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“Digital poverty is leaving our pupils years behind”

A figured in shadow stands with arms folded in front of a grey background

In an anonymous blog for Parent Zone, a secondary school teacher writes about the reality of educating on the Covid-19 frontline – and the devastating impact a lack of tech access is having on young people. 

I’d love to talk about how the pupils at our school are coping during this new lockdown. 

The most troubling thing is, in many cases, we don’t know. 

Since Christmas, we have followed government guidance to deliver live online lessons to students working remotely. But I’ve had very little direct interaction with students as a result.

Around two thirds of students are accessing lessons – but others are just logging on to get an attendance mark. We cannot see or hear them (we only message in chat or emails), so it is difficult to work out which students are actually engaging.

My school has one of the best safeguarding teams in the county, but it’s really worrying that the most vulnerable children go “dark” – and significant effort is needed to even contact a parent. 

Unsurprisingly, the biggest barrier has been tech – or a lack of it. 

“Students are missing five hours of learning a day”

We’ve been surveying students and parents since the summer to ascertain who has internet access. And yet now live lessons have started, more and more are now letting us know that they don’t. 

Here’s the reality for our school. We are not in a well-off area and many of our families have several children sharing one device. Our school has allocated almost 300 laptops, but we still have well over 100 students that cannot access lessons. 

An additional problem is that many parents aren’t IT literate, so can’t even help their children access a website. 

A vast majority of parents are positive and grateful for the support we offer, but the ones that haven’t yet secured a laptop are quite angry and tend to take that out on the school.

That’s not surprising. Some students are currently missing out on five hours of learning per day. It’s so unfair that their performances might be compared with those who have effectively had uninterrupted education.

“We’ve been sourcing devices from family, friends and Facebook”

To reduce the shortfall, we’ve been sourcing additional devices from local businesses and schools. 

Our teachers have also been donating their old laptops and appealing to friends, family and even local Facebook pages. I have sourced a few that way. 

The Department for Education should have had a plan for ensuring sufficient IT access for all before rolling out expectations around live lessons. It shouldn’t be the gold standard without making sure all pupils have access first.

“Students are anxious and find it hard to focus”

When speaking to students about their learning, I’ve had quite heartfelt responses telling me how they find it difficult to focus and how anxious they’ve been feeling. The general theme seems to be, ‘I just want to be in school’. 

I’ve also sent emails chasing work, only to feel bad when I’ve had responses saying that a family member has died or the whole family has tested positive. 

These things would usually be fed through the attendance office or pastoral team. But they aren’t being picked up due to almost all students being out of school. 

Another effect of lockdown is that pupil literacy levels are getting lower. Our school already had a deficit compared to pupils from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. But testing made it clear our pupils have taken a big step backwards. I’m talking several years behind age-related targets, rather than the one or two we’d expect. 

It’s likely that many of our pupils won’t have a high enough reading age by the time they sit their GCSEs to access any of the papers. This will affect their exam performance across the board.

It’s yet another gap that is widening due to Covid. 

“I worry about the long-term effects”

The level of poverty many of our families are living in is an even bigger issue. They struggled through the first lockdown, relying on additional food hampers that our staff donated, packed and delivered. The Free School Meals schemes have been dire. 

I worry about how much praise, attention, mental stimulation and interaction with others many of our students from more deprived backgrounds have missed out on in the past 11 months. 

And I worry about the long-term effects of Covid – on top of the fear and uncertainty the last year has brought. 

“We must rebuild young people’s confidence, resilience and wellbeing”

I feel a lot needs to happen.

First, there needs to be some serious thought about how to rebuild young people’s confidence, resilience and mental wellbeing. 

Schools also need more lead-time for decision making from the government. We need more funding into devices and internet access, and to increase the allocations to pupils. 

Parents need extra training and support in using tech, to support their children. We may also need extra tuition for those children who’ve missed out – for at least the next five years. 

Finally, more help must be given to the most disadvantaged families to raise their standard of living and deal with the additional costs of having had children at home all this time. It’s astounding that anybody with a role in education can think that pupils can learn when they haven’t eaten.

Images: amixstudio/, cmeyhoff/, 24K-production/

Teachers and parents can find remote schooling resources and ideas in our lockdown hub