The first national lockdown, which began last March, highlighted the stark digital divide in the UK. As access to the internet has become a vital part of navigating day-to-day life, those who struggle to get online are being affected worse than ever.
Digital inequity has been a prevalent issue for some time. A 2019 report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that, although declining, the number of “internet non-users” is still significant in the UK. In 2018, there were 5.3 million internet non-users in the UK: 10% of the adult population. Today, there are around 1.9 million households who do not have access to the internet and are digitally excluded.
A report published by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) has identified data poverty as a common problem among disadvantaged groups in Scotland and Wales. Without reliable access to the internet, especially amidst COVID-19 and social distancing restrictions, vital services such as education, welfare, health checkups and work are out of reach. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on this “data poverty” and the current troubling inequality of digital access within the UK.
Supply and demand
There have been some moves to address this by the government.
Data allowances on mobile devices have been increased to support disadvantaged children. This scheme temporarily increases data allowances for mobile phone users on certain networks. The idea behind this is to help disadvantaged children and young people access remote education sources if their face-to-face education is disrupted, and they do not have access to broadband at home.
If increasing mobile data is not a suitable option, the Department for Education is also providing 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged children to help them get online and access remote education.
These schemes, of course, are dependent on children already having access to digital devices that have the capability to access the internet. Although a further 300,000 laptops have been provided by the government to schools across the UK, there is still a palpable shortage to meet demand. Those without laptops or space to study are now eligible to attend school, under government guidance; however, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) has said that this move could reduce the effect of the lockdown.
The secretary of the NAHT, Paul Whiteman, has said that there is “concern that the government has not supplied enough laptops for all the children without them and so has made lack of internet access a vulnerable criteria – only adding to numbers still in school.”
Even with the promise of additional devices, questions remain such as how they will be distributed, when they will actually be provided and if they will arrive in time to ensure there is no major disruption to the education of all the children who need them.
An uneven playing field
COVID-19 has made it clearer than ever: access to the internet is essential in order to participate in today’s digital economy. The impact of school closures on the attainment gap has been a consistent concern. Usually, this is seen over the summer holidays, with children from more disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind in their learning over their weeks out of a school setting. Now, of course, the gap has widened further for those stranded without access to any online education resources at all. A report published by the Education Endowment Fund (EDF) has found that “school closures will widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, likely reversing progress made to narrow the gap since 2011.”
Charity responses, such as the Reboot project, offer some hope and relief to those worst affected by the digital divide, but it would seem there are more drastic changes needed in order to tackle the mounting problems brought about by the UK’s data poverty.