Digital divide: How Covid-19 is deepening inequality in education


On 3rd January many young people up and down the country were getting their school bags ready, uniforms ironed with anticipation building for their return to school. However, by 8pm that evening it all changed. 

The New Year was supposed to be the time where we finally moved away from the trials and tribulations of 2020 into a new year filled with hope and the possibility associated with youth. However, for many young people it felt like March 2020 all over again as all teaching and learning was to return online.

Anyone that works in education or with young people is well aware of the different gaps/divides that exist and cut across class, gender, able-bodiedness, SEND and racial lines. Over the years, we have come to know of the ‘attainment gap’, the ‘opportunity gap,’ and the ‘achievement gap’ to name a few. These gaps suggested that due to inequities in the allocation and quality of resources - there exists a gap in achievement, attainment and opportunity.This is represented by the fact that young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to perform worse than their wealthier peers whichever secondary school they are in. The Pupil Premium has traditionally been used to fund targeted interventions to close the gap. 

However, some almost sacred parts of being a student were traditionally unaffected by such forces in the UK. Namely access to education – a human right – and something extremely difficult to quantify effectively – the development of positive relationships found when young people connect with their peers and trusted adults through conversation, learning and shared experiences. However, as learning has moved back online we have seen that these sacred rights are not accessible to those without sufficient access to the internet. This has come to be known as the ‘Digital Divide.’

The ‘Digital Divide’ is not a new issue in the UK. The government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy (2014) set a clear target – to reduce the number of people offline by 25% every two years and to ensure that everyone who is digitally capable will be online by 2020. However, latest data shows that the UK achieved a 16% reduction – a long way off the 25% target. It means there are still nearly 5 million people who have never used the internet or have not accessed it in the past three months. 

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns has meant that the need to be connected digitally is more important than ever, however there are significant problems in doing so for some young people.  A Sutton Trust survey in January 2021 of 6,000 teachers showed the following:

  • There are substantial differences between the state and private sector, with just 5% of teachers in state schools reporting that ALL their students have a device, compared to 54% in private schools
  • In schools in deprived areas, 56% of leaders report they haven’t been able to help more than half their pupils who needed devices. This compares with 39% at the most affluent state schools.

At FBB, our young people about the difficulties they have faced with remote learning and a significant proportion referred to: 

  • Difficulties with technology and access to the internet
  • Lack of one to one conversations with teachers/peers 
  • Lack of ‘uplifting’ conversations
  • Not being able to seek support when they are unsure or in need of help
  • Lack of spaces where they can interact with other young people
  • Not having the resources to access online learning at all

The problem is even more significant for those mixed up with managed moves and exclusions. For example, a participant from East London was excluded on the eve of the first lockdown in March. He was due to be placed on a managed move and found himself without a school place when the lockdown was announced. Following this, he had to wait 8 weeks until he was contacted by a teacher and a further 2 weeks until he was given access to the remote learning system. For 10 weeks, the student was unable to access learning and unable to access, maintain or develop key relationships that offered support or just a space for human to human interaction. During this time, his only contact with anyone outside his family came when playing FIFA online. 

It is clear that the young people experiencing the ‘digital divide’ are exposed to the same forces that have brought us the attainment, achievement and opportunity gaps and the differentials in the frequency of school exclusions. The fact remains in the UK – your life chances are impacted significantly by your economic background. And while we have come to acknowledge this fact as an unfortunate reality of the educational landscape, one which has attracted much interest and funding, it is essential that we are proactive in our response and do not allow the digital divide to become another unfortunate part of British society. We must act now.

Young people are feeling a real sense of frustration and loss not being at school as a result of this pandemic. We will continue to support these young people through our essential Virtual School sessions. You can support them by:

1. Donating a laptop. Simply DM us on social media or email info@footballbeyondborders.org

2. If you do not have spare devices, you can still help.
Donate now to help us continue to deliver our services. 

Written by Joe Watfa, Head of Policy.

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