Erica Holt-White examines the implications of a second wave of school closures for disadvantaged pupils and asks if the digital divide can be tackled.

For many of us, the start of January has felt like Groundhog Day. Plans for a return to school after Christmas were flipped on their head, with England placed under a national lockdown and schools once again being closed for most pupils. While there are some differences – many schools are likely better prepared to provide online lessons this time around – considerable challenges remain. This is especially true for those from the poorest backgrounds, whose learning was disproportionately affected during the first period of closures.

Lessons from the first lockdown

Before the pandemic, Ofcom estimated that up to 1.78 million children in the UK were living in a household without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. That is 9% of all households with children, and that figure does not even take into account the thousands of children without sole access to a device, who may need to share limited devices with siblings and/or parents. Many households also lack internet access, with 559,000 having no internet access at home, and 913,000 only able to access the internet through a mobile network.

This lack of devices affects the poorest most, and we know this created significant problems for remote learning during the first lockdown. Research from the Sutton Trust in April found that, in schools with the most deprived intakes, many children did not have the resources they needed to learn from home, with 15% of teachers in these schools saying over a third of their students would not have access to a device for online learning, compared to just 2% in the most affluent. Access to the internet was also an issue in the first lockdown, with 12% of teachers in the most deprived schools reporting more than a third of their students wouldn’t have adequate access. The Education Endowment Foundation has warned that school closures during the first lockdown may have reversed progress made in narrowing the attainment gap in the last decade, a stark statistic.

A persistent problem

Many months later, and while the situation has improved, large access gaps remain. So far, only 560,000 devices have been delivered to schools in England. And while many businesses and organisations from the third sector have also stepped in; for instance, companies like Three and Virgin Mobile are working with the Department for Education to provide increased data allowances for accessing remote education, the most recent data suggests many students still do not have access to the resources they need to learn remotely. Polling carried out for Teach First in November found that 84% of schools with the poorest children did not have enough devices or internet access for all self-isolating pupils to continue learning, with the need likely to be even greater during a full lockdown.

Long term consequences

Even if all children did have access to a device and the internet, there are some problems the government will not be able to fix in the short term, including many young people having insufficient study space at home. At the start of the pandemic, Sutton Trust research found that 23% of A level students applying to university from working class backgrounds did not have sufficient study space, compared to just 12% of those from better-off families. And when asked in the first lockdown, parents with lower levels of education were less likely to feel confident directing their children’s learning. Even if the digital divide is closed, the impact on disadvantaged young people is likely to be considerable, with additional funding above that already announced for increased catch-up provisions likely to be required.

Urgent action

The government have now announced an additional 440,000 laptops above the 560,000 already delivered (with 140,000 of these promised to schools by the end of next week). While this is certainly welcome, it is concerning to see it reported that it could take several months for many of these devices to actually reach children. Additionally, primary schools have been told by the Department for Education that they cannot yet apply for these government-funded laptops. As every week and month passes without a laptop or internet access during lockdown, the hours of lost learning for children will increase, with teachers unable to deliver the online lessons that they are now legally required to deliver.

The government have also recently announced that those without a device or suitable study space are now considered a ‘vulnerable learner’ allowing them to still go into school. While it is good for schools to have this option available, it is likely to pose problems for schools with large numbers of such students. Additionally, there are circumstances which could prevent a child going to school while rates of infection are high, for example they may live with family members who are vulnerable to the virus and now shielding, or they may need to self-isolate.

Exam uncertainty

Given the level of disruption, it is right that the government has announced that exams will not go ahead as planned this year. However, there are concerns that any method relying on teacher assessment may disadvantage certain groups of students, including those from poorer backgrounds, an issue the Sutton Trust raised when decisions were being made on exams last year.

By this summer, pupils will have faced over a year of disrupted learning, which will have had a disproportionate impact on poorer students. It is crucial that the digital divide is closed as quickly as possible, and that any assessment model takes the differing experiences of groups of students into account, so that all pupils leave education with the qualifications they deserve.


Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07791 044 564.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news