The school closures, may be good for public health, but are seriously affecting pupils’ learning and the ones bearing the brunt of it are those who are already very disadvantaged. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that by the end of May children in the poorest families will have received a week and a half less home learning than their better off-peers. In parts of my constituency child poverty was as high as 48% before this crisis and has only gotten worse. I have spoken to schools in my constituency who are on front-line of this crisis and what they have told me is very moving.
The digital divide expresses itself in a number of ways but adds up to the same result – that children are excluded from the education they deserve. Many households do not have enough devices for each child. One head said ‘whilst I welcome the Government’s offer, it has come very late – which suggests the Government seriously underestimated the deprivation we see on a day to day basis’. Unfortunately, very few of the children without devices will qualify for Department for Education’s scheme to provide free laptops and internet access the scheme due to its very limited criteria. For those who do qualify it is unclear, two months after schools closed, when they will receive the devices they so urgently need.
Students who live in the 7% households in the UK without internet access are even more excluded. Staff quickly and reached out to all families to assess connectivity but have found it ‘difficult to gauge the actual poverty facing many’ as families are reluctant to share details as they are ashamed. Where they have devices are in data poverty as they cannot afford data. At last week’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Helen Milner OBE, Chief Executive of digital and social inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation said ‘we do know right now there are people who are choosing between data and food’. Schools have many ‘more requests regarding free school meals’ but not all families in dire straits will qualify so staff are dropping-off food parcels. Some well-resourced schools have been able to ensure their students can access learning by supply their existing laptops, provide dongles or money for increased data costs to students but in schools with widespread poverty this is just not possible.
Some schools report around 40% of their students are not accessing the work set. Parents are doing their best whilst balancing many plates but ‘have struggled and required a lot of support to connect and communicate’. Non-native speakers are not always able to assist their children which is another challenge. Children from asylum-seeking backgrounds have been particularly affected as the network of charities that families rely on for food and other necessities are, in many cases, closed. Schools have hired support staff who can communicate in families’ first languages and have made dual language learning paper packs as these families have no access to devices at all. Without universal provision of devices and connectivity the gap between those who have been able to focus on learning and those who have not is widening every day and it will fall to staff to try and close it when schools do reopen.
These efforts, whilst helpful, do not solve all the barriers disadvantaged children face. Headteachers tell me that many families live in overcrowded, ‘cramped conditions and [children] do not have access to spaces in which to learn’ and often are without ‘devices on which [they can] share their learning and their thoughts and feelings’. Safeguarding was raised again and again as now being ‘essentially 24/7’ requiring huge efforts to connect with each student with ‘weekly calls’ and regular emails. Distressingly, there are far ‘more domestic violence alerts’ and there are concerns about the emotional and social costs of the lockdown for all pupils but especially for those for whom school signalled safety.
Staff care deeply about their student’s education and wellbeing but the abrupt shift to online learning has left many feeling ‘overwhelmed’. They are overseeing the children still in school, setting and marking work and ensuring the children at home are not falling under the radar as well as managing their personal lives. The digital divide extends to them too with NASUWT, the teacher’s union, reporting 36% of their surveyed members had not been provided with the IT equipment they needed to work from home.
The costs are not only emotional but also financial and many schools are very worried about the cost of making sure their pupils’ needs are met. According to the Institute for Financial Studies in the ten years between 2009-10 and 2019-20 spending per pupil fell by 8% in real terms. In 2020 schools in Newcastle upon Tyne faced a £9.6 million funding shortfall and after a decade of cuts there isn’t room for any more. They have to spend the money needed to ensure that no child is left behind during the crisis but have had no reassurances about what this will mean for their budgets in the future and are concerned.
This crisis has only exposed the existing inequalities and the digital divide is clearer than ever. Those pupils may be out of sight but they are not out of mind and the staff in Newcastle’s schools are working hard to make sure that no child, or family, is left behind but the scale of the problem is daunting. Disadvantaged children deserve opportunity and a great education is key to that. However, they should not have to choose between safety and an education that will open doors, builds confidence and give them a strong foundation on which they can build a future. Urgent action is needed to ensure that all children, whatever their parent’s bank balance, can access it.