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Digital divide – Why external partnerships are vital for closing learning gaps

Closing the attainment gaps that have opened up during lockdown will require schools to forge supportive external partnerships, says Nayeer Afzal

  • Digital divide – Why external partnerships are vital for closing learning gaps

The reopening of schools has restored a welcome sense of structure to pupils’ learning and daily lives.

At the same time, however, the digital divide between disadvantaged children and their peers has become wider and more severe, to the point where the former’s future prospects are going to be significantly impacted if steps aren’t taken to address it.

The past year’s school closures and moves to remote learning have thrown the issue into sharp relief, with many young people now further behind in their studies than ever before.

What is the digital divide?

To close this digital divide, we must embrace a holistic approach that ensures disadvantaged pupils can obtain better access to devices, both in school and at home, while providing them with the personalised support they’ll need to catch up.

The government’s catch-up funding and National Tutoring Programme have both offered welcome support, but schools, trusts and tuition providers will need to forge partnerships and go the extra mile if the divide is to be tackled in the long term.

More affluent families are generally able to provide their children with sufficiently capable internet-connected devices, which has been instrumental in helping them access online learning and resources during school closures, and continues to be pivotal in assisting them with homework tasks.

In contrast, disadvantaged children will often live below the poverty line. Their parents may be on low wages, with multiple school-aged children at home, and unable to afford enough devices for everyone.

One recent study found that 40% of children in middle class families were completing five plus hours of online learning, compared to just 26% in working-class households. Another found that in the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers reported more than a third of their students not having adequate access to device for home learning.

Long-term learning impact

Without regular access to digital tools, these children will miss out on developing the skills that can otherwise help them become more tech-savvy, acquire a job, move into higher education and attain social mobility.

There are, however, some steps we can take to help narrow the divide and build a better future for children of all backgrounds. Addressing digital poverty will require us to combine easier access to technology with tailored support for those pupils who need it most.

The government’s efforts at delivering laptops to disadvantaged students have been welcome, and gone some way towards alleviating the challenges many face. That’s something that we at Learning Hive, alongside many other organisations, have also been engaged in, in order to tackle the problem in the short term. Now, however, further efforts are needed to ensure the impact of these measures can be maximised.

A new laptop or iPad can go a long way towards engaging pupils and firing their imaginations, but true success will only come from being able to deliver a comprehensive programme of support. That includes in-person teaching, as well as fully-funded, after- school tuition carried out in partnership with teachers and schools – Barnardo’s See, Hear, Respond Partnership service has been an excellent example of this.

Such schemes should undoubtedly be focused on core subjects, but it’s also important that enriching disciplines such as drama, STEM and health and wellbeing are covered too.

All young people deserve a high standard of education, and digital poverty should never be a barrier to that. There are many challenges ahead that schools will need to tackle – but simply being back in the school environment itself is a major plus. A coordinated and proactive approach will now be required to help pupils catch up fully.


Nayeer Afzal is programme director at the after-school learning provider, Learning Hive; for more information, visit learninghive.co.uk or follow @learninghiveuk.

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