTH

Homeschooling has become a full-time job for single mother Hilary Shanahan. Every Monday morning, her daughter’s school sends through a timetable for the week, which includes five hours of work a day.

But because she is on furlough, Hilary, 41, can ensure Milly, nine, isn’t left to struggle through her worksheets alone.

Not everyone has been afforded that small mercy, however. A survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) shows 71 per cent of working mothers have had furlough requests turned down after all schools were forced to close on January 5.

Heavy workload: Hilary Shanahan (pictured with Milly, nine, and Rory, 10) has been on and off work since the start of the pandemic

Heavy workload: Hilary Shanahan (pictured with Milly, nine, and Rory, 10) has been on and off work since the start of the pandemic

It follows a poll by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, which revealed around one in five mothers of primary school children have either been pushed out of their job or quit since Christmas.

Mothers say they have been told they can’t take a couple of hours off as holiday to support their children. Others have been told to take unpaid leave instead.

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, says: ‘We are witnessing a tsunami of mothers exiting the labour force, and this will impact families with young children and our economy. It is a debt we will be paying for decades to come.’

The job retention scheme allows bosses to furlough parents who can’t work due to a lack of childcare. But more employers are refusing to furlough staff during this lockdown compared to spring.

Hilary, a sales administrator from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, has been on and off work since the start of the pandemic and says her current break has been a lifeline.

Her son Rory, ten, is still going to school as he has special educational needs, but Hilary says she couldn’t cope with the demands of homeschooling her daughter Milly if she was still working full-time.

She says Milly’s school has increased her workload since the previous lockdown. ‘I don’t know how successful it would be if the child was left alone,’ she adds. ‘I don’t feel her education is suffering as much with me on hand. If I wasn’t on furlough I don’t think she could do it.’

In July, Money Mail revealed working parents were forfeiting £250 million in earnings every week as school and nursery closures forced them to cut down on work to look after their children.

But experts warn this lockdown is taking a harder toll as parents are squeezed between schools, who have been told to ramp up work, and employers. 

Hilary says the 20 per cent reduction in her income has been offset by a fall in costs such as sending her children to clubs. But she admits she is ‘worried’ that her food bill has gone up by a quarter, and expects her heating costs to double.

A quarter of mothers are using annual leave to manage their childcare, according to the TUC. It says nearly one in five mothers reduced their working hours and 7 per cent are taking unpaid leave.

One mother, who is looking after a one-year-old and a five-year-old daughter, was ‘flatly informed’ by her employer that it didn’t participate in the furlough scheme.

The mother, who did not want to be named, says her eldest child struggles with schoolwork and needs constant support. 

Her partner’s job is seasonal and she says she is ‘effectively a single mother at this time of year’, but she was refused furlough and told to take unpaid leave. 

She adds: ‘I have managed to do my work, but at the expense of doing any schoolwork. My daughter is being neglected.’

The TUC is calling on ministers to introduce a temporary right to furlough for groups who cannot work because of Covid restrictions.

It says employers should explore other options first, such as additional paid leave, but that working parents should have the right to take it.

Becky O’Connor, head of pensions and savings at Interactive Investor, says: ‘It’s awful that parents are feeling forced to take a financial hit to cope with homeschooling. There could be lasting consequences for their finances and career prospects.’

Online lessons

O2, Three, Vodafone, EE, BT Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Sky Mobile and Plusnet Mobile have promised to ‘zero rate’ online education site Oak National Academy for children in England until the end of the academic year. 

This means they will be able to access the site, which offers nearly 10,000 free lessons from Early Years Foundation Stage to Year 11, without it eating into their mobile data allowance.

BT

Families can also access the BBC Bitesize study support website via BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile and EE without needing data. 

As part of its Lockdown Learning support scheme, BT is working with the Department for Education to offer unlimited mobile data to children in England with no internet access. 

This should be available from the end of January until July. EE and BT Mobile customers must apply through their child’s school. For more information visit get-help-with-tech.education.gov.uk.

It has also given out wi-fi vouchers to schools and charity partners to distribute to families who are not online. 

These will allow children to connect to one of BT’s five million wi-fi hotspots across the UK, although BT estimates just 20 per cent to 30 per cent of homes are in range.

Low-income families can also apply for BT’s Basic tariff which costs £10.07 a month for broadband and a phone line. 

It is available to those on specific means-tested benefits, such as Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance or Pension Credit.

BT removed all of its broadband caps in March last year so that customers can have unlimited internet at home. 

Its cheapest fibre deal costs £26.99 a month but you must sign up for 24 months and also pay a £19.99 upfront fee.

The average download speed is 36Mbps (megabits per second). You need at least 3Mbps to stream a standard Netflix show or 16Mpbs to download a standard film in around six minutes.

Data help would be a ‘godsend’ 

Geraldine Phoenix-Jones, 41, said any help with broadband or getting access to mobile data would be a ‘Godsend’ for her and daughter Katelyn.

She, and husband Christopher, 39, are both unemployed and on benefits. They live with Katelyn, 16, and son Logan, four, in the West Midlands.

The couple have been unable to afford the £36 a month they were quoted for home wi-fi and don’t have any laptops. 

Geraldine Phoenix-Jones (pictured with son Logan) is unable to afford the £36 a month she was quoted for home wi-fi and doesn't have any laptops

Geraldine Phoenix-Jones (pictured with son Logan) is unable to afford the £36 a month she was quoted for home wi-fi and doesn’t have any laptops

Katelyn initially tried to do her schoolwork on her mobile phone. But even if they were to get a laptop, accessing the internet would be as big a problem. 

Geraldine says: ‘I would put £10 on her phone but that only lasted two weeks sometimes when she was going on the internet. We are on benefits so couldn’t afford to keep doing that. Times are hard enough at the moment.

‘Help with broadband or mobile data would be brilliant. We aren’t the only ones in this situation. 

‘We don’t have wi-fi at home and no devices, except for my old Nokia phone and my daughter has an old smartphone. This year has been hard. 

‘We’ve had to ask for help from the food bank, which was embarrassing enough. Katelyn was given a laptop in the first lockdown by the school, but it was taken off her as it didn’t have the software on it to enable her to do the virtual lessons. They said they would get another one, but she is still waiting.

‘I rang the school to say she couldn’t do the work and as she has a statement for special needs she has been told she can go into school now with the key worker children, but I’d rather she was at home.

‘If we had a laptop and internet access she could log on, see her teacher online and do her lessons right now.’

EE

EE’s cheapest pay-as-you-go monthly pack costs £10 a month for 4GB data, 100 minutes and unlimited texts. Or you can pay £1 a week for 10MB data, 100 minutes and 200 texts. Its Sim-only 12-month plan is £13 a month and includes 250MB data, unlimited minutes and texts.

02

Families struggling with connectivity can get 40GB free data a month as part of the Department for Education’s initiative.

Customers can also access 34 sites without needing data. These include Citizens Advice (citizensadvice.org.uk), Money Advice Service (moneyadviceservice.org.uk) and Stepchange (stepchange.org) for financial support; the Samaritans (samaritans.org) and Mind (mind.org.uk) for emotional and mental health help; and educational resource Hungry Little Minds (hungrylittleminds.campaign.gov.uk).

O2 is still calling on businesses to ask employees to donate old smartphones, as part of its Community Calling initiative it launched last month with charity Hubbub.

The aim is to send out 10,000 devices to the UK’s most vulnerable and disconnected people with unlimited minutes and texts, plus 6GB of data a month for a year. 

The network says it is already seeing the campaign benefit children who need technology for home schooling. For more information see hubbub.org.uk/communitycalling.

O2’s cheapest contract starts at £13 a month for 3GB data plus an Oppo A15 handset over 36 months. On pay as you go, for a minimum top-up of £15 you get 15GB data. Nokia 3.4, Oppo A15 and Oppo A5 2020 handsets are currently available for £99. Sim-only customers can get 6GB for £10, or 12GB for £12.

Shell energy

All plans have unlimited data as standard and customers who are struggling can request payment holidays of up to 90 days or opt for partial payments. Shell says it is helping communities in Coventry, where its head office is based, by donating laptops to a local school.

Shell’s most basic broadband costs £21.99 a month for 18 months but you will only get average speeds of 11Mbps. 

Its Superfast Fibre costs £27.99 a month for the same term, while its Superfast Fibre Plus is £29.99 a month. 

Expect average download speeds of 35Mbps and 63Mbps respectively. Both fibre deals currently offer customers a one-off credit covering three months of the cost.

Net gains with a better deal 

When searching for the best deal, the first thing you need to do is pop your postcode into a comparison site such as Cable.co.uk, Broadband Choices or Uswitch to find out which deals are available in your area.

Bear in mind the contract length, download speeds, data limits as well as additional fees for installation, equipment and postage to send the router.

A standard broadband speed is around 11 Mbps – which should be enough for browsing the internet and sending emails.

But Jonathan Leggett, tech expert from Broadband Choices, says families of three or four people working online simultaneously may need between 30 and 60 Mpbs.

If there are five or more of you working or learning at the same time, you may want to consider faster fibre with average speeds of 65 to 100 Mbps. Examples are BT Fibre 2, Plusnet Unlimited Fibre Extra or TalkTalk Fibre 65.

Watch out for introductory deals. Some firms may offer cheaper prices for three to six months before it rises, trapping you for up to a year or more.

Check if the deal offers a guaranteed fixed price. If it doesn’t, the cost could go up within the agreed minimum contract period.

If your current broadband service runs on the Openreach phone network, such as BT, EE, Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone, and you are switching to another provider that also uses this network, the new firm will arrange the transfer for you.

Each provider should send you a letter to confirm the details and include an estimate of timings.

For cable providers – such as Virgin – customers must cancel their existing deal and contact their new provider themselves. 

The switch should be swift – although it may be longer if you are switching to or from a cable network – and you will rarely be left without internet.

If you are, it should not be for more than a few hours.

Some firms, including BT, Virgin Media, Sky and TalkTalk, have signed up to a scheme that promises automatic compensation if you suffer service delays. 

If a provider fails to start a new service on the agreed date you get £5 for every day it is late. However, you may not get this compensation if the reason for the delay is because of coronavirus restrictions.

You can also complain to either the Ombudsman Services: Communications or Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme, depending on which your provider is signed up to.

For example, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, BT and Plusnet are members of Ombudsman Services.

If you are coming to the end of your contract and do not want to switch, try haggling with your provider. Benchmark the prices of rivals and mention any issues you’ve had with service or connection during the term.

Ask for a better deal or whether it can match the prices of others. If you have a reason for not being able to afford the package, mention this, or ask if you can remove services, such as TV channels, you do not use.

Sky

Sky is offering 100GB free mobile data to children as part of the Government scheme. It has also removed broadband download limits. 

Its Essential package costs £25 a month for 18 months plus a £19.95 set-up fee. Average download speeds are 11Mbps.

Its Superfast deal is also the same price fixed for 18 months with speeds of 56Mbps but the offer ends today. Its usual price is £32 a month plus the set-up fee.

Talktalk

Broadband packages have always been unlimited and TalkTalk says it is ‘having conversations’ with the Government to help children who are ‘digitally excluded’.

Its cheapest deal is fixed for 18 months and costs £22 a month, plus £4.95 postage for the router. Download speeds average at 38Mbps.

TalkTalk is already working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the North West to provide online access to digitally-excluded jobseekers. 

It offers an uncapped, fixed-line service to a whole household for an initial six-month period at cost, with DWP covering the ongoing rental cost and referring eligible customers.

TalkTalk wants to adapt this programme to support schoolchildren too, and is working with the Government and local authorities.

Speeding up connections

Test your internet speed using an online checker such as broadbandchoices.co.uk/tools/speed-test or broadband.co.uk/broadband-speed-test/.

Make sure your wifi is protected by a password to stop strangers accessing it – the more people online, the slower the speed.

Move your router away from walls, fairy lights, computer speakers, microwaves and doors. Consider updating to a newer model. 

Update your computer browser and shut down any web pages you are not using.

The Advertising Standards Authority sets rules about how companies advertise broadband speeds. 

They must show the average speed that at least 50 per cent of customers receive at the network’s busiest time (8-10pm). 

Providers should also give a minimum guaranteed speed.

If problems persist, speak to your provider.

Three

The mobile provider is offering free unlimited mobile data to children with no internet access, as part of the Government’s Get Help With Technology scheme. 

Pay-as-you-go deals start at £72.99 for a Nokia 1.3 handset, plus a £10 top-up. They include 6GB data, unlimited calls and texts.

A 24-month contract, including a Huawei Y6p or Xiaomi Redmi 9AT, costs £19 upfront and then £10 a month for unlimited calls, text and 1GB of data.

Virgin

Virgin Mobile is working with the Department for Education to provide free data to children and access to Oak National Academy.

Vulnerable customers on Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go packages can request an extra 500 minutes, 500 text messages and 1GB extra data for free every month. 

If a child is using a pay-as-you-go sim, which has been registered to an account holder who has been classed as vulnerable – for example, because of their age, financial situation or a disability – then they would be able to access the package. 

Those considered vulnerable on monthly contracts can get unlimited minutes and 10GB of additional data each month. Both offers are available until the end of March.

Virgin’s lowest-price sim-only plan is £6 for 3GB per month on a 12-month contract – including unlimited calls and texts.

Virgin Media’s Essential broadband is available for customers who receive Universal Credit and costs £15 per month for 15Mbps speed with no fixed-term contract length.

Its cheapest broadband deal for non-vulnerable customers is an 18-month contract at £26.99 a month for fibre, which means average download speeds of 108Mbps – almost ten times faster than standard broadband.

However, Virgin is only available to 53 per cent of households. You must live in areas connected to its street network.

Vodafone

More than 9,000 schools have been given 350,000 sim cards, that include 30GB of data, to distribute to their most disadvantaged children. 

Vodafone has also recently joined the Government’s Get Help With Technology programme to increase data allowances for children in need and will give unlimited data to customers who join the scheme.

In addition, the company is also offering free and discounted access to four leading online education platforms – Azoomee (azoomee.com), MarcoPolo World School (marcopololearning.com), SchoolOnline.co.uk (schoolonline.co.uk) and New Skills Academy (new skillsacademy.co.uk) – via its VeryMe loyalty programme.

The mobile provider is also asking the public to donate unwanted smartphones and tablets as part of its Great British Tech Appeal.

It will cover postage and packing, add six months free unlimited data connectivity and send out the devices to disadvantaged families, via charity Barnardo’s. To donate visit: vodafone.co.uk/techappeal. 

Its Voxi brand, which is aimed at under-25s, offers 12GB data for £10 a month, plus unlimited texts and minutes. The contract is flexible and you can leave at any time.

Vodafone pay-as-you-go customers can get a bundle which includes 3GB of data, 250 minutes and unlimited texts for £10 a month. 

For £15 the data increases to 6GB. The cheapest contract is £6 a month but you must sign up for a year. This includes 4GB a month data, unlimited minutes and texts.

For unlimited data its 24-month contract costs £22 a month. All packages can be used as hotspots so you can use the data on your computer or laptop.

Alternatively, Vodafone has data-only packages which start at £10 for 2GB to be used over 90 days.

Zen Internet

Customers with home broadband packages have been given unlimited data since March.

The firm is also working with a local charity to refurbish and donate laptops and desktop computers to children. This week it is asking its staff to bring in old laptops for the cause.

Zen’s cheapest deal is a 12-month broadband deal for £28 a month, plus a £19.99 set-up fee. 

Average download speed is 10Mbps but this is only available to those in remote communities who cannot access fibre. 

Its Superfast package, which offers unlimited fibre and average speeds of 35Mbps, costs £29.99 a month plus the activation fee.

a.murray@dailymail.co.uk

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