Ruby Nightingale, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at the Sutton Trust, reflects on the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility’s latest meeting on the digital divide.  

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) held its final session of the year on Tuesday 8 December to examine the impact that a lack of digital access has on disadvantaged young people. The APPG heard from Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden; Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s; and Jane Girt, headteacher of Carlton Bolling School in Bradford.

The problem

The digital divide poses a serious challenge to inequality and social mobility. Unequal access to digital technology has long been an issue, but during school closures, the scale of the problem was revealed. Justin Madders, Chair of the APPG, set the scene by highlighting Sutton Trust research which found that in the poorest schools, 15% of teachers reported that more than a third of their pupils would not have adequate access to a device, compared to only 2% in better off schools.

And the problems were not resolved when schools reopened. Many pupils and teachers are still self-isolating, and we know that pupils in the poorest areas of the country are missing the most school. Recent Teach First polling found that 84% of schools with the poorest children lack devices to ensure their pupils can study at home if self-isolating. This is likely to have serious consequences for the attainment gap, and knock-on effects for young people hoping to go on to further education, university or the workplace.

The message from Jane in her opening remarks was clear – the scale of the digital divide is vast, and it has had a serious impact on pupils’ progress, engagement and confidence in learning over the past year.

But it’s not just about access

We know that those from poorer backgrounds are less able to access the resources – including devices and a stable internet connection – that they need to continue their learning from home. But throughout the session, it became clear that the digital divide goes further than just access to the internet or devices. There were calls for a wider focus on helping young people, their families and teachers to develop the digital skills needed for effective remote learning.

For parents, along with developing digital skills, a key issue highlighted by Jane was the difficulties in getting parents to engage with their child’s home learning. With pupils learning from home and parents taking on a bigger role in terms of schoolwork, parental engagement and the home learning environment are more crucial than ever.

While it was agreed on by the panellists that no online teaching and learning can ever be as effective as face-to-face, there are actions that can be taken to support pupils, teachers and families to ensure that online learning is effective as possible.

So what can we do? The role of government, businesses and charities

Siobhain, who is spearheading a campaign and bill to secure devices and internet access for young people eligible for Free School Meals, highlighted that she was lucky that her local community were able to rally together to help the most vulnerable. But it shouldn’t be down to luck, she said, asking how it can be right that educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged are dependent on a postcode lottery of charitable giving.

The desire for a national, government-led approach among the panellists was clear. Javed highlighted three key actions that he believes are needed to tackle the digital divide. First, the government should work with charities and local authorities to identify which children are in digital poverty. Second, the government should announce a plan to close the digital gap within a clear timeframe. The implementation of this plan should be a joint effort between government, charities and local authorities, but ultimately the government must lead this. And finally, there must be investment in digital innovation, as the move towards digital is likely here to stay.

Putting children at the heart of the Covid response

The session ended with a clear message that young people should be at the heart of the response to the pandemic. Baroness Tyler, co-Chair of the APPG, highlighted that the coronavirus pandemic is often presented as having two key impacts – a health crisis and an economic crisis. But there must also be real consideration of the impact that the pandemic has had on children, young people, and education. As David Johnston MP, co-Chair of the APPG, said, we must recognise that young people are our future and do everything we can to maximise their potential.

The Sutton Trust provides the Secretariat to the APPG on Social Mobility. More information on the group can be found here: https://www.suttontrust.com/our-priorities/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-social-mobility/

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