What is the Digital Divide?

The latest lockdown has caused huge disruption to most young people and families – but for some the impact on their education is greater. This blog attempts to shine a spotlight on this issue to raise awareness and enable a greater understanding.

In the best scenarios – and fortunately the experience of many young people and families – when the lockdown was announced the young person could simply wake up, switch on their device and continue their learning from home. In families such as these, their focus has been on how well the school is delivering remote learning, how much live teaching there is, and so on.

But for countless others, they cannot even get started with remote learning, no matter how good their school’s offer, because they do not have the tech to access online remote learning. Whilst some young people, their families and their schools are scrambling to get their children to the Digital Starting Line, the better off are well on their way and leaving others far behind. This exacerbates the problem and the gaps grow wider.

Why weren’t schools prepared for this?
Schools had prepared.
For schools like mine, during 2020, we had done extensive training with our staff and children, moving to an effective online learning platform and staff trialled and improved their ability to deliver effective remote learning. We had also surveyed all of our parents to establish who did and did not have devices or access to the internet. We had a list of children in each year group who would require a device, and during some periods of self-isolation we had made use of this information to lend devices for the short term closures. We also made use of paper-based learning packs which were sufficient for short-term periods of self-isolation and could effectively be followed up once children returned to school after their self-isolation. We had a remote learning policy and plan and this even included the scenario of simultaneous, multiple year group closures. But our focus was on short-term closures, or repeated closures, for periods of self-isolation by groups or bubbles.

The extended period of school closures should have been a scenario that was well considered and planned for. Scientific and medical leaders had been advising and clamouring for this action. But this was not a scenario which we had been allowed to entertain or fully explore. The government mantra which was repeated time and time again was that schools were safe and that they would not be closed.

The government repeatedly insisted that schools would not be closed for extended periods of time. Government messaging culminated with the threat of legal action by the Secretary of State for Education against Greenwich Council when they asked schools to move to online learning in the few days before Christmas.

Astonishingly, the message was even stronger, when on Monday 4th January 2021, the day that the National Lockdown was announced, the majority of primary schools – including most in Tier 4 areas – were still instructed to open as usual. The Education Secretary announced that only primary schools in a ‘small number of areas’ would move to online learning, and initially this was announced for just two weeks until January 18th.

So, school leaders can be forgiven for not having foreseen this extended ‘closure.’

Why aren’t there enough devices?
The government has recognised that they have not yet delivered devices for all disadvantaged children. In my school, for example, we have over 100 children who are registered for Free School Meals and yet we have received just 32 devices. According to the DfE website we are not entitled to any more.

But the problem is far wider than that. Just because families are not eligible for Free School Meals does not mean that they can afford a device. There are many families living in absolute poverty, relying on food banks and other charity – but are not eligible for Free School Meals. Reasons for not being eligible include earning more than £7,400 a year, recent arrivals to the UK, and families without a valid visa. My own school even had to set up a food bank last year to support these children and families.

And beyond these families, there are many, many more who would not consider themselves poor – but who don’t necessarily have a laptop at home, or the means to go out and buy one.

And then there are the families who may have one device – but definitely not one for each child.

Is access to internet also a problem?
Many families don’t have access to broadband internet. This means that even if we lend them a device, they can’t access the learning platform. For families trying to access remote learning using a smartphone, their data allocation quickly get used up. There are already some partial solutions to this issue. Most mobile providers quickly made an offer that schools can apply for a data increase for each family. Vodaphone is to be applauded for being proactive before Christmas in offering schools multiple SIM cards at no cost, with 3 months data. The government said they would provide routers or dongles but only for secondary schools. So for many families, especially in primary school, the biggest problem is if they have borrowed a device, they need a router or dongle. We have been funding these – with external sponsorship – at approx. £50 each.

Difficulty for families to understand how to access platforms
Some of our children and families have very recently arrived in the UK. The pandemic has not stopped families relocating and we have a moral obligation to help each child despite their starting points – and arguably more of an obligation when there is such a gap.

For people who regularly use technology in their work or within their families, it can be hard to understand the difficulties faced by some families and the schools trying to support them. The following anecdote may help to illuminate another aspect of the Digital Divide…

During the autumn term, my school worked proactively to train children and their parents – both at school and at home – in how to access our online learning, so that we would be as prepared as possible for any closures. As well as our teachers preparing video tutorials, part of our support and training for parents included inviting them in for a hands-on session (in a COVID-safe-distanced way). In one example, a teacher discovered that a parent was unable to spell their daughter’s name using English characters. They needed support at this level, just to gain access to the remote learning. This is typical of the level of challenge faced by our children and families before they can even start to make progress with their learning.

Low uptake of school access for vulnerable children
Despite any anxieties from staff, we accepted the government’s revised, broader category of ‘vulnerable’ to include those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home, for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study. We have used this definition properly and encouraged parents to send in their children. At our school this could easily be over 50% of our children.

However, there is extreme caution and reluctance from parents. Our school is in Brent, an area which sadly had one of the highest death rates during the first lockdown, and once again the current rates are some of the highest in the country at well over 1000 per 100,000. Parents have fears for their children but they have far higher fears for the adults in their homes, compounded by the fact that many live in multi-generational housing. In addition, the vast majority are from BAME backgrounds who have been disproportionately impacted throughout the pandemic. Their concerns are fully understandable.

We have many more children attending school during this lockdown compared to the first one – increasing to approximately 20% from just 2% in 2020. However, despite our best efforts – before the start of term and over the course of a couple of days, calling every one of our almost 700 children – most of our vulnerable children are not attending school.

As one leader commented to me, “Why should parents’ poverty and lack of devices remove their ability to minimise risks by keeping children at home, in the way that more affluent parents are able to?” Or more succinctly, and cynically, put by a teenager and quoted on twitter by @Dorastar1 “The poorer you are, the more chances government give you to catch COVID.”

What needs to happen?
1) A concerted and urgent national effort to get devices to all who need them – not just to those who are means-tested eligible as disadvantaged.
This will require significant government funding and ideally should be given directly to schools who will be able to acquire devices much more quickly than the government has been able to. Large businesses and corporations should be falling over themselves to provide the solution, sponsoring and donating devices on a huge scale.

2) Recognition of the scale of the challenge. This is essential – not just to fix the problem and get our children learning, but to capitalise on the support that needs to be galvanised from every section of society. Inequality cannot be adequately tackled without a proper understanding of the difficulties. The focus from DfE has been on mandating minimum daily hours of remote learning and threatening schools that Ofsted will inspect the quality. But the issue for thousands of students – and definitely for those that the government claims to care most about – is not that schools don’t have a good remote learning offer – but that they don’t have the means to access it.

3) Recognise and celebrate the work of schools and charities. It’s incredibly demoralising for school leaders who are overcoming the most extraordinary challenges to be threatened with legal action and threatened with Ofsted.  This comes at the end of almost a year of poor leadership. A year filled with chaos, U-turns, mismanagement and confusion.

Any leader worth their salt knows that you don’t get the best results by threats and coercion.

It’s hardly surprising that 92% of teachers report that they want the Secretary of State to resign. How can it be right that in the most extreme crisis, the successes of schools and their staff have been despite the work of the Department for Education, and not because of their support?
Without leading and inspiring the profession, it will not be possible to achieve what is really needed to reduce inequality and remove the Digital Divide.

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I'm proud to be Headteacher of Elsley Primary School, a diverse, 4 form school in Wembley, Brent. I'm also an advanced coach and have the privilege of supporting aspiring and new Headteachers and senior leaders. Views in this blog are my own.

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