The digital divide is very real.
We all know that the pandemic has exacerbated societal inequalities. But it is the equality of our response to it that counts.
The UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s fast-response report on Covid-19 and the Digital Divide, published in December 2020, highlights the range of issues of the digital divide for all parts of society. It points to the very real threat of the achievement gap widening in statutory education owing to lack of access to effective and systematic learning.
A report by the office of the children’s commissioner shows that between one third and one half of children and young people do not have a device to access education. In our own further education provision, despite our efforts to attract funding, more than 1 in 5 does not have access to a suitable device and data, and for those who do, it’s usually of insufficient quality or is a phone.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), pointed to the impact of failings in addressing these inequalities. Influential figures in education, teaching unions and politics have recently criticised the government’s remote teaching support, saying it falls “far short” of where it needs to be to ensure students do not fall behind.
These are shocking statistics. But the story does not stop there. Engagement of young people, especially those who face barriers to learning, are doubly hampered by this situation.
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Many of our learners do not have suitable space, broadband capacity or the materials or parental support to study at home. Like many of us in the pandemic, we have to work hard at our mental health but our young people don’t have the maturity or tools to do that on their own. Some are providing care to siblings or are missing the structure that college provides, and therefore find attendance in a new remote world hard to manage.
A smaller number are dealing with abusive, oppressive or dangerous situations, and education is no longer as reliable as a safe haven. The barriers of a learning difficulty, low mood or confidence, or a hearing loss do not stop in a pandemic. Our resilient dedicated staff teams in FE providers are used to working with young people to break through these barriers and are providing support over and above the day job. They should be applauded.
Weekly personal development calls, hard-copy packs, and the opening up of schools for our most vulnerable all carry on. But these tremendous efforts could be more effective, and have greater impact for learners’ chance of success, if they were supported by a funded digital strategy on the ground.
It would help learners to achieve their qualifications and allow them to progress. It would also equip them with improved digital skills that are needed for the economy.
These are learners are who are disproportionality disadvantaged by the pandemic and who need these chances. Learner progression to further study, training and employment – especially for those facing multiple barriers – is the solution to breaking down the societal divide that all are working for, and it can’t stop now.
Covid-19 has exposed the past lack of investment in digital solutions – in our schools and in further education – that has left most institutions and providers scrambling around to develop infrastructure, policy and pedagogy, literally overnight. Plans for assessment provide the next layer of complexity. Staff training is on the increase, with 4 in 10 feeling they have the necessary skills, but this fails when solutions are underdeveloped or unavailable. The Edtech collaborator institutions are to be thanked. Everyone is doing their best and we are getting better at it than we think, but it is success against the odds.
The recent Jisc and Association of Colleges report, updated in September 2020, called for investment and strategy for a “digital first” FE sector. It has a set of realistic and sensible recommendations and is an investment that will have a lasting impact. This should be expanded to include independent training providers, in all measures.
Independent training providers (ITPs), many not for profit, deliver statutory education for around 36,000 16- to 19-year-olds but, as yet, have not had the same access to funding for platforms, infrastructure, or the 1 million device or data-deals currently on offer. ITPs, such as Nacro, are often working with the most disadvantaged learners. The government’s Get Help with Tech service is to be expanded to 16- to 19-year-olds and disadvantaged young people; we welcome this and ask the department to reconsider those who need it in ITPs and in study programmes. We await details on what or how that is to be provided.
On the 18 January, all education providers need to publish their remote education statement, and then monitor its impact. It is going to make interesting reading.
Lisa Capper is principal and director of education and skills at social justice charity Nacro