Bridging Britain’s Digital Divide

While school closures are necessary during a pandemic, they leave poorer students behind – it's time for the government to bridge the digital divide and ensure that every child can participate in remote learning.

Schools have the power to be great engines of social equality. But, by consequence, school closures have the power to be great engines of social inequality. 

This is more than a mere tautology. Research by the Education Endowment Foundation projects that the current school closures will deepen the UK’s achievement gap by as much as 75%. This is against a background of the country already having one of the worse profiles for educational equality among the high-income countries.

The widening of this gap owes much to the UK’s ‘digital divide’. With most teaching in the UK having migrated online, students need access to a device with internet access in order to receive an education.

But students from poorer families will often lack such access. The only device in their household may be a smartphone owned by one of their parents. Smartphones are suboptimal for remote learning, which is usually designed for laptop interfaces. Plus, this smartphone may be shared with several siblings and have limited data. Parents might also need the phone for work, leaving poorer children without any route to accessing remote learning whatsoever. 

This may sound like a relatively rarified situation, affecting only a few families. But Teacher Tapp, a daily survey of 8,000 teachers, reported in April that teachers estimate at least 10% of their students struggle to access remote learning due to these issues with technology. That figure may sound relatively small, but it cashes out as millions of young people going without an education. 

After hearing about this issue and letting it incubate for nearly a month, the government responded. On April 20th, Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, proudly announced to the public that the government would be funding a programme to provide devices and internet to students in need. The £85 million scheme would pay for 200,000 devices for “disadvantaged families, children and young people”. 

The problem seemed resolved. But at the time of writing, the Department for Education cannot confirm that any students have received a device. And over half of secondary school leaders, according to a Teacher Tapp survey, reported having received nothing. 

The charitable might see the sluggish pace of delivery as an inevitable consequence of navigating Whitehall to implement a project of this scale. But there’s an argument to be made that it’s as much an inevitable consequence of Conservative government ideology. 

The 2002 Education Act allows ministers in the Department for Education to fund any project they like. Reports suggest that it is used routinely. In fact, the Department used it to fund the brilliant Oak National Academy, a bank of free online lessons produced by volunteer teachers. The funding was released so quickly that the site was up within 10 days.

Although that project was much cheaper, money is also not the issue here. The Bank of England agreed to directly finance government spending during the crisis within two weeks of school closures, providing the Treasury with plenty of cash and avoiding the need to go through truncated loan acquisition.

With this in mind,  the lag time for the devices programme doesn’t suggest institutional blockage – it suggests a lack of interest in spending money to help our most vulnerable young people. 

On top of its ongoing ambivalence to the poor, government ideology has previously featured a rapacious desire to slim the state. This began with a culling of many quangos in 2010. One of the first to be tossed on this bonfire was Becta, a specialised unit for delivering large-scale educational technology projects.

Among its previous programmes were the 2006 Computers for Pupils Initiative and its successor Home Access which had collectively provided hundreds of thousands of poorer families with computers. Highly regarded during its time, such an organisation could have had the capacity and specialised knowledge to scale up and deliver the current devices programme much more quickly. 

But even an extant Becta could not correct for the device policy’s other major failure: only a small proportion of in-need students are eligible to benefit from it. Set up with an excessively myopic level of means testing, only students leaving care, with a social worker or in year 10 can receive a device. As many schools have pointed out, this covers a tiny proportion of the total number of students in need of support.

On top of this excessively exclusionary policy, school leaders have had to navigate a peculiar application process. After submitting a claim for a number of laptops based on their own need, the government computes the number of devices they will be provided using an unclear process. The outcome is that severals schools have reported being allocated as many as 75% fewer devices than they require. 

An opaque process that yields these sorts of results shows clear signs of a government trying to spend as little money as possible. Efficiency is often laudable, but never at the expense of young people’s education. 

With such limited support, schools have been forced to seek charitable donations. One South London trust has raised £144,000. Others have raised significantly less. Individual generosity is noble, but the differential ability of schools to raise money will only add to widening gaps in educational equality. 

These gaps show no sign of remediation and in fact look like they might extend further. Although schools are ostensibly starting to reopen, Teacher Tapp data shows that primary students in fee-paying schools are more than twice as likely to have returned to the classroom as students in the most deprived communities.

Primary schools in the South and East of England are much more likely to be open than those in the North. Socioeconomic status and geographical location are already sources of educational inequality, and these disparities threaten to further widen the gap.

With so much lost learning, it is imperative for the government to act now to extend and improve its devices programme. But it is also vital for the left to see the bridging of the digital divide in a broader context.

Students from poorer backgrounds have always been at greater risk of missing out on schooling. They are more likely to be persistently absent from school, whether for health reasons or due to other barriers to attendance. They are also more likely to be permanently excluded. A free device and internet policy for young people can provide a long-term solution to a latent problem that has lingered for years.

And let’s not forget that Covid-19 won’t be the last pandemic. Complacency on climate change and globalisation mean that the 21st century will see more of its kind, with accompanying school closures. Future-proofing the education system means acting now to build the right infrastructure. Next time, nobody will be able to plead ignorance.