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Mind the gap: bridging London’s tech divide

Lockdown school closures brought the gulf between the connected and the unconnected into sharp relief. Georgina Fuller finds out what we can all do to help

<p>New era: Connectivity is more important than ever post the pandemic</p>

New era: Connectivity is more important than ever post the pandemic

/ Peter Quinnell/Debut Art
01 July 2021

It will come as a surprise to precisely no one to learn that during the pandemic we have spent more time than ever glued to our screens, a fact now confirmed by a study from communications regulator fcom.

But things aren’t as clear cut as you might think. The Online Nation 2021 report also showed that lockdown had magnified the “digital divide” and, with one in 10 households having no access to the internet during school closures, turned it into a pressing socio-economic issue.

Unicef said school closures meant that millions of children faced a “catastrophic education emergency” and warned in March that one in seven pupils had missed more than three-quarters of classroom learning over the previous year. So what has the impact been in London?

Matthew Clark, head teacher at the Robert Fitzroy Academy (RFA) in Croydon, says: “We are probably seeing the most prominent learning gaps among vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils lower down the school in Key Stage 1, where it was more difficult for children to access remote learning independently.”

Clark adds that although many pupils initially thrived back in the classroom, the long-term impact of having been away from school has become apparent. “Some pupils, predominantly in Years 3 to 6, are displaying reduced self-confidence and increased anxiety,” he says.

To counteract this, RFA are trying to strengthen teacher confidence and expertise around mental health awareness, and investing in additional counselling for pupils. They know it’s not going to be a quick fix though. “Children have lost clarity and certainty around school life. We must rebuild their trust so they understand school will not be cancelled again at the drop of a hat,” Clark says. “This is especially important for our most disadvantaged pupils.”

And let’s not forget the impact all those months of home-schooling had on working parents too. Damian Beeley, a father of three from Herne Hill, says the first lockdown was a “nightmare”. “No disrespect to the schools but they were unprepared. The virtual learning was ad hoc and probably the best they could offer in the absence of any serious planning, but no one really knew what they were doing.” His family needed five laptops as both Beeley and his wife were working from home. “We only had three computers so initially we all had to share screens. This was exacerbated by wi-fi issues. We only had two rooms with decent wi-fi and all five us had to cram into them to work,” he says.

The most prominent learning gaps are among younger disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils

Charlotte Bunyan, a mother of two and co-founder of Twixt, a parenting support website, says she found the second lockdown more challenging. “My 12-year-old took over our sitting room and was trying to juggle between her phone, my iPad and an old laptop,” she says. “Meanwhile my husband and I took turns so one of us was always there to help my nine year old as she struggled with the pre-recorded lessons, perched at the kitchen table.”

One of the worst things was the sheer volume of printing required, Bunyan says. “We’re still writing shopping lists on the back of those worksheets!”

Many parents gave a sigh of relief when it was announced that schools would be reopening in March — but what is the Government doing to help address the learning gap from the pandemic? In May, the Department for Education pledged a £1.4billion package, including £1 billion over three years for additional tutoring. This amounts to an extra £50 per pupil a year. Summer camps and a longer school day were also proposed as part of the catch-up programme. But many experts, including the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Sutton Trust, a social mobility think tank, did not think that was enough. The learning gap was further heightened during the lockdowns as many private schools carried on having live lessons through the day, while some state schools could not offer any online learning at all.

The EPI said the Government’s proposals were a “fraction” of the budget schools needed. “Based on expected levels of learning loss, and taking into account the typical expenditure on schools, an education recovery funding package of around £13.5billion will be required by the Government,” the EPI said. The institute pointed out that the US government had announced a $122 billion rescue plan for schools. An equivalent per head rate in England would be about £15.5 billion.

Here in the capital, Mayor Sadiq Khan has launched a taskforce to tackle digital exclusion. As part of this, London Grid for Learning provided 200,000 low-cost laptops for schools. Tackling the divide was already something on the Mayor’s agenda — City Hall’s first Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, was appointed in 2017 — but the pandemic has meant he has had to step up his efforts. Khan has allocated £1.5 million over the next two years to work with the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) to help Londoners access the devices and skills they need to get online.

Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the EPI, says: “Given these present-day disparities in the home learning environment, targeted programmes to tackle digital exclusion like the London Taskforce are very encouraging to see.” However, Andrews is not sure if such schemes will address the educational divide between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. “Tackling these gaps will require concerted efforts and an ambitious, well-funded national programme of support over several years. The Government’ off what is required to undo the damage to pupils’ learning,” he says.

Refugees can provide a huge, untapped market of talent but they need to have the digital skills to do so

One of the tenets of the London Recovery Programme — launched in February by Khan and London Councils Chair Georgia Gould in partnership with local authorities, businesses and non-governmental bodies — is to ensure every Londoner has access to good connectivity, basic digital skills and the device or support they need to be online by 2025. Yet a report by the University of Liverpool estimated that there are still about 3.2 million people in London who are entirely offline or are limited users of the internet. So how will the London Recovery Programme’s aims be achieved?

Sutton Trust CEO James Turner points out that digital exclusion is not solely about having access to a laptop and that it doesn’t just affect children.

“Many poorer families struggle with the costs of a good internet connection and a quiet space to work. The Mayor’s plan is a good next step, but it’s important that practical solutions are put in place. As a start we’d like to see educational websites excluded from data allowances on an ongoing basis so that cost is no barrier to accessing the best online learning,” he says.

Malathy Muthu, project manager at Skills Enterprise, a charity supporting vulnerable people in East Ham, says it’s not just a lack of income that traps people in poverty. “It’s a lack of knowledge — lack of digital skills, lack of conversational English and a combination of these leading to unemployment and welfare benefit dependency.”

Society is, Muthu says, becoming increasingly digitalised but there is a danger that whole communities are being left behind. “Managing and applying for benefits, utility bills and the healthcare sector are all virtual. Covid also highlighted that being digitally excluded means putting people’s health at risk when GP appointments in many boroughs switched to online only. The online world has ample opportunities, from educational, employability and financial benefits. However, digital access is a luxury unavailable to many.”

Better training is needed to help people upskill, Muthu says. “We also need more practical workshops on digital technology for children to help develop their entrepreneurial skills and stronger links to tech companies.”

Raj Burman, CEO of the Techfugees Foundation UK, which helps provide refugees with digital skills and training, says that they have held a number of “hackathons” in the capital to help give refugees a greater understanding of how to navigate the online system. “There’s a misconception that refugees are stuck in the Fifties and don’t know how to use a mobile phone but that’s really not the case. They are far more likely to be digital natives,” he says. What they need help with is accessing essential services for employment, housing and health. But compared with other cities in Europe, London is ahead of the game, Burman says. “There is lots of information and support available and refugees can provide a huge, untapped market of talent, but they need to have the skills to do so.”

Many schools and councils have put ongoing provision in place to ensure children don’t continue to fall behind. A number of private schools have also collaborated with state schools to help tackle the issue of wellbeing. Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, for example, partnered with 12 local primary schools to set up a tutoring scheme called the Attain programme. It has also joined forces with Hammersmith & Fulham council to provide holiday camps aimed at supporting the mental wellbeing of the most vulnerable families in the area. “They have provided over 100 children with a memorable ‘antidote to lockdown’, learning new skills from some of the best experienced facilitators. This is something that we are looking to continue and hopefully expand in the future,” a spokeswoman said.

Westminster City Council also set up the Digital Futures project last year and fundraised to provide 750 devices to school children and borough residents. City firm Deloitte has donated an impressive 7,500 laptops to schools, charities and local families.

If there is one good thing to come out of the pandemic, it is perhaps the opportunity it has given us to pause and reflect on what’s best for the future. We know that London is a renowned technology hub and that digital inclusion matters for everyone, for everything from finances to family to jobs and career opportunities to health and wellbeing. Having online access, decent wi-fi and the skills to use it provides a more level-playing field for everyone. And if the lockdowns have highlighted how vital it is to bridge the digital gap, that’s one small silver lining.