And, it should be said, it is not the schools at fault here.
As a primary school practitioner I am incredibly proud of how schools transformed their provision when the March lockdown got. Schools across the country adapted creatively, often on a shoestring budget, to develop some kind of online space and distanced learning for their pupils.
We saw schools develop online assemblies, inviting in the community just as the would in person. Schools that were open and made use of streaming lessons, or engaging with content already out there. Partnerships with providers (often local) to share resources such as video, or virtual walks. Secondary schools developed online timetables, desperately trying to ensure that teachers were not spread too thinly.
Add to that the communication tools school were using – linking schools with parents became so important and schools adapted quickly: Google Classroom, Showbie, Tapestry amongst many apps and platforms adopted by schools and shared with parents.
And all of this was achieved whilst still providing Free a School Meals and upporting the children of key workers on site.
Of course schools are now much better prepared: they have held training sessions with parents explaining how such platforms work; provided staff training; led lessons with pupils helping them to use the technology appropriately; invested in support from professionals. But we are fighting a losing battle simply because the divide was already too big and there’s no central support to this.
Let us begin with the good news, the government did pledge support for schools in setting up an online platform if they didn’t already have one. This was helpful, and it was backed up by a small amount of money. Probably not enough for a larger school with complex needs and staff training, but it was a start.
Government also started offering devices and 4G routers for ‘disadvantaged’ families – this scheme has been dogged in criticism mainly because it wasn’t particularly timely (I received devices two weeks before the end of term) – and there wasn’t enough.
So, why is it a problem?
We already know there is a huge digital divide – we know that there are families who don’t use the internet. We know pupils who only have access to a phone (and this is often for a few distracting games) and we know families who share one device. The Office of National Statistics also backs up the divide as increasingly affecting those with lower income.
In simple terms of actually having an internet connection connectivity (and availability) varies massively across the country – and a city-centric approach to online education is not helpful. You can check parliamentary data on this issue here. But compare these two images here for different experiences of connectivity.
And it is not as simple as ‘devices and access’ – families may lack confidence with the technology or there may be space issues, especially if a family member is working from home. A sibling may also need access. Cambridge University is really leading the way in this research:
For adults facing digital exclusion, the challenges of social distancing are many. Our research with New Horizons, a one-to-one coaching programme for people experiencing financial issues in the East of England, reveals that digital exclusion creates additional problems for people already experiencing poverty: putting together a CV, applying for jobs, managing and keeping track of money, and applying for Universal Credit are just some of the essential activities made that much harder for the digitally excluded.https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide
But what can be done?
In the first instance we need an admission that all is not as rosy and equal as the government is suggesting. Postcode connectivity, deprivation and access to services all make digital education a tricky concept for school communities.
Secondly the government need to make good on promises – and not just pandemic linked ones either. (Just give the schools the damn laptops you have already purchased!) The connectivity issue has been debated in parliament for years, and for rural areas often comes up in general elections. Less talking, more doing, please!
Finally, remove the pressure from schools to have an ‘online offering’ for all. This map just piles more anxiety on families and children who are unable to take part. Acknowledge that schools may need to deliver paper work packs, or loan equipment out – and fund us properly to do it.
The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the inequalities and digital exclusion in our society – let’s use this as a force for good!