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Helping school children catch up on lost learning isn’t just about throwing money at the problem, but rethinking our approach to digital learning

Paul Finnis, Chief Executive Company NameLearning Foundation and Digital Poverty Alliance
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With the summer holidays just starting and the remaining Covid-19 restrictions finally being lifted, many children will be looking forward to a relatively normal break from school. 

However, it’s important that we do not forget just how damaging the pandemic has been to children’s education, nor the massive challenges that remain ahead in trying to bridge this gap.

The government’s own education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, has said that the average pupil has missed 115 days in school due to the pandemic and that a conservative estimate for the long-term economic cost of this lost learning in England is £100bn. 

Covid has also exposed a significant digital divide in the UK, which risks holding children back even further. An Ofcom report published in April showed that the proportion of UK homes without internet fell from 11% to 6% in the 12 months to March 2021, meaning there remain around 1.5m homes without internet access. 

Closing this digital divide is essential to tackling poverty in the UK, as so many opportunities and essential services such as benefits, banking, finance, employment opportunities and — of most importance to schoolchildren — learning resources are only available to those with a reliable internet connection. A lack of internet access can exasperate the inequalities faced by already-disadvantaged groups, such as those with disabilities.

According to Ofcom, during lockdown, while nearly all school-aged children had online access in the home, 4% relied solely on mobile internet access during the pandemic — with 2% only able to get online using a smartphone. 

Those reliant on mobile phones likely struggled to learn effectively. Meanwhile, around 20% of children did not always have a device for online learning while schools were closed, and school-aged children from the most financially vulnerable homes were the most likely to have mobile-only access. Clearly, those paying the highest price for lost learning over the past year were from the poorest households.

The government has rightly come under scrutiny concerning how it plans to help the nation’s children.

The issue came to a head in June following the resignation of Sir Collins, who quit after the government announced an extra £1.4 billion for its catch-up programme — reportedly less than a tenth of the amount needed for the investments he recommended. He criticised the credibility of the government’s response and warned that we risk failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.

However, my concern with the government’s catch-up programme is not the size of the fund, but the inadequacies of the programme itself, as well as the government’s general strategy when it comes to bridging the digital divide. 

For instance, while the government has donated free devices to disadvantaged pupils, it took a considerably long time: it has taken the Department for Education 13 months to provide 1.3m laptops and tablets since launching a scheme in April 2020, according to recent statistics. While the initiative surely had a positive outcome as it is hard to get 1.3 million devices out in such a short period of time, simply handing out kit doesn’t help if recipients don’t know what to do with them.

Often, families lack the skills and knowledge to make use of devices — according to Ofcom, even among households who do have access to the internet, 5% say they are not confident in using it. Without technical support, connectivity, and any learning strategy – these laptops and tablets are just boxes.

One proposal for making up lost education time was lengthening the school day. The government rejected this, likely for valid reasons such as the cost of keeping schools open and fully staffed for longer. But this was a missed opportunity to embrace digital learning. If we had universal digital access in this country, it would be possible to extend the school day without having to keep children inside school by ensuring they have access to online learning resources. 

But we do not have universal digital access, and the internet remains a relatively expensive commodity. If you consider that the average monthly broadband bill is between £30-£35 and compare this to the average weekly spend on a family foodshop for those with the lowest disposable income, which according to the ONS is £37, you realise that for a low-income family the cost of reliable home broadband may be equivalent to a week’s worth of food. 

Tackling the digital divide is a key political issue.

Ensuring inclusive education – which includes access to remote learning – is one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which have been adopted by all UN member states, including the UK, and it must be core to the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda.

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But the lack of clear leadership and action on this matter is concerning, which is why we have set up the Digital Poverty Alliance. Our aim is to effect change by bringing together representatives from across the digital and education ecosystem, collecting the most relevant research, insights and expertise, and presenting a coherent proposal of best practices that communities and policymakers can use to address digital poverty.  

So, what else could the government be doing?

It is important first that the government gives greater thought to the importance of digital access. 

It’s worth noting that the Scottish government is way ahead here. It has placed digital literacy on a par with numeracy within its education strategy, which means that it accepts responsibility for enabling digital literacy, and it has made significant investments towards reducing digital exclusion in Scotland.

Similarly, Norway has set high standards on this issue: Norwegian children who study IT are given free computers to help with their education.

With schools broken up for the summer, this is an opportunity for the UK government to totally rethink its approach.

For instance, why not use this time to shake up the digital curriculum and make it fit for purpose? The current curriculum focuses too much on dry skills and doesn’t reflect the needs of our increasingly digital economy, such as the demand for data science and analytics.

This is crucial for improving the UK’s future productivity as the country faces a major digital skills gap, which will only worsen considering the decreasing number of young people learning IT: according to a report by the Learning & Work Institute, the number of students enrolling in ICT at GCSE level fell by 40% from 2015 to 2020.

Ministers could also consider how to increase uptake of internet-enabled devices.

Making them cheaper would help. Along with the tech firm Intel, last year we proposed removing VAT from laptops and tablets. After all, why are these essential learning devices taxed like luxuries?

The Treasury rejected the idea but considering that Brexit gives us greater control over the country’s VAT rates, this proposal should be revisited and reconsidered due to the massive potential benefits for tech-enabled education.

Finally, the government could improve how it communicates the benefits of digital access.

Too often, the information and material made available to parents focuses on how to manage internet access and the risks associated with the internet, such as cybercrime, online scams and grooming. These negative interactions make up a tiny minority of most internet experiences. We should also be celebrating all the great things that digital access enables, such as connecting with communities and family members living overseas, developing lifelong skills and increasing learning opportunities.

This is an opportunity to get young people connected in a positive way. The speed and impact that is achieved when children are engaged with learning through technology is astonishing and can change lives immediately. For example, a few years ago a primary school in Milton Keynes was able to close a persistent attainment gap around reading for 7- and 8-year-old boys in less than a year.

This was achieved by providing a device to every child with access to a library of books. These children went from reading nothing at all to an average of 3-4 books a week — that’s 200 a year.  The attainment gap was closed, and those children are now at secondary school and engaged with learning.

Bridging the digital divide is not simply a case of throwing money at the problem, but also about building a new community where skills are shared and there is adequate access to online learning. The fact of the matter is that digital poverty is poverty – it’s impossible to address poverty without a focus on digital inclusion.

The government does not have to tackle this alone – there are charities and businesses doing good work about addressing digital inclusion, including the work we are doing at the Digital Poverty Alliance. The government needs to reach out to these organisations and work with them to bolster their efforts. It would be an investment in Britain’s future, and a real gift for school children this summer holiday. 

Paul Finnis, Chief Executive Company NameLearning Foundation and Digital Poverty Alliance

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