Paul Finnis, CEO of Learning Foundation and Digital Poverty Alliance
As we learn to live with the virus and establish a new way of life that allows children to continue their education, the true impact of the pandemic is only just emerging.
At the height of the pandemic in 2019, only 65% of children managed to reach expected standard of Key Stage 2 reading, writing and maths levels. With many children being forced to adjust to remote learning, admirable efforts to help children boost their academic circumstances saw many schools prioritise their students’ access to digital resources. These vital efforts to equip children struggling to adapt to a challenging new learning environment nevertheless left one important group neglected – teachers.
A Digital Poverty Alliance report last year showed that only 53% of teachers working at schools with high numbers of children from low-income backgrounds had adequate access to digital equipment and would be suitably prepared for home working. These forgotten teachers were living in digital poverty.
Digital poverty has affected families across the UK long before the COVID-19 outbreak. A previous Cambridge University study found that 22% of the UK’s population did not have basic digital skills and internet access even before the pandemic. The sudden shift to home working and online school exposed the severity of digital poverty across the UK.
Many schemes were set up during the pandemic to help provide children with essential digital access, but there was little focus on ensuring that teachers had the fundamental skills and digital access they needed to help the children make academic progress.
Children living in poverty are already significantly disadvantaged academically, this combined with a lack of digital resources has built up even more pressure for teachers trying to support them when they themselves may lack not just equipment, but also connectivity and skills to pass on to their pupils.
With the help of Currys and the Learning Foundation, the Digital Poverty Alliance launched the Tech4Teachers scheme last year, and 1,000 more teachers throughout the UK now have access to new digital equipment and support. Now just 6 months later, we are hearing back from some of the participating schools, who have shared just how much of a difference these contributions can make for both teachers and children.
The Head of School at All Saint’s Primary school in Barnet, Holly Skinner, shared the importance of helping schools with low budgets provide their teachers with essential digital equipment. She said, “We have now been able to give each class teacher a laptop to support them with their role. This would not have been possible without this programme- we simply would not have been able to afford it.”
The scheme was also able to help replace 10 laptops for the teachers at Lever Park Academy, SEMH (Social, Emotional Mental Health) special school. The school helps students that have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), OOD (Oppositional defiant disorder), mental health issues, attachment disorders as well as learning and physical issues. Head Teacher, Matthew Taylor, explained that their teachers often relocate to accommodate to students who may need to be taught from home. He said, “Being a teacher is a challenge, to enable staff to produce the high quality of work that is expected we need to equip them with the best, your laptops will balance out these inequalities.”
The digital divide is not new, but its consequences were magnified during the pandemic. For many children in the UK, having access to a high-quality device and a stable internet connection has made all the difference to their academic achievements.
We can combat digital poverty and help supply devices for teachers across the UK using a combination of government and independent schemes. Teachers will hopefully be relieved of some of the pressure they are under as a result of the pandemic’s impact on children’s academic performance if they have access to updated digital technology.
With no certain end in sight to COVID-19, we must prepare and equip teachers so that they can continue to provide a sustainable education to children no matter the circumstances. Equipping teachers with the correct digital devices and ensuring that they are able to teach no matter what is thrown their way is just the beginning of what will hopefully be the end of digital poverty in the UK.