Digital Poverty and its Impact on Education Inequality

In the time of COVID-19 lockdowns, it's become more apparent than ever that the digital divide has a serious impact on learning for disadvantaged children. 

Many families are living in digital poverty, making online education inaccessible to those who need it most. Not to mention, two academic years have been disrupted due to the pandemic, leaving many disadvantaged children further behind in their studies than ever before. 

This will inevitably lead to both short-term and long-term problems as children progress through the rest of their academic careers, as well as future jobs and interactions. 

We’re exploring the digital divide’s contribution to the growing attainment gap and looking at ways to support people in the UK living in digital poverty.

What is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide is the gap between students and families who have access to the internet at home via digital devices and those who don't.

This was a problem long before COVID-19 and remote learning, but the need for constant internet access for remote learning has highlighted the stark reality of the digital divide. 

Despite Government attempts to deliver laptops to all those in need, teachers have said that only 5% of pupils in state schools had access to a device compared with 54% in private schools.

Digital Poverty

Digital poverty is the term used to refer to those who live without, or with very minimal, access to the internet and digital technologies capable of connecting to it.

Typically, parents of middle-class families are able to provide enough internet-accessible devices for their children. As a result, when it comes to online learning, these children are able to access lessons, resources and support, almost as they would in person. 

Researchers have found that 40% of children in middle class families were managing 5 hours or more of on-line learning compared to 26% from working class households.

Some children are able to access online lessons

A recent report by The Sutton Trust shows that the socio-economic gap persists and has widened the gap between disadvantaged children and their classmates.

Disadvantaged children often live ‘below the poverty line’. They may have parents who are on low wages, benefits or disability allowances which provide limited finances. Some parents may only be able to provide one or two digital devices per household, with many having no devices at all. Subsequently, these disadvantaged pupils become digitally excluded from their learning since they no longer have access to their classes.  

Why is there an accessibility problem? 

Many people who are financially comfortable and have access to several devices may not understand why digital poverty is a problem at all. But there are many reasons:

  1. First, children in families who can't afford one or more digital devices may not have computers or tablets at all, or may not have accessible internet. 
  2. Children who live in rural areas often don't have fast internet connection (which is necessary for video-based classes) meaning they struggle to access their online learning 
  3. Many parents are working from home right now using their own computers to work. If there is only one device in the household, it’s a question of earning money or allowing children to learn - clearly, they need to choose the money to provide for their family.
  4. Often, families have multiple school-aged children in one household, all doing remote learning at the same time. Since the average number of laptops in UK households is 1.3, there cannot be more than one person at a time using a computer.

The reality of digital poverty

In the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers report that more than a third of their students learning from home would not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning. This is supported by research that indicates in 2018-2019, there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK; that's 30% of children, or nine in a classroom of 30 (almost a third).

Approximately two thirds of students expected to have laptop access at home

The number of students who experience digital poverty varies by area. That said, in Manchester alone, over 180,000 students are living below the breadline. 

In the time before COVID-19, all students had access to devices at school or at libraries. This meant that they could stay after school if they needed to complete any online work, or they could go to a public library.

Now, with everything locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, these solutions are no longer available. 

Which children are most affected by the digital divide? 

Students from lower income families

These children are often part of Free School Meals (FSM) programmes, so whilst experiencing difficulties with their online learning, they also face the risk of going hungry.

Not all children live in homes where they get three full meals per day; they rely on schools to provide their main meal at lunchtime.

Students without adequate food don't perform as well as their peers in school. Currently, 60% of non-FMS pupils achieve five or more A*–C grades at GCSE, compared with just 33% of those who do get free school meals. This already stark contrast is only being exacerbated by remote learning. 

Students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

SEND students are also struggling and at risk of falling through the cracks since their specialist in-school support is not available. Under normal circumstances, SEND students would have access to extra classes, one-on-one learning and nurture environments so each child is able to get the best possible education. 

With limited device access, parents carry all of the burdens of teaching

When these children learn at home, they struggle more than others. Even if they have parents available to help them, these parents aren't usually qualified professionals who know how to teach to cater specifically to their child's needs.

The situation is intensified  when the students do not have access to a device, making the attainment gap wider for them because of lost learning. 

Impact on the future of our children

We rely on the children of our nation to build a better future. The children of today are the adults of tomorrow. They're responsible for creating a thriving community in which everyone is able to "do their part" for society.

For children to become successful adults, they need adequate education. These children who aren't able to learn online (and even ones who can) are missing out on important skills which will help them acquire jobs, move onto higher education and achieve social mobility.

Many things that children need to be able to do in order to lead successful and productive lives to rely on their grades in school. Poor performance leads to a bleak future, which perpetuates cycles of poverty. Government has promised to improve social mobility (find some evidence) enabling disadvantaged communities to break this cycle. However this pandemic has not just taken lives but we are now at risk of it taking away the futures of children from the most disadvantaged in society. Education is a critical component in the fight to improve social mobility, and we as a nation will fall behind again affecting another generation if things are not addressed to make up for lost learning,

How is Learning Hive helping disadvantaged children

So, how do you help your children thrive in an environment that isn't conducive to learning? 

At Learning Hive, we understand the struggle that disadvantaged students face when it comes to online classes. The impact on learning has dire outcomes that we want to help mitigate. 

Because of this, we've partnered with Barnado's to provide fully-funded tuition and online support through their See, Hear, Respond programme, which is fully funded by the Department for Education.  

This programme enables us to support children who are in need of high-quality learning programmes and may otherwise be at-risk. We’ve combined learning with STEM and drama workshops, as well as health and wellbeing sessions, to ensure that we not only help young people re-integrate into education but also reduce mental health problems.  

Family members are encouraged to join in the sessions

We are especially dedicated to supporting young people from BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee) backgrounds since they are more likely to be in poverty: 46% now live in poverty, compared with 26% of children in White British families.

Additionally, we’ve distributed 147 laptops to schools across London to help combat digital exclusion. These have been distributed to those most in need of digital devices so more children are able to access education. 

Through these efforts, we hope to start closing the digital divide. We’re committed to creating digital inclusion and helping young people across the UK access online learning.

Closing the digital divide starts with us

All children deserve to have a high-quality education and we want to help. 

Whether you're a parent, a teacher, and administrator, or several of these things, you know how crucial it is that all children have equal access to a good education. This is harder now than ever.

We’re on a mission to highlight the struggles that many experience whilst navigating this digital world and to support disadvantaged children with their learning.

Register for our Barnardo’s programme that will help the children in our community thrive in a time of remote learning.

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