The Evidence Is in – It’s Time to Close the Digital Divide
4th December 2020
Guest blog from Neil Bates, Chair of the Edge Foundation and former FE college Principal
The pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives. It has accelerated the use of, and dependency on, technology to communicate with loved ones, run our businesses, do our work and shop for goods and services. For most of us this technology has been a life saver but for those who do not have access to the equipment and connectivity that is required the pandemic has deepened inequality and exposed a new kind of disadvantage. At the beginning of the 4th industrial revolution, digital poverty is having a profound effect on the life chances of millions of young people.
As the former principal of an FE college, I’ve spent years advocating for tech to support teaching and learning. In 2020, digital tech for young people is not a nice-to-have – it’s a necessity. To enter the workforce on an equal footing with their more affluent peers, disadvantaged pupils need access to digital devices and connectivity. Because let’s be clear: those left behind are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds. The painful irony is that these young people are also those with the most to gain from access to technology.
Published today, new research commissioned by Microsoft in association with CfEY shines a spotlight on this issue. While 38% of pupils in private primary schools in England have access to devices they can take home, this figure falls to a shocking 1% in state primary schools. Similarly, two in three private-sector teachers have access to 1-to-1 technologies – in the state sector, this figure is just one in three. Is this really the best we can do?Two in three private-sector teachers have access to 1-to-1 technologies – in the state sector, this figure is just one in three. Is this really the best we can do? - Guest blog from Neil Bates, Chair of @ukEdge Click To Tweet
An estimated one million children in the UK cannot access the internet. This is either because they have no suitable device, no connectivity, or both. It should be clear, then, how ready access to technology can help. Digital learning platforms can help teachers prioritize interventions for disadvantaged learners. Devices and connectivity also give young people opportunities to develop basic twenty-first-century skills. In this respect, device access isn’t just a matter of educational outcomes. It is, at its core, a social mobility issue. So why do so many students still lack access to the technologies they need?Why do so many students still lack access to the technologies they need? Guest blog from @UKEdge Click To Tweet
During the pandemic, the education sector has embraced new tech at incredible speed. They’ve transformed classroom teaching into distance learning practically overnight. In March, the Academies Enterprise Trust (one of the country’s largest MATs) even committed to spending £2 million on equipment for students on Free School Meals.
Other initiatives have also emerged. The charity Livery Schools Link recently launched the Digital Divide Fund to scale up device provision for disadvantaged pupils. For my part, I worked during lockdown with a group of senior industry figures, politicians and charities in a partnership called Operation Educate. Our aim was to support digitally disadvantaged young people throughout the pandemic and beyond.
For all its turbulence, 2020 presents a real opportunity for educational reform. But broader changes need a firm foundation. Reducing digital poverty is core to this. We should celebrate the kinds of initiatives described above, but the burden of closing the digital divide cannot – and should not – fall to schools and charities alone. Why isn’t the government doing more?The burden of closing the digital divide cannot – and should not – fall to schools and charities alone. Why isn’t the government doing more? asks Neil Bates @UKedge Click To Tweet
In April, the DfE pledged to provide laptops to a small cross-section of disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils. By July, many of these laptops had failed to materialise. This highlights the need for government to get a clear grip on the importance of tech for closing the inequality gap. When we find our way out of the pandemic, the digital divide is not going away on its own. This year, the education sector has proven its worth. Now it’s time for government to do the same.
The Edge Foundation is all about evidence-based change. In June, we published a report on the impact of Covid-19 on education. And the message from Microsoft and CfEY’s research is clear as a bell: current access to technology is not only inadequate; it is exacerbating the achievement gap between England’s wealthiest and poorest children. We have the evidence. We’ve made our case. The time to act is now.
Download today’s report here
Neil Bates is Chair of Trustees at the Edge Foundation. He began his career in technical education working in job centres and the Manpower Services Commission before becoming Chief Executive of Prospects College of Advanced Technology. He led the organisation for 30 years and steered it to become the first new Further Education College to be opened in England since 1992.
The Edge Foundation is an independent education charity which is dedicated to transforming the way young people develop the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century. www.edge.co.uk