Digital poverty is bleaker than ever, and the government still has no answer
When it comes to lockdowns, third time isn’t the charm; statistics around digital poverty are bleaker than ever. Ofcom estimates that over 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and 800,000 pupils live in homes with only a mobile internet connection.
The government has failed to deliver on its pledge to provide laptops to the most disadvantaged pupils; by August only 37% of pupils eligible had been able to access a device. Only 51 per cent of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have access to the internet at all.
At least during the first lockdown, the government had the excuse that the situation was genuinely unprecedented, and could claim that teething problems were inevitable. 10 months on, and the government has no such defence.
So where is the contingency plan? Individuals, organisations and campaigns such as Devices Dot Now are making valiant efforts, but there is still a shocking lack of leadership and ignorance around the scale of the problem.
Today, it was reported that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson turned down an offer to get free or cheap broadband for thousands of disadvantaged families. Instead, his solution to the problem was telling parents to report schools to Ofsted if they felt that the online provision was not good enough. Teachers are only just recovering from the whiplash of several u-turns around mass testing and exams, and it is an odd state of affairs when Ofsted can inspect schools’ remote lessons, but the government isn’t willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to make remote lessons work in the first place.
There are 1.4 million children on free school meals in the UK; the government could buy every single one of them a £400 Chromebook and 12 months of £20-a-month broadband for roughly the same amount of money (£896m) as the Eat Out To Help Out Scheme (£849m).
In fact, they could buy every single pupil in the UK a decent £500 laptop and 12 months of broadband for £6.5 billion, which is less than a third of the price of our ‘world-beating’ test and trace system.
It’s therefore not so much a question of can’t, but won’t.
The digital divide is not a new phenomenon, but the result of a decade of unambitious government policies. Lack of investment in broadband infrastructure means that the UK’s fibre-optic connectivity is around 8-10%, in contrast with South Korea’s 98%. Guidance around technology-supported learning is incredibly vague: the Core Content Framework for Initial Teacher Training makes no reference to it at all.
The government’s short-term solution is to label children without access to technology as “vulnerable,” and therefore allow them to go to school alongside the children of key workers. However, this has been poorly publicised, and more needs to be done to be make sure kids actually show up — in June only about 20% of vulnerable children went into school.
It seems mind-boggling that only 14 months ago, Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to bring free broadband to everyone was mocked by the BBC as ‘broadband communism.’ Boris Johnson called it a “crackpot scheme”, Nicky Morgan laughed at this “reckless fantasy” and even Jess Philips said it “was just not believable.” It seems no-one is laughing now.