Georgie Akehurst and Anneka Dawson from the Institute of Employment Studies discuss the impact of the digital divide on young children and their families.

The onset of national home-learning since March 2020 has brought to light, and exacerbated, the digital inequalities amongst school children. The IES report published this week provides further insight into this important topic and highlights that the digital divide is also impacting on children and their families in the early years before the start of formal school.

‘Educational Inequality in the early years’ an IES study commissioned by the OVO Foundation and conducted in collaboration with Sutton Trust and Professor Kathy Sylva (University of Oxford), sought to evaluate the impact of three existing parental engagement projects  from June 2019 to December 2021. As would be expected, the study found that the three projects had to adapt delivery methods during lockdown – usually by adopting virtual modes of delivery. Accordingly, the evaluation was also adapted to examine the changes that the projects made – to continue their delivery and support families during the pandemic. However, in implementing these changes, the providers were faced with issues of accessibility among children and families.

The research showed that three providers: Doorstep Library, PEN and Tales Toolkit all have adapted admirably and quickly to the challenges of the pandemic over the last year and created various new resources including live webinars, recorded book readings and tasks, lending of equipment and signposting additional support where families have needed it. These inspiring models could be used by others working with early years groups to maintain support during this current and any future restrictions on in-person provision. Specifically, the providers have delivered the following:

  • Doorstep Library had to stop their usual practice of home visits on account of the first lockdown and were able to adapt to offer families a mix of services providing crucial support during a difficult time. Their services included: online interactive story sessions with volunteers and families; sending out books to children; offering pre-recorded video stories; providing a book swap service; and weekly newsletters to parents to circulate important information.
  • PEN (one of the original Sutton Trust Parental Engagement Fund projects) ensured contact with schools and parents was maintained to uphold engagement. They conducted regular Zoom meetings and phone calls with parents to provide support and resources, such as: providing videos to show parents how they could use the learning resources at home; and providing information on education websites used by the schools for communication with parents. PEN also provided a drop off service, delivering ‘Mouse’ (the soft toy used as part of the learning intervention), books, resource sheets, a bag and a newsletter.
  • Tales Toolkit also quickly adapted to the lockdown measures, constructing a website to share information and resources with existing parents. Tales Toolkit also created videos for parents, explaining the resources and how they can be used with children at home. Further, Tales Toolkit offered their webinars (which had previously been targeted at practitioners) to parents for free, and upcoming webinars include a communication and literacy focused session with Sue Palmer this week and a session focused on play in March with Greg Bottrill.

However, interviews with the providers, schools and parents found that despite these efforts not all children were able to access the resources virtually. Some families did not have access to IT equipment such as laptops or iPads, and whilst schools, nurseries and the providers tried to mitigate this by providing materials directly this still proved difficult for some families. Additionally, some staff (for example some Teaching Assistants) did not have access to IT equipment in schools, making it difficult for them to access resources for students. Furthermore, some families also faced difficulties in accessing resources such as printers and the Internet, and in some instances even basic resources such as pencils or paper.

This is unsurprising given the report from the Sutton Trust  that found that in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, just 10% of teachers overall reported that all their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning. The same report details the digital inequality gap to be widening, with 54% of private sector schools reporting that all their children have devices, compared to 42% in the previous lockdown, whereas state schools reported a rate of 4% in the previous lockdown and 5% in the current lockdown. Whilst the government has delivered some devices to children, enabling them to learn remotely, it is widely reported that this process has been largely inefficient, with many children still without resources to adequately learn from home.

The IES report makes a series of recommendations including the following:

  1. There is a need to urgently action calls from the early years and school sectors to combat the digital divide and support all families to have access to an electronic device per child for learning.
  2. Internet access should be treated as a basic human need in this crisis, in the same way as heating allowances are provided to those in need, a reliable Internet connection should be given to families without access.
  3. Local businesses should be encouraged to support provision of basic resources such as paper, pens and pencils, enabling children and families to write and draw stories.
  4. Charities and organisations working with families could approach local businesses to aid in building connections and partnerships, speeding up the process. If this gained support from government and local authorities, then the impact could be seen much faster and on a much larger scale.

As the impacts of the pandemic will be seen for some time to come, urgent action is needed now to begin to tackle the digital divide exacerbated by Covid-19.

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