From education to employment

How the Education sector can help tackle society’s digital dilemma 

Martin McFadyen FE News Exclusive

Unlike the journey to Net Zero, achieving social value in the UK Education sector is less clear. But according to Martin, Education professionals are well positioned to achieve social value by playing an active role in reducing digital exclusion, setting future workers up for success.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are becoming increasingly central to a company’s reputation and financial performance. So, it is no surprise that a recent survey by Virgin Media O2 Business revealed that 91% of UK employees are familiar with the acronym and three quarters of organisations have already established ESG strategies or goals.

Unlike the race to achieve Net Zero, where the path to reducing carbon emissions is now clear, there is no similar set approach on how best to bring about social value. Instead, each organisation must identify relevant areas where they can enable the most positive impact for those in their community.

But, with as many as 73% of UK businesses identifying social action as a higher priority than this time twelve months ago – the focus on social is now clearly rising.

For educators assessing where to start, one major societal challenge stands out – digital exclusion. As society continues on its road to technological dependency, more than 5 million Brits are unable to carry out simple online tasks like sending emails and using the internet to apply for jobs.

A cross-generational issue

Across the UK, it is estimated that workers are missing out on additional earnings of £5.69 billion due to of a lack of digital skills, with 1 in 3 people saying a lack of digital skills has held back their earning potential. While it is common to assume or even expect elderly people to have a limited digital skill set, this demonstrates the fundamental need for children and adults alike to learn the necessary skills required for the modern workplace.

Yet a lack of access to digital resources is already hindering the professional development of millions of people in Britain. In fact, digital exclusion currently affects over 4 million children in the UK alone. With many families cutting costs during tough economic times, it is getting more difficult for children to gain online access outside of the classroom. 

When left unchecked, this challenge has the potential to create a future long-term skills shortage. Closing the digital divide to aid future employability must become a top priority for education professionals or this disparity will increase.

The road to digital inclusion

Digital exclusion leads to social exclusion for those who are without a sound digital skillset. With 91% of all employers already using social media as part of their hiring process and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) tools set to accelerate the pace of digital transformation within workplaces, the need for digital support is urgent.

Despite this, just 36% of UK teachers believe their students have sufficient digital skills to use devices safely and securely when completing work outside of the classroom. For the millions facing this reality, education is the pathway to future success.

Decision makers in education have the chance to make an immediate impact. What may appear to be a small out-of-hours digital support program, can not only reduce digital exclusion today, but can also promote future social inclusion for the next generation of professionals.

Now’s the time to get started

Immediate action to fix the digital divide is required. While ongoing capacity and budget constraints are frustrating for education professionals who want to deliver support to as many as possible, it is important that educators recognise the scale of their influence, even by supporting just a handful students. With over 32,000 schools operating across the UK today, even the smallest digital initiatives will have a major impact on the future British workforce.

However, education professionals don’t need to face this challenge alone. Working with external organisations can help accelerate support for learners by providing access to otherwise unused technology. For example, we offer a Tech Donation Programme, in partnership with Hubbub, where smartphones and mobile data can be donated to digital excluded children or over-65s in our customers’ local communities at no extra cost.

With up to 28 million smartphones in the UK not in use, rehoming mobile devices could almost deliver one phone per UK household to support digital skills.

The first step to success

As society continues to adopt new and evolving digital solutions, the need for digital education will be continuous across all age groups in the coming years.

If all organisations across the UK play even a small active role, developing digital skills for as many people as they can, then together education professionals can set both students and society up for success in an increasingly digital future.

By Martin McFadyen, Director of Public Sector, Virgin Media O2 Business  

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