The forced closures of schools over the past 12 months have highlighted once again that the digital divide is a genuine problem with long term consequences for people across Britain. Students living within lower income households, which may not have the same access to laptops, tablets or the internet, have suffered the most during periods of remote learning, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This digital divide has not been helped by the Department for Education not having an existing plan in place to deal with such widespread disruption to the schooling system. Emergency plans existed for localised disruption, such as flooding, but there had been zero preparation for a pandemic situation prior to March 2020.
These are the findings from a new report released today by the National Audit Office (NAO), which found that the Department for Education has largely been in ‘reactive' mode during the pandemic and did not actually formulate an overarching response plan until June 2020 (two to three months after the first national lockdown).
That being said, the schooling system in the UK is devolved and the Department does not ‘control' schools - but does offer guidance, support and funding. The NAO also found that governments in other countries responded in a similar way and Britain outperformed some other European countries in its response to enable remote learning.
However, the key findings from the past year suggest that lower income students faced more of a set back compared to their higher income counterparts over the past year - and that the response from the government hasn't been entirely adequate.
The Department for Education started to publish guidance for parents, carers and teachers about remote learning on 19 April - a month after schools closed to most children. A number of bodies that the NAO consulted with were critical of this guidance, saying that it was lacking, or unhelpful, or issued too late.
In May, the Department then provided £500,000 to help fund Oak National Academy, which was intended to fill the gaps in remote learning provision and reduce the extent to which disadvantaged children fell behind their peers. It offers video lessons and other online resources to schools and pupils. In June the Department agreed to provide a further £4.34 million, so that the material on offer could be expanded for 2020/21 to cover the full curriculum.
However, putting resources online wasn't the only challenge. For many students from lower income families, access to equipment and internet provision was vital in order to keep up with their education.
The Department decided it would target the provision of IT equipment towards children most in need of support. However, questions remain whether the department went far enough.
In early April it considered providing laptops or tablets, as well as 4G routers with paid for internet access, for all vulnerable children and those in all priority groups who did not have access. According to estimates, this would have meant providing 602,000 laptops or tablets and 100,000 routers in total.
The Department decided it would be practically difficult to supply devices on this scale and decided in the end to provide equipment to all children with a social worker and care leavers, as well as disadvantaged students in year 10 only.
This reduced the supply numbers down to 220,000 laptops or tablets and 50,000 routers. The Department decided a competitive procurement would take too long, when there was already a lot of competition in the global market, and instead procured Computacenter to deliver the items via a direct award.
The contract to Computacenter for the devices was awarded on 19 April and was worth £70.4 million in the summer term, while the contract for the routers was awarded on 7 May and was worth £6.4 million.
However, according to the report, "substantial amounts of equipment did not reach local authorities and academy trusts until June, meaning that many children may not have been able to access remote learning until well into the second half of the summer term".
Provision of these goods has since been ramped up and to date the department has now delivered 617,000 times in total.
However, despite efforts on the government's part to get disadvantaged learners access to the digital tools they needed, the NAO found that children had contrasting experiences in terms of the learning resources schools provided and the level of contact they maintained.
A survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example, found that at secondary school level, the type of school-led provision varied by economic status. If found that:
82% of secondary pupils in private schools had received active help (such as online classes, or video and text chat), which 79% receiving online classes
But 64% of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest one-fifth of households were offered some form of active help, compared with 47% from the poorest one-fifth.
In addition to this, the IFS found:
Disadvantaged children are likely to have faced particular challenges in engaging with remote learning. The IFS found that children from disadvantaged families had less access to study space and IT equipment, and the activities they did were less likely to benefit their educational attainment.
It concluded that children from higher-income families spent around 30% more time on remote learning than children from lower-income families. The IFS projected that, if normal schooling did not return until September and these rates of remote learning continued, the gap would represent 15 full school days.
Moving forward, the NAO has recommended that the Department for Education conduct a full evaluation of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and that it also identify lessons for remote and online learning form innovative practice developed during the pandemic. We at diginomica today published a piece by Cath Everett on some of the digital lessons learned for the education sector, during COVID-19. However, the key takeaway here is that if income and the digital divide have a direct impact on learning - and that was true before the pandemic - but will have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The government needs to continue to support those from disadvantaged homes, so that huge swathes of children don't suffer the long term consequences.