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:
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:
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.