The UK’s struggle with digital schooling

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On Monday 4 January 2021, children were starting their first week back at school after the Christmas break. By that evening, the government announced the closure of schools in England, as well as a country-wide lockdown, and the situation in Wales and Scotland looked similar.

For most, this was a complete surprise, after prime minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that schools were safe enough to stay open. For many, it also highlights the scale of the UK’s digital divide.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow digital minister, said: “The government’s last-minute U-turn on the school lockdown has left parents and teachers struggling to arrange home schooling.

“There are currently nearly two million households in the UK without internet access, leaving families cut off as they make great sacrifices for all of our safety. This means some children have no access to schooling, and that is completely unacceptable.”

The digital divide

Having to use digital devices and services to teach children from home will range from an inconvenience to impossible depending on the capabilities of each household.

Parents, teachers and students are all worried about schools being closed, albeit for different reasons.

Students, especially those doing GCSE or A-Levels, are concerned about what closed schools, cancelled exams and disrupted timetables will mean for their future, while parents are struggling to juggle home-schooling and work, either because they’re disrupted while working from home or are unable to go to work because they now have to look after their children during the day.

And that’s just for households that have access to technology and the internet.

Research from communications regulator Ofcom estimates that around between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK don’t have access to a laptop or device for home schooling, and 7% of households can only access the internet through mobile connectivity.

Early in the first week of school term, Labour urged the government to adopt its recommendations for delivering technology for at-home schooling, and Onwurah said the country will “pay the price” for the government’s “failure” to ensure everyone has access to the technology they need.

Research by Nominet found that half of parents are worried that not having access to digital would be detrimental to their children’s education, and 20% said they couldn’t provide uninterrupted access to online learning at home to their children.

Nominet also found that 21% of parents had to share devices with children, making it difficult to juggle home working and home schooling.

“There is a huge digital divide and it is getting worse with schools being shut down due to Covid-19. Teachers and school leaders are trying their best to continue with online teaching by providing resources, virtual check-ins and recorded lessons,” said EdTech adviser and consultant Joysy John, who added that many children cannot access these services due to a lack of technology or connectivity.

“There are many new initiatives like Oak National Academy, National Tutoring Programme and free resources from Edtech companies, but these benefit those who already have digital access. So the digital divide is going to get wider unless the government thinks of a more holistic approach and provides disadvantaged parents with additional financial and educational support.”

Once the lockdown was announced, education secretary Gavin Williamson outlined a number of plans for remote education, including the mandate for schools to provide a set number of hours of “high-quality remote education for pupils”.

This is of no help to those without access to online learning, so the government has tried to address the digital divide causing disparity in home schooling during pandemic lockdowns by giving laptops to those from under-privileged backgrounds – something it began doing in the UK’s first lockdown.

What’s being done

The government has said it will be providing up to one million children with devices to help them learn from home – these will not be given directly to pupils, but to schools that apply for them on behalf of their students.

More than 500,000 devices were provided to schools in 2020, and a further 100,000 were sent out in the week the third lockdown was announced, with the Department for Education (DfE) estimating the second week of the 2021 spring term will see around 750,000 devices having been issued.

Chris Hillidge – a teacher who runs a CAS community and leads the NCCE Computing Hub for Merseyside and Warrington, where he is also director of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at The Challenge Academy Trust – said that despite sending out a number of Chromebooks, it was then found many families don’t have access to WiFi.

“However, on the positive side, teachers are providing some meaningful and effective learning remotely. The uptake from students is far higher than in Lockdown 1.0, even in an area of socio-economic disadvantage such as the one our school is in,” he said.

“It’s not as good as children being in school, but everyone is working hard to make it as good as it can be.”

Connectivity issues are also being addressed, with the government working with some UK mobile network operators to provide disadvantaged families with free data, as many from disadvantaged backgrounds rely on mobile connectivity rather than broadband access.

Though these are steps in the right direction, there are still challenges, and the one million devices the government has promised is still shy of Ofcom’s estimate of the number of children lacking in technology equipment.  

Tina Götschi, principal of Ada. National College for Digital Skills, said support such as offering connectivity has come “late in the day”, “learning has already been lost” and there is undue strain on teachers to be several things at once.

“Many school and college leaders are doing about five jobs all at the same time, including learning how to administer the rapid result test which were delivered on the first day of term, only to be told learners and students were to be remote on the second day of term,” she said.

Expressing concern for the physical and mental wellbeing of those now forced to stay at home, Götschi said that even simple advice such as getting enough sleep, maintaining a schedule and taking screen breaks can be “overwhelming” at the moment.

She also said there has been an increase in communications from parents and carers, an uptick in the amount of reassurance the college is having to give to students, and continuous ongoing discussions with staff members and other local schools about advice and best practice, all on top of usual teaching.

Elsewhere, organisations have jumped in to try to offer help to students, parents and teachers. Volunteer organisation Tech for UK has been working to encourage donation and redistribution of laptops to people who need them most, and the BBC has made a huge push to provide online resources to help young people learn from home.

Still more to do

Much like non-pandemic times, these efforts are slightly disparate, with more to be desired in terms of government, the tech sector and education providers working together and being aware of each other’s efforts – but the thought is there.

While technology is not a “silver bullet”, as noted by Ronda Železný-Green, global head of training and e-learning for the Internet Society, it can “make the difference and help enable a learner to successfully complete the school year”.

While virtual learning technology has grown since the start of the pandemic, Železný-Green said that, up until now, remote learning has been “overlooked”, and she called on government to pool experts to develop more ways to provide learning support and resources to parents and teachers to better help them provide remote learning.

“It has been disheartening to see decades of research into virtual learning fall by the wayside at the first real test of its relevance in a situation like this,” she said.

There are other opportunities too, said Železný-Green, adding that experts could offer Joe Wicks-style sessions within their knowledge base.

It’s still early days in Lockdown 3.0, and while the pandemic has brought with it a huge amount of uncertainty, there does at least seem to be hope that the unprecedented times will pave the way for a more advanced digital future.

“During the first national lockdown, we saw a fleet of edtech [education technology] businesses bringing new platforms and services online to support digital learning, with significant innovation in the space supporting our young people in adapting to new modes of education,” said Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates.

“There is hope within the tech sector that this time around these edtech firms will again be supporting the most vulnerable in society to access quality education.

“Moving forwards, the task at hand will be to ensure that everybody that cannot access remote learning is reached with devices and connectivity – not a single child can be left behind while schools are closed. This pandemic has unfortunately awakened many to the plight of digital exclusion, and my hope is that now we have the collective will and resources to permanently close the gap.”

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