Charlotte had an idea. But she didn’t let it stop there – she captured it, and ran with it, and now it’s making a difference to 100s of families across East Kent. I met her on my doorstep as she collected an old and dead-to-me laptop, and she agreed to an interview…

What is your name, and how do you spend your time Monday-Friday?

I’m Charlotte Cornell and I’m mum to three quite young children. I work part-time in political research and am also doing a PhD part-time in Creative Writing. I write fiction and poetry and am the current Canterbury Poet of the Year. I ran for parliament in 2019 (in Dover) and lost! I’m busy, but not so busy that I haven’t been Netflix binging on Bridgerton and Occupied in the evenings. 

Can you tell us about Top Up To Teach?

When the 2021 lockdown was imposed, teachers and schools were much more ready to deliver digital learning, but it was clear from lots of my friends and Mums and Dads on my children’s class parents’ WhatsApp groups that so many houses didn’t have enough electronic devices to enable children to access e-learning. Often, the only device in the house was needed by parents who now had to work-from-home. So, I thought it might be sensible to collect laptops donations from the local community, rope in some technical support from professional computer-fixing companies and also raise money to help refurbish and wipe the donations that did come in… then, I collated a list of people who needed an extra device for their children to learn on, got some volunteers to deliver items) and ta da – a local project was born!  (Actually now I write it down it seems like a shed load of work, but actually people really, really want to help). I also knocked up a quick website through WordPress to make it easy for people to get in touch

How does it work?

Simple really: if people in East Kent need a laptop for learning, they visit the website www.topuptoteach.org and let us know. If people have a laptop or ipad to give away, they visit the same website and tell me (we have collection points in a few towns now, or will pick up) and if people can generously donate any money to help us refurbish stock, then we have a button on the website to help people do that too. We are working with schools and domestic violence charities too, who also have made requests for large numbers of laptops.

How have you managed the growth?

Umm, don’t tell my day-job boss or my PhD supervisor, but other commitments have really suffered a bit this week as the requests have never stopped coming in. Hopefully, I’ll get the balance a bit better next week. Every time I check my phone, there’s 10 more unread requests and I am working well into the evenings. My husband and mother-in-law (who is in our family support bubble) have volunteered their time every day to collect and deliver things, as have some other key people in East Kent. My own children’s homeschooling has to fit in with all this and my husband and I do half-day shifts as ‘teacher’.

How can I help?

Well, if you know anyone with a functioning spare laptop that could really help a family, let me know through the website. Equally if anyone has a car and wants to volunteer to do some collections around East Kent, we can cover fuel costs and you get a genuine COVID reason for leaving the house (Volunteering). If anyone is a volunteer tech-wizard out there and knows they can wipe 5 laptops in 24 hours (& install up-to-date systems to run Zoom and Teams) then we definitely want to hear from them!

Can you share some of the numbers with us so that we understand the scale of your support?

Well, as I write, in the last 10 days, we’ve received around 150 requests for devices.  We have received about 120 devices for refurbishment and around 100 have gone to homes. We might do the same sort of amount over the next 10 days too. To be honest, I think around 50,000 school-aged children in Kent don’t have an individual device to learn on at home, so however hard I try, we are only going to scratch the surface. Between March and December 2020, the government gave out only around 2500 laptops in the whole of Kent, so you can see the gulf between the need out there and what is being provided.

What’s next – what does the future look like for Top Up To Teach?

I don’t know. Maybe the government will step up and provide either a Biden-style stimulus package to put money in each citizen’s hand to spend, which many parents would use on an extra device? Or maybe the government can provide Kent with another 20,000+ laptops through schools…or maybe later in the year, this will need to become a registered charity so we can access grants and other pots of money to continue providing this service. We will see… Ideally, in 12 months time, COVID seems like a distant nightmare, every child can learn back at school and the government will have increased Universal Credit and support to local authorities to help them provide tech directly into the homes that need it. I don’t think those last two things will happen though (of course, I would say that, I work for the Opposition).

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