In this blog post, we explore how digital poverty has impacted children across the UK and has proven to be an obstacle to their education.
Imagine typing 3,000 words of coursework on your mobile phone because you don’t have access to a laptop. Your fingers ache and your head feels like it’s going to explode from staring at a tiny screen. But you have to persevere otherwise you will fail your coursework. This is the reality for thousands of young people around the country- a reality that has skyrocketed in the last few years and is showing little sign of deceleration.
11 million people in the UK are currently experiencing digital exclusion. That’s according to figures from the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), which was set up by the Learning Foundation in 2021 as a response to Covid.
Elizabeth Anderson, Interim Chief Executive at DPA, explained that while people struggling to get online has been a problem for decades, the pandemic truly brought home how many rely on face-to-face services and interaction. It showed us how stripping these services away can not only magnify the effects of isolation; it can put individuals at a huge disadvantage, most notably those in education.
As face-to-face learning moved to online, the Department for Education issued various measures to help schools. This included delivering more than one million free laptops and tablets to the most disadvantaged children across the country. However, the success of the initiative was extremely mixed.
Elizabeth said: “A lot of the devices that made their way to children and families were excellent and would have been a lifeline. But some of the devices were of a much lower quality, they weren’t robust and so they broke down very quickly when they arrived at the schools. This meant the impact they could have had on the children was limited.”
It wasn’t just the quality of tech that created barriers. The Government also failed to take into account that many families did not have an internet router.
“Purely giving people a device isn’t enough”Elizabeth continued. “If you don’t have an internet connection, if you can’t afford to run a broadband connection, if you can’t afford to use mobile data which is not cheap, or indeed you don’t have the skills to be able to use that machine, you can’t use it.”
Unfortunately, since Covid, support for digitally excluded pupils has diminished. A lot of the devices were kept by schools as loan devices, which meant they had to be returned by pupils shortly after face-to-face learning resumed. Meanwhile, the cost of living crisis has made digital poverty even more widespread.
Elizabeth said: “We ended a period in the pandemic where things were very tough and a lot of services moved online so the pen and paper and face-to-face options disappeared, whether it was Government services or retail services or commercial services.
“Then we’ve hit the cost of living where people are less able than ever to afford the cost of being online. And this mismatch is pushing more people into digital poverty at a time when, in a rush to get everything online, people are being left behind.”
According to Citizen’s Advice, one million people have been forced to switch off their broadband due to financial pressures in the past year. A joint survey by YouGov, the DPA, and Currys also found that 36% of households cannot afford or are struggling to afford their broadband bills.
Of course, it’s important to note that digital poverty can come in all forms, as Elizabeth explains.
“There’s a myth that as long as you have a phone, you’re connected which simply isn’t true,” she said. “Not everyone has a smartphone or a connection. But even those who do, particularly from an educational perspective, if you’ve got a family of three kids and two smartphones,
1. That’s not everyone online.
and 2. You can’t realistically write essays, coursework, or CV preparation from a phone. You need a keyboard device.”
She continued: “We regularly speak to teachers, parents and indeed students about this. I actually met a group of students in the summer who we supplied with laptops, and it was heartbreaking to hear that they had been trying to do A-level coursework on smartphones outside the school environment. You cannot excel in education if part of your exam grades are based on coursework you’ve tried to write on a mobile phone.
“Additionally, all sorts of educational attainment have been shown to improve, even reading improves when people have that laptop and they have that ability to find tools and applications that can help them generate their confidence.”
If your child or pupil is experiencing digital exclusion, there are schemes all around the country that can help. Elizabeth says these schemes are often poorly signposted and therefore she encourages parents/teachers to get in touch with the DPA who can advise them on support available in their areas as well as social tariffs for broadband.
“A number of charities support device donation,” she said. “We do that and we have partners at the National Device Bank who do that as well. There are also other charities such as the Trussell Trust who we know are working more in the device and data arena.
“In addition, there’s a scheme called Get Online At Home which when it was first set up focused very much on supporting families on low incomes with the highly subsidised, refurbished kit. But they now also work with schools.”
Another organisation worth checking out is Every Child Online. This charity receives unused devices from companies which are then distributed to school children.