The importance of digital inclusion for school children – Miriam Manderson, Headteacher, Rooks Heath School

I am no expert in all things digital. However what the past year and five months have shown me is how important and vividly clear the digital divide can become if we do not teach our children how to manage in a world where the understanding of this new digital domain is inevitable.

As secondary teachers, there are certain skills we assume our incoming Year 6 pupils, bright eyed and bushy tailed, expect to arrive with. The ability to read and write at the expected standard. A basic understanding of geographical concepts, exposure to a wide range of musical experiences and experience of sporting endeavours and competitions and the ability to use digital technology.

We also know all too well that there may be gaps and differentials between the students. However, never in my teaching career has it become more apparent that those children who came from schools which were ill-prepared for the lockdown will experience more anxiety about the next steps. Never mind the ordinary worries about the phenomenon which is detentions, anticipating lots of additional homework and assumptions of needing to show adept skills with state-of-the-art technology to accompany their lessons of similar degree, they now must face not knowing how well they will cope in the secondary arena which has moved at an exponential speed to master online learning platforms like never. Will it be Microsoft Teams, Google or another type of shared platform? Will they understand or be able to learn it quickly? Will they have had access to a device or simply the software.

To think that the hidden cost of disadvantage exists where the public do not see it is an understatement. Many of us have heard of ‘word poverty’ and the ‘vocabulary gap’ made famous by Alex Quigley amongst others. We know the importance of reading and acquiring vocabulary to access knowledge and using the digital screen has been shown to engage even the most reluctant readers in reading for pleasure or simply to access information, albeit that is more of interest to them personally than to fulfil the demands of their academic studies. Nevertheless, they are reading. The danger of course is that it goes too far. I recently heard a story of a primary teacher who handed out some books to read and a pupil proceeded to swipe. These were books, not kindles.

The use of technology in learning should lead to efficient access to knowledge and information, creative tasks being set and undertaken and an elimination of the fear of pressing the wrong buttons. Use of digital technology should be more than just swiping.

If schools are ill-equipped to master the use of technology, then so will the pupils in their care and the digital divide within and across children in different schools widens.

This is where the fusion one of two of my passions lie. The use of digital technology and diminishing disadvantage.

The digital divide begins before pupils at primary can step into secondary education confidently. Some will have been in schools where they were supported by tech-savvy leadership teams, able to lead, direct and implement the use of digital devices, incorporating adequate safeguarding measures and principles along the way. Others will have come from schools at the opposite end of the spectrum with staff who have ‘always done things in this way’, i.e. without recourse to the use of digital devices and they themselves clueless about what exists to deliver a curriculum through the medium of ICT.

I felt deeply moved when I saw the DfE’s call for schools to apply to have digital ambassadors from other schools. The government clearly recognised the extent of panic and uncertainty this caused as we can see from the provision of a grant to schools who had not even contemplated such shared online platforms as Microsoft SharePoint and Teams or Google.

If this drive has had any success at all, then what we should expect in the culmination of this is that the digital divide has been narrowed. Alongside this, is the reminder that the removal of digital poverty is an essential ingredient in all of this. Timely identification and intervention with those pupils who lack a device now needs to be a routine activity that fits into all primary school (and even secondary school) processes. It should not be at the behest of funding. Primary schools will need to prioritise a leader of this area to ensure pupils are properly tracked and monitored so no one is left behind.

Amongst the pupils who are now in primary education, learning through technology should become as easy as writing with a book and pen. It should feel normal and by secondary education, every child should be enabled to navigate online safely, competently and in a way that enhances their access to information and in turn, knowledge.

Children are digital natives. Today, it is not unusual to see babies intuitively tap their way to view their favourite TV programmes on an iPad or toddlers manipulate mobile phones as if they were born attached to their hands. If primary schools are deprived of opportunities and resources to enable their staff to skill up, we risk losing some of our workforce along the way. The rate at which things are changing means the digital literacy needs to begin immediately. It can be motivating and is definitely fun. It is also exciting to think of how the use of technology in young minds, together with the other academia they accumulate is leading to some developing into young ‘Bill Gates’ in terms of their ability to see where technology can take us.

“The limitations of my mind are the limitations of my world” is a quote I have read. We can easily adapt this quote to read, “The limitations of access to digital learning are limitations of our digital world”.

It doesn’t matter which platform primary schools use to help pupils discover, experiment with and learn about accessing and manipulating information online. What matters is that all pupils are truly included in the drive, are equipped with the skills to engage in the use of digital technology whenever and wherever they may be required to and to allow them to progress, grow and thrive in our modern digital world.

Opinion piece brought to you by Kajeet – They can help to find the right solution for your school to keep all students connected for learning wherever they choose to study.