The founder of the Cambs Youth Panel (CYP), which has provided computers and laptops to youngsters during the Covid-19 pandemic, says his team will fight on despite requests for government support being rejected.
Phil Priestley, alongside one other adult and 12 young people aged between 13 and 18-years-old, have supplied over 700 laptops across Cambridgeshire so that children could continue their studies during the outbreak.
On April 20, Phil wrote to his local MP and health secretary Matt Hancock, and has also written to the Department for Education (DfE) asking for more support in increasing the provision of laptops for the county’s most vulnerable.
However, having been told the DfE would offer their support, Phil’s request was ultimately rejected.
“We have been turned away in a very frank way when we have asked to partner with them,” he said.
“We were confronted with ethical issues as a reason why they didn’t want to work with us. We have been really disappointed by the fact the government have not wanted to work with us.”
A response from the DfE, which arrived nearly two months after Phil’s initial request, stated that “ministers and government officials must remain impartial” and that the DfE has “strict guidelines on endorsing, promoting or funding initiatives and projects”.
Phil’s rejected request precedes a Cambridgeshire County Council report this month, which revealed that the allocation of laptops to schools across the county, excluding Peterborough, had dropped from 1,589 to 419 following a government review.
“People need to be aware that this is an ongoing problem. It’s not being solved by central government and groups like ours are working incredibly hard to solve it,” Phil said.
“It’s an issue we all have to work together towards and if there are people out there that can support us, we would like to work with them in the provision of technology.”
In response to the report, a DfE spokesperson said the department had purchased 96,000 more devices with deliveries aimed to reach over 500,000 by Christmas, saying the scale and speed of laptop and tablet deliveries over the last six months is “unprecedented”.
Despite this, Phil believes the government have responded inadequately to the situation in Cambridgeshire to make young people feel like they are being overlooked.
“An adequate response would be working with people on the ground in order to take a reasonable consultation on what the needs of the county are and its interests,” he said.
“A lot of people who got the government response that we did would have packed it in.
“We have not had enough supplies to solve the problem. I know a school which received 10 computers, which is meaningful, but they still have 120 to find.”
Since March, the CYP have launched fundraisers and other funds such as grants from bodies like the National Lottery and the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation to provide digital equipment for youngsters.
Although Phil said the CYP have spent around £40,000 during the pandemic and wants more assistance, he is confident the government will still avoid helping out in future.
“When young people are isolated and can’t get online, it’s equivalent of not having a pair of shoes to go to school. The effect of this during lockdown has been significant,” he admitted.
“We are doing this for people that are in desperate circumstances, and to be honest, I don’t think the government care. CYP members were expecting the government to step up, and that hasn’t been easy to take.”
Cambridgeshire County Council said they are encouraging schools to appeal against the reduced allocation, stating that they will have to share or source equipment elsewhere without the government scheme.
The CYP have also created a wish list on Amazon where people can buy items and send them to the panel, as a way of maintaining a healthy supply in the run-up to Christmas.
While Phil realises it may be tougher to continue asking for donations and grants in months to come, he along with other CYP members will try their best to keep helping the poorest in local society.
“We want these children who receive devices to be considered valid and part of society, and not being dealt with in a less preferential way because they come from less affluent backgrounds,” he added.
“We will get to a point where people themselves will have less to give, but we don’t think we have exhausted that yet. We are determined to keep going and try as hard as we can.
“When there is a will, there is a way and that will continue to drive us forward.”
To see the wish list, visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/hz/wishlist/ls/3FCVZUSB9TZVC?ref_=wl_share and to donate, go to https://bit.ly/3kJf8iM.