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The conversation: The digital divide

So what’s the story?

It seems adapting to remote learning hasn’t been a smooth transition for everyone: this week it was revealed that around 700,000 children are unable to do their schoolwork because they lack the necessary internet connection. 

That doesn’t sound good

Not good at all. In fact there are concerns this might do irreparable harm to their education, as those affected might not be able to keep up with peers who have had steady access to the internet throughout lockdown.

But can not a lack of WiFi really lead to irreparable harm?

Children have been home from schools for almost three months now and – from the looks of it – most of them won’t be back in the classroom until the autumn term, if then. Plus there’s another factor to consider.

Go on…

Well school closures came suddenly and, although schools have done their best to adapt to the “new normal”, studies have found that 40 per cent of pupils haven’t had regular contact with their teacher in the lockdown period. Oh, and two million children in the UK have done little to no schoolwork in that time.

I repeat: that doesn’t sound good

The structure and routine children associate with going to school is hard to simulate at home and, especially for those who lack the means to carry out schoolwork, there are fears that they will struggle to get up to speed after months of disruption.

But surely the Department for Education must be doing something to help?

The DfE is aware that not all children have the same tech infrastructure at home and Nick Gibb, the schools standards minister, has said they’re taking steps to “make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus”.

So far, the DfE has announced that it has partnered with the telecoms company BT to provide free internet access to 10,000 families for six months. Back in April, it also pledged to provide laptops to 200,000 pupils – 100,000 of which have so far been delivered.

That sounds like a drop in the ocean… What else is being done to close the digital divide?

Many MPs and prominent figures – including former prime minister Tony Blair and former Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw – have voiced their support for a bill which aims to supply the 1.3m children who are eligible for free school meals with free broadband and devices as well.

That’s more like it! When can we expect to see a change?

Nothing is set in stone, so it’s not clear when this plan will see the light of day. The MPs are, however, aiming to present the bill to parliament at some point this week. Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP who put the bill forward, has said that: “This policy isn’t a silver bullet and can’t replace months of missed education. But it would make an immediate, tangible difference to families right across our country.”

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