Digital levelling up: starting early to tackle digital poverty

28 November 2022

Since 2010 the Government’s stated aim is that services should be digital by default.  However, according to Ofcom (2022) 8 million households in the UK struggle to afford communication services (devices and infrastructure associated with being digitally online).

This lack of access can accentuate hardship, especially when money-saving initiatives are often only available online. For example, in Brighton & Hove, it costs 10% more to purchase an adult saver bus ticket using cash, compared to via a mobile app. When the ‘poor pay more’ because of their digital exclusion, a cycle of disadvantage can ensue.

In our recent discussion about “Digital levelling up in Sussex” (part of the Digit Debates series), the very real repercussions of this digital divide were presented, based on our research and experiences of working with those in digital poverty.  What is especially salient from our work is the extent to which digital disadvantages start from a very young age.  The popular idea of young people as ‘digital natives’, at ease in the online world with the digital skills needed to access the jobs of the future, contrasts with the reality of digital poverty that many face.

Digital poverty and access to learning

Emma (discussing research undertaken at Brighton and Hove’s Citizens Advice Bureau), passionately conveyed how digital poverty is curtailing learning and access to opportunities for children at school. About 43% of children in the East Brighton ward are living in poverty. When households are struggling to pay their utility bills, cannot afford wi-fi, and seldom have access to digital tools and devices (smartphones, laptops), this has significant repercussions for young people.

Increasingly, schools set homework on creaky learning platforms that children in poverty may only be able to access via their parents’ phones, and that’s if the phones have been ‘charged’, and/or have enough download allowance. Even if children can go online to retrieve homework, learning platforms are often difficult to navigate, and homework can require online (rather than downloadable) action. This again means that some children will be unable to complete work at home.

There are some school subjects that may be especially problematic. For example, art and graphics subjects may require students to spend more time online using artistic packages, and/or may require students to do a lot of printing when submitting work. Without secure wi-fi, access to apps, sufficient download allowances, or access to printers and ink (and the electricity required to service all of this), children in hardship may again miss out.

Lack of access, lack of outcome

When children’s learning is being obstructed by the reliance of ever-stretched schools and teachers utilising online services, educational outcomes will suffer. This puts these children on a path to being further excluded in society. Unable to complete homework, and unable to access communications and opportunities provided by the school, children may be labelled early on as lacking motivation and may miss out on important learning. This was especially evident in lockdown, but with digital schooling becoming the norm, the trend shows worrying signs of escalating. In 2022, only 37% of children from the most impoverished areas of Brighton & Hove left school with basic grades in English and Maths

So, what can educational establishments do?

In today’s cost-of-living crisis, Emma pointed to a number of ways that educational providers (schools, colleges and universities) can help. For example, providing free wi-fi access to children and young people throughout the day, providing equipment loans (devices), and access to charging and plug-points are all good starts. Giving children access to printers and providing offline options for completing homework or receiving school communications, are also recommended.

A participant in Becky’s research noted: “I see the irony of a hugely wired-up institutions be it Universities or the Councils – these buildings that can be literally across the road from the pathetic community centre that is saying ‘oh can we have a few more computers so the kids who don’t have computers at home on this estate can do their homework?’. How on earth can we do better with the vast resources that there are Universities cheek by jowl with people who need that tech assistance and use of kit, that use of broadband.”

Digital access and digital choice

Being ‘forced’ to join a digital world comes at financial, psychological and sociological cost to people with limited means. Research as part of the Euroship project highlights, for example, the impact of increasingly digitalised social protection systems and public services.  With ‘privileged insiders’ often dictating the terms and need to be online, for many people (including people in hardship) being excluded from full and carefree online access only serves to amplify and exacerbate inequality.

Our research suggests that going ‘back-to-school’ is a first and vital step towards tangibly progressing a levelling up agenda, and offering the digitally impoverished a genuine right, and choice, to be included.

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