Digital divide

Digital poverty: Not locked down, but still locked out

The digital divide is just another manifestation of deep-seated inequalities, writes Jane Reed, but it threatens to make gaps even wider if left unchallenged

The digital divide is just another manifestation of deep-seated inequalities, writes Jane Reed, but it threatens to make gaps even wider if left unchallenged

2 May 2022, 5:00

Of the many societal problems the pandemic brought to public awareness, digital poverty is perhaps one of the starkest. Defined as an inability to interact with the online world effectively, whether through lack of access or lack of skill, digital poverty was already affecting 22 per cent of the population before 2020. While lockdowns forced us to rapidly transition to an even more digitally reliant world, they intensified this group’s deprivation.

Like our 12 primary and secondary specialist and alternative provision schools, many were forced to overhaul their usual ways of teaching, quickly navigating to remote education. Despite the remarkable efforts of teachers to accelerate their digital skills and confidence to achieve this, it’s now clear that novel online platforms are only as effective as the devices, connections and digital proficiency of those possessing them.

Some of Catch22’s school staff had to teach parents on their doorsteps how to set up devices provided for home learning. As one of our teachers put it succinctly: “We were giving out laptops to some kids and then realising they didn’t have the money for electricity at home. We’re talking about kids with no oven, never mind wifi.”

It’s no wonder then that one-fifth of pupils (equating to over two million children) did no schoolwork at all or spent less than one hour a day on it at home during the first lockdown. Many children and families simply could not adapt quickly, and were ‘locked out’ of learning.

Digital exclusion and poverty

Responding to this challenge, we have published the second of four research papers in partnership with internet tech company Nominet seeking to identify who is most at risk of digital exclusion. Our students (some of whom are the most vulnerable in the country) and our staff fed into this research, which highlights how deeply connected digital poverty is with economic poverty.

At the start of the pandemic, only 51 per cent of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 had internet access. Initiatives were introduced, including a government scheme to distribute one million laptops to disadvantaged school children.

But although the ambition was admirable, our research describes how restrictions affected those who received them. Even for those with the electricity to charge them and the wifi to get online, many “lacked access to essential software, such as Microsoft Office, Zoom or Gmail”.

And of course, having internet access is not the same as having enough accessor reliable access. One teacher described how a student was submitting homework at 3am, as this was the only time they could access their shared device. While studying remotely, approximately two-thirds of young people shared a device with at least one other person.

Ongoing challenges

In the Sutton Trust’s latest report in January this year, only 13 per cent of teachers reported that all their students had adequate access to a device, with access even less likely for those in more deprived schools. Meanwhile, the pandemic is still having a severe impact on full-time, in-person teaching, and a cost-of-living crisis threatens to increase the digital divide.

The government’s commitment to Oak National Academy in its schools white paper is an important policy response that shows digital learning is here to stay, but serious hurdles remain. Digital access is no longer a luxury but a necessity if a child or young person is to have equal opportunity to high-quality education.

Beyond these hurdles lies real opportunity. By extending the scope of the digital classroom, amplifying the benefits of online learning and improving digital skills across the board, we can transform children’s engagement and attainment. But lifting more children out of deprivation in the long term requires us to tackle digital poverty now.

The alternative is to see educational technology drive a growing attainment gap by benefiting only those who are already more advantaged. Only by bridging the digital divide and creating a more digitally equitable society will we make sure that “no child is left behind”.

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