Home schooling: For many families, the digital divide is quickly becoming a chasm

More laptops and tablets are being sent out to children struggling with remote education - but teachers say kids have already lost valuable learning.

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Thousands of school children are missing out on valuable education because they can't participate in online learning.

Image: iStock

The UK government has received an additional 300,000 laptops that it plans to send to disadvantaged schoolchildren forced to learn from home during the country's third national COVID-19 lockdown.

Figures published from the UK's Department for Education (DfE) on January 12 reported that 702,226 Windows laptops and tablets, Chromebooks and iPads had been sent to schools and local authorities since the introduction of the Get Help with Technology programme in May 2020.

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It said that a further 139,805 devices had been sent to schools and colleges since January 4, with the DfE having pledged to have dispatched a total of 750,000 devices to those in need by the end of this week.

The additional 300,000 devices come at a cost of £100 million, meaning the government has spent a total of £400 million on tablets, laptops and connectivity equipment since the start of the Get Help with Technology scheme. 

DfE faces mounting pressure from teachers and parents as some children remain without means of connecting to lessons in what is now the second week of the UK school term.

Under its current proposal, devices and other connectivity equipment – such as routers – are set to be distributed to schools and local authorities over the course of the 2020-2021 academic year, which ends on July 22, 2021. This has led to concerns that some schools may not receive any devices until well into the school year.

Speaking to TechRepublic last week, Nick Davies, programme director for UK thinktank the Institute for Government, said children stood a greater chance of permanently falling behind the longer they went without support.

"The more children who are without access to remote lessons, and the longer that goes on, the more money that is going to be needed to support those children to catch up, and indeed the greater the likelihood is that some children will never entirely catch up," he said.

"What impact is that going to have on their long-term career prospects, happiness, educational opportunities? What longer-term impact is that going to have on the UK economy, and on the treasury's coffers?"

Sent vs received

There is no clear indication of how many devices have actually been received by school pupils to date: the 702,226 figure provided by DfE relates to laptops and tablets that have been either 'delivered' or 'dispatched'.

As such, the figures make no distinction between devices that have been shipped and those that have actually been received by children. Documentation from DfE states that figures provided by the Department are "not representative of devices reaching children", adding that that DfE "does not hold centrally recorded information on the onward distribution to families and children."

It adds: "From the point of delivery to the school or college, that school or college is responsible for distributing the devices to disadvantaged children."

The UK government is targeting 1.3 million school children under the Get Help with Technology programme, with a DfE spokesperson telling TechRepublic that it had determined the number of devices needed based on data on the number of children in the country who receive free school meals.

As schools wait on vital equipment for remote learning, the digital divide in UK homes continues to widen under the pandemic.

According to research published this week by UK social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust, only one in 10 teachers report that all of their students have adequate access to a device for remote learning, with 17% saying that more than one in five of their pupils don't have such access. Similarly, just 10% of teachers reported that all of their pupils had access to the internet for learning.

The figures also indicate that tech inequality has worsened since the introduction of the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. In private schools, more than half (54%) of teachers report that all of their students now have devices, compared to 42% in the last lockdown. In state schools, this figure only rose marginally, from 4% in March 2020 to 5% in January 2021.

SEE: Technology in education: The latest products and trends (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

Similarly, 51% of teachers in private schools report that all of their students have internet access, compared to just 5% at state schools. In the country's most deprived schools, 21% of teachers says that more than 1 in 5 students lack internet – compared to just 3% in the most affluent state schools and just 1% in private schools.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said that despite efforts by the government to improve digital equality amongst schools, "the picture has barely changed" since March.

"Those without access to a laptop and a good internet connection have already lost valuable learning, which could damage their chances in life for years to come. Quite simply, it would be a tragedy if we let this happen again," he said. 

"Despite the heroic efforts of teachers, many pupils still face being left behind because of digital poverty. The government has made some positive steps, but they must go further and faster to ensure that every child has the resources they need to learn while schools remain closed."

Boys more likely to struggle  

Separate research by the University of Sussex illustrated the struggles faced by parents with children trying to learn from home.

Boys from disadvantaged families were found to be particularly likely to find home learning a challenge. Among primary school pupils, boys were 7% more likely than girls to be doing an hour or less a day of home learning (30% vs 23%), while boys of secondary school age were 4% more likely to be doing only one hour or less a day (17% vs 13%).

Researchers also identify what they labelled a "chasm" between the support available to children in private education, and those who attended state-run schools. Independent schools were more than twice as likely as state schools to offer online pupil-teacher interactions, and nearly five times more likely to provide opportunities for online interaction with other children.

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Lewis Doyle, doctoral researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex and co-author of the report, said: "In line with our previous research, these results suggest that the school closures may adversely affect economically disadvantaged children to a greater extent than their more privileged peers, thus driving further distance between the two groups in terms of educational attainment and future life outcomes. 

"School closures, while clearly necessary during this public health crisis, risk entrenching inequality." 

In a statement, UK education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said the government was "doing everything in [its] power to support schools with high-quality remote education."

Williamson added: "These additional devices, on top of the 100,000 delivered last week, add to the significant support we are making available to help schools deliver high-quality online learning, as we know they have been doing."

The government has also published a "remote education framework" to support schools and colleges with delivering education for pupils who are learning from home, which it has designed to help teachers "identify the strengths and areas for improvement in the lessons and teaching they provide remotely, and points towards resources that can help them improve where needed."

The frameworks should be adapted by schools and colleges to fit their individual context, it said.

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