The conversation on the digital skills shortfall typically centres around older age groups. However, Nominet Trust, a leading UK tech for good funder, is focusing its efforts on the disadvantaged youth (aged 15-24).
According to the 2017 Basic Digital Skills report, despite an overall increase in the number of UK adults that have gained basic digital skills, at least 3% - or 300,000 - of those in that younger age bracket are being left behind.
Nominet Trust is investing £600,000 and launching a number of initiatives with local partners to take on this challenge of upskilling disadvantaged youths, in the hope that this will inspire other organisations to invest. It believes that to help reach all 300,000 disadvantaged young people that need educating in digital, it will cost approximately £27 million.
The programme is being dubbed Digital Reach.
I got the chance to speak to Chris Ashworth, Nominet Trust’s programme director, ahead of the launch of the initiative, where he explained why it is important to not leave these 300,000 youngsters behind when it comes to digital. On some of the challenges they face, Ashworth explained:
They've got circumstantial barriers like they've been part of the care and criminal justice system, there's drug and alcohol abuse in the home, a lot of young people are kind of sofa surfing or at risk of homelessness, so there seems to be a very strong correlation between chronic disadvantage and people without basic digital skills.
We looked at the type of approaches that were going on and they don't work for most disadvantaged people. The type of organizations that we would normally see working on those sorts of issues and looking after disadvantaged people are kind of conspicuous by their absence. If it was another social issue you'd expect to see some of the larger charities and youth organizations supporting them.
We went to the people we think have got the most trusted relationships and asked them if they can come up with solutions to this problem. They're the experts in young people. If we can pair them up with people who've got expertise in digital skills then we might've cracked the code.
Over the next nine months the following organisations will be working on the following pilots, in association with Nominet and using the £600,000 funding, to help improve the digital capability amongst 4,000 disadvantaged youths.
• Action for Children: Action for Children (ACF) will digitise their current paper-based content across three employability programmes in severely deprived urban areas in Scotland.
• Carers Trust: Carers Trust will work with Good Things Foundation to develop an e-learning resource for young adult carers as an extension to Learn My Way (the most widely used tool for digital skills delivered through libraries and community organisations). Eight Carers Trust Network Partners will use the resource to help young adult carers gain the basic digital skills they need to achieve their aspirations.
• Home-Start and #techmums: Home-Start and #techmums will collaborate to help 500 young mothers acquire basic digital skills to overcome the challenges they face in their daily lives, helping them become more confident and to achieve their personal and professional goals.
• The Children’s Society and City & Guilds Group: The Children’s Society and City & Guilds will engage 550 young people across the Midlands and the North of England by helping them to improve their digital skills through accredited course development.
• UK Youth: UK Youth will use the investment to create Digital Hubs in 10 member organisations, training a youth worker and three young people to become Digital Champions. They will then work with referral and outreach partners to support the most isolated young people that are engaged with the Digital Hubs.
• Wales Co-operative Centre, YMCA Swansea, Llamau and GISDA: Wales Co-Operative Centre will work with YMCA Swansea, Llamau and GISDA to engage 375 of the ‘hardest to reach’ young people across Wales through a series of workshops and by incorporating digital literacy into existing life skills programmes.
Commenting on the launch of Digital Reach, the Rt Hon. Matt Hancock MP, Minister of State for Digital, said:
We are committed to closing the digital skills gap, giving everyone the knowledge and confidence to prosper in the modern economy. The work being done by Nominet Trust's Digital Reach project, along with the Government's Digital Skills Partnership, will play a pivotal role in encouraging and inspiring young people to find the training they need and identify digital job vacancies for them.
Not an easy problem to solve
Ashworth explained that he wants the work being carried out under the Digital Reach programme to be measured over the nine month period, so that Nominet Trust can establish how much of an impact it has made on the people it is interacting with. It is working with the London School of Economics on an appropriate evaluation model and will be having conversations with the young people involved throughout the programme.
We're going to speak to them at the start of the program and see where they're at - what their basic digital skills are, see how confident they are, what their level of resilience is, because obviously technology's going to move on at a rapid pace and we need to make sure their skills are in place for now and in the future.
It takes a long time to measure where people arrive at because of this, but we're measuring the distance of travel all along the way. In nine months time we'll know what they've acquired. We can ask them whether it's improved their confidence, their resilience and then further on from that through the organizations we're working with.This is one aspect of their life that we’re going to improve. We hope it's that nudge that leads to better things.
Ashworth said that Nominet Trust is going to try and figure out what works from the pilots and then carry on investing in the ones that see the best results. However, the real purpose of the programme is to incentivise other organisations to invest more money, as Nominet Trust can’t reach all 300,000 disadvantaged young people on its own. He said:
We hope it's a call to people to watch, scrutinize us, see what works and then I hope, when they're thinking about budgeting for digital skills, because there's a lot of money out there, that they consider this approach as well. Or consider the merits of it and put some of the organizations that we're helping out in the shop window, put them at the top of their thinking because we hope we're saying they're the experts in young people.
I don't think we could afford to reach the whole three hundred thousand. As much as we'd love to do that, it costs about £27m.
Nominet Trust also acknowledges that this isn’t going to be easy and that simply throwing money at the situation won’t solve the problem. Ashworth said that partnering with organisations, as it has chosen to do, is the best approach because they best understand the lives of the people involved and how to improve their current situation. However, Ashworth admits that it’s not going to be easy. He said:
These organizations have got real expertise and I think what they said early on, when we've been in lots of conversations with them, is that when you're working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people, they've got really complex lives. The program's nice and steady and runs over so many weeks but, it's a disruption to their lives. You might not have a relationship with them for one month, three months, six months because of whatever circumstances that you can't control. They're going through some pretty heavy stuff.
So we may have to be patient about some of the young people and about the things that are affecting them. And that's the biggest risk. So we have a degree of patience on certain areas, which we kind of built in and are anticipating but it's going to be a challenge.