Digital poverty, defined as the inability to interact with the online world fully, when, where, and how an individual needs to, affects over 9 million people in the UK – all of whom lack foundation level digital skills (Lloyds Bank EDS, 2021). This number includes children whose efforts to adapt to remote learning during the pandemic suddenly revealed what had previously been a hidden issue, as millions of children struggled to connect from home, had no access to suitable devices, or lacked the skills to engage with remote learning.
The pandemic shone a spotlight on the number of children with limited digital access, and indeed a number of worthwhile schemes sprung up over the pandemic to provide children with devices to get them online. However, in the admirable efforts to improve digital access, one crucial group was neglected – teachers.
Recent research from the Digital Poverty Alliance highlighted that 47% of teachers in the UK have struggled with digital connectivity. Many of them must share their home device with others in their household or simply do not have access to a device once they leave work. And when teachers cannot fully engage with technology, their pupils are directly affected, whether connecting remotely or engaging with digital learning in class.
In response to this growing issue, the Digital Poverty Alliance launched the Tech4Teachers scheme last year, with the help of Currys and the Learning Foundation to provide 1,000 teachers across the UK with new digital equipment.
The scheme focused on providing digital kit for teachers from both primary and secondary state schools across the UK. The schools included all had significantly high numbers of students from families who qualify for Pupil Premium support, and smaller budgets for digital equipment meaning the benefit to the teachers from providing devices would get passed directly on to the pupils who needed it the most.
Just six months later, we’ve heard from some of those schools about how much they have benefited from this scheme and how it has motivated and relieved some of the pressures that teachers were working under.
At All Saint’s Primary school in Barnet, the scheme enabled the school to provide each class teacher with a laptop to help support them in their role. Holly Skinner, the Head of School, shared the importance of having new and updated equipment for teachers to use. She said, “teachers have worked immensely hard throughout the pandemic, along with many other workers across the country. They have worked in conditions not seen before and adapted to changes with little to no warning. Being able to support teachers by giving them the technology that they need has been a massive boost for morale.”
Of course, despite a return to face to face education, distance and blended learning remains a reality for many schools and schoolchildren. The scheme was also able to replace 10 laptops for teachers at Lever Park Academy, SEMH (Social, Emotional Mental Health) special school. The school helps some of the most challenging pupils in the borough, the majority of whom have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), OOD (Oppositional defiant disorder), mental health issues, attachment disorders, learning and physical issues. Head Teacher, Matthew Taylor explained that some of their pupils are educated off site, therefore teachers need to take the lessons to children’s homes, learning areas or cafés around the borough. He said, “The programme has empowered staff, created flexibility, given opportunity to pupils and staff. Made life more efficient and as a result impact can be seen in school.”
The process of tackling the digital divide is one that will require building and educating a new community. The digital divide is not new, but its impacts on outcomes for children were exposed during the pandemic. Access to a good quality device and reliable internet connection has made all the difference for many children across the UK. Giving teachers this same access and support could deliver an even wider and more equitable benefits.
With a combination of government and independent schemes, we believe it is possible to tackle digital poverty and close the digital divide. Access to updated digital equipment will help ease some of the pressure that teachers are facing as a result of the pandemic’s strain on children’s academic achievements.
We must show the same sense of urgency to abolish digital poverty for teachers as we do for children. Without the provision of essential digital access and skills for teachers, any progress made on the ‘levelling-up’ of educational outcomes for our nation’s children will be built on shaky foundations.