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No access, no class: The slow broadband crisis in UK schools

Schools up and down the country remain stuck in the slow lane when it comes to internet connectivity. In October 2021, the government announced that 1,084 schools have been connected to a gigabit-capable full fibre network as a result of the public investment started in 2019. Seems like a great achievement, until it’s made clear that a staggering 3,835 UK schools are based in postcode areas that do not have access to full fibre broadband or are currently not in areas of proposed commercial build within the next five years.

That’s a lot of schools that risk being left behind, stuck on slow speeds that just aren’t suitable for modern teaching. It raises an important question: How and what can be done about the education ‘digital divide’?

Teaching was already going digital before the pandemic hastened the shift. Classrooms are now hybrid environments, in which tablets and laptops are the norm for both pupils and staff. For most, connectivity is crucial to school life, with curriculums relying heavily on access to the internet. Without it, the day can be heavily disrupted, with unnecessary stress on teachers to ensure that learning time isn’t wasted.

Indeed, the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) noted in its annual research that connectivity and infrastructure consistently ranked in teachers’ top three concerns. After all, it affects school processes too, not just learning. Schools are increasingly looking to digitise – from administrative systems used for registration, to attendance, to behaviour – these systems representing the heartbeat of the school; and they’re all internet reliant.

How did we get into this situation?

It’s worth noting that the government has made a commitment to updating the UK’s connectivity infrastructure – with the goal of achieving ubiquitous full-fibre from John O’Groats to Lands End by 2030 (it was originally 2025). Then in April, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi set out the latest step in the government’s plans to roll out gigabit broadband in the UK, committing to every school across the country having access to such connectivity by 2025.

As part of the ambition in promising access to gigabit connectivity, the Department for Education (DfE) has published its first set of technology standards aimed at supporting schools and colleges in understanding which technologies they should have in place to best support effective teaching. Over the next three years, the DfE will reach out to schools in priority areas to facilitate the introduction of faster and more reliable connectivity. Schools will be able to access the standards online, and the department will contact eligible schools to enable them to access the funding available to upgrade their technology infrastructure.

The government also announced a £150m fund to support schools most in need to upgrade their Wi-Fi connections, as part of its £5bn Project Gigabit infrastructure programme, which aims to provide 85% of UK premises with gigabit broadband by 2025. Ultimately, it’s a step towards levelling up education for all – improving pupil access and outcomes, reducing teacher workload and making running a school more efficient. But the reality is that gigabit broadband for schools may need until 2030 or later to reach all premises as the government itself recently pushed back its nationwide target to 2030.

Taking matters into your own hands

Frustrated with the lack of progress, one option would be for local government to take matters into their own hands. Unlike the typical closed network model seen widely across the UK, in which operators control everything from network infrastructure, applications, speed, bandwidth, price, data limits, and the number of services available, in an Open Access Model, the local authority is put in the driving seat.

In the VX Fiber ‘neutral operator’ Open Access Model, the network infrastructure and management of the network is separated from the supply of services meaning the Fibre Owner – or the local authority in this case – can lease its network to multiple Service Providers, enabling them to access the network to deliver their own digital services.

In partnership with VX Fiber, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has capitalised on this model, with the completion, in June 2021, of the DCMS funded LFFN – delivering the Stoke-on-Trent City Council-owned 113km full fibre city network.  Via VX Fiber’s fibre deployment business LilaConnect, who is further investing in the build of the necessary FTTP infrastructure across the whole of Stoke-on-Trent, this will help the City Council to fulfil its ambition to connect every school in the region to the full fibre network and ensure they are equipped to make full use of the capacity plus investment in improved digital teaching (Silicon Stoke Prospectus).  It’s a blueprint for other regions to follow to ensure schools across the UK are efficiently connected.

A digital future for children across the UK

It’s essential to recognise the benefits that full fibre connectivity will bring to schools – their admin and teaching staff and pupils. Instead of avoiding the internet due to slow speeds, schools connected to full fibre can make online content an integral part of the teaching/ learning process.

As students are able to access online educational resources in their classes, teachers can use online educational programmes to best fit the needs of every pupil in the school. As such, internet access has been linked to better grades by multiple studies. Some suggest that having broadband connectivity in the classroom played a particular role in GCSE learning – one found that students benefiting from regular internet access saw a 25% increase in GCSE grades.

We need to use our experience from the pandemic as a springboard to embed new and better ways of using technology in schools and across education. To do that, every school across the country must have the best technology, and that means access to full fibre broadband. This cannot happen fast enough for schools stuck in the digital slow lane.

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