Remote education: Digital divide continues to hit poorest families as third lockdown begins

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the majority of pupils return to home learning, many of the poorest families are being priced out of education because of the “punitive costs of mobile data”, while many more still have no access to devices or the internet.

According to figures from Ofcom, 559,000 children have no internet access at all, while 1.8 million children are thought not to have access to a laptop or computer at home.

Furthermore, the watchdog estimates that around 913,000 children are accessing online learning from a parent’s mobile phone, incurring punitive data costs.

The Department for Education’s roll-out of free laptops for disadvantaged pupils stalled last term. The DfE says that by the end of 2020, 560,000 devices and 54,500 wireless routers had been delivered to schools and councils since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, schools are still angry at the DfE’s decision, quietly pushed out before the autumn half-term, to restrict access to its free laptop scheme. The move meant that schools could only claim about 20 per cent of their allocation, with one academy trust seeing its allocation drop from 465 to 55 devices.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, January 6, prime minister Boris Johnson said that another 100,000 devices will be delivered this week.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, however, warned that this would not be enough to reach the 1.8 million children without devices and called for more urgency on this and on issues of internet access.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson, also speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, said: “Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace. We have purchased more than one million and have already delivered more than 560,000 of those to schools and local authorities. By the end of next week we will have delivered 750,000 devices.”

Mr Williamson also said that the government would be include provision within its guidance to allow children who cannot access remote learning because of a lack of devices or connectivity to attend school alongside vulnerable learners and the children of key workers.

What is clear is that despite the push on device delivery this week, many children living in poverty will still be heading into the third national lockdown with no devices on which to work or no access to the internet.

Speaking on Wednesday, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union said: "We are glad that the Government has listened to the widespread calls for urgent action on tablets and data support for the remote learning of disadvantaged children, working with mobile phone companies.

"But it has not gone unnoticed that we have seen months of dither and delay. A moveto rationing the supply towards the end of 2020 was a low point for school leaders who have been working desperately hard for the disadvantaged students in their care.

"Even so, by the education secretary’s own estimate the roll out of one million devices will not be reached until the end of January – two thirds of the way through the proposed period of lockdown. With a summer completely squandered by the Department for Education, it is galling that this should still remain an issue."

The Oak National Academy, the online school set-up with government funding during the first national lockdown last year, also raised concerns about the digital divide this week – in particular the impact of the high cost of data on poorer families.

Oak saw 120,000 pupils accessing its free lessons on Monday, January 4, even before the latest lockdown was announced. However, it is concerned that while its lessons are free thanks to its government funding, costs for the data needed to download the resources could be as much as £100 a day for families.

Its analysis finds that it takes 250MB of data to download a lesson. Based on standard UK charges for pay as you go data, it would cost £97 to download four lessons a day. As such, a two-week period of lockdown or self-isolation could cost a family £970 or more. Oak acknowledges that the DfE has offered data uplifts to schools, but this was a pilot scheme which saw only 205 people applying.

A statement from Oak National Academy said: “Efforts to ‘zero-rate’ educational sites have stalled because many educational sites use third-party content providers, such as hosting videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or embedding Google documents. Mobile networks have therefore not been able – or willing – to zero-rate these sites too.”

It is now calling on the big four mobile phone providers to use their expertise to tackle this issue quickly.

During his address in the House of Commons, Mr Williamson said that the DfE was working with telecoms firms to put in place free data for educational sites although the time-frame on this work is not clear.

Matt Hood, the principal of Oak National Academy, said: “The cost of internet access to the poorest families is the single biggest issue that is preventing all children being able to access learning during lockdown. What’s more, once again it’s the poorest families that are hit hardest, with the risk of being locked out of lockdown learning altogether. We simply cannot allow this digital divide to determine the education that children receive – we need a universal solution and we need it now.

“It’s time for the big four telecoms firms to step up and do their bit. It’s very simple: make education sites zero-rated. This cannot happen soon enough and we would urge them to do the right thing and to do it quickly.”

Elsewhere, the BBC is extending its education programming, with much more being broadcast on television in a bid to reach pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide.

BBC coverage will begin on Monday, January 11. Each weekday on CBBC will see a three-hour block of primary school programming from 9am including BBC Live Lessons and BBC Bitesize Daily, as well as other educational programming.

BBC Two will cater for secondary students with programming to support the GCSE curriculum, with a least two hours of content each weekday. Content will be built around Bitesize Daily secondary shows.

Meanwhile, Oak National Academy now has 10,000 free online lessons available. Since the start of the pandemic, Oak has delivered 30 million online lessons.


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