More than a million children in England who have no access to laptops have been designated as “vulnerable children” and can turn up at school for face-to-face learning, it emerged on Tuesday night.

The development raises questions about whether schools will be ready for the resultant influx of children, when they have been told to restrict teaching for at least six weeks as England begins its third national lockdown.

The new guidance came as a surprise to the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, who learned of it after she had called for pupils to be designated vulnerable if remote learning equipment could not be provided to them. Sources at Longfield’s office questioned when the advice had been updated and why the Department for Education (DfE) was making no effort to publicise it.

In comments earlier on Tuesday, Longfield had said: “Those children who haven’t got the tech should be offered a priority place in school from Monday.” She also called on companies to provide free data capacity for children and families at a time of “emergency”.

A few hours later, a DfE spokesperson pointed to guidance on the gov.uk website saying that children who lack devices or a quiet space to study were classified as vulnerable, and therefore could continue to go to school.

However, it was not clear if the website had been updated after Longfield’s statement was made public. When asked when the guidance was published, the DfE spokesperson said they would not able to able to establish that until the following day.

About 9% of children in the UK – between 1.1 million and 1.8 million – do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, according to Ofcom. More than 880,000 of them live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.

Three UK, which has an 11% market share of mobile subscriptions in the UK, said on Tuesday that it would provide unlimited data upgrades to disadvantaged schoolchildren in England until the end of the school year in July, amid pressure on others to do the same.

The digital divide in England hits poorer pupils hardest, with research suggesting four of five schools with the poorest pupils do not have enough devices and internet access to ensure all those self-isolating can keep learning.

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