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Barriers in education: ‘Bridging the digital divide more pressing now than ever’

Lockdown left many pupils without laptops, it meant missing out on vital learning, school work piling up and stress increasing. As schools tentatively reopen, bridging the digital divide will be a key challenge.

PHOTO: Integrate UK

When lockdown began in March and schools shut their doors for pupils, online learning was an obvious safe alternative. But what about those who didn’t have access to the right devices – or none at all?

“My laptop was quite slow. So doing work on it just wasn’t easy. I got frustrated”, 14-year-old Mariama says who lives in Horfield and goes to John Cabot Academy. 

With limited resources, Mariama felt overwhelmed, “the amount of work that they were setting and within such a short period of time! It was just building up and building up.”

“I think [Covid-19] just highlighted the inequalities that always existed, it just heightened them.”

In April, the government announced they would give laptops and routers to pupils who needed it the most – Year 10s, care leavers and pupils with social workers. But nationally, a third of school trusts received fewer than ten laptops for their eligible Year 10 pupils while 27 Trusts received only one. Though 540,000 pupils were eligible for the government scheme, only 220,000 laptops were delivered to schools by August.

Although pupils have returned to school now, with increasing cases in schools and local lockdowns coming into effect across the country, bridging the digital divide is more important than ever to tackle educational inequality.

School work piling up

When teaching suddenly switched to online learning, Shaheim, 15, and Mariama, whose laptops were frustratingly slow were left to fend for themselves in the middle of the academic year.

“I had a computer but it was very very old. I got it when I was two”, Shaheim says, who lives in Redfield and goes to City Academy Bristol. “It was really hard and I didn’t have the space to do the work”, he adds.

For pupils like Mariama and Shaheim, no laptop during lockdown meant missing out on vital learning, school work piling up and stress increasing.

Mariama, who was in Year 9 when her school closed, was excluded from the scheme and had no access to a printer for over a month.

“We weren’t even allowed to photocopy… I had to go to school and get all my books and copy out the questions”, Mariama says. “It was quite stressful.”

Samantha Williamson is the headteacher at Merchant’s Academy, a secondary school in Withywood, one of the most deprived areas in the city. “It’s been really tough. We’re pretty sure we’ve got about 25% of young people in any one year group who don’t have any regular access to adequate technology”, Williamson says, who recently appeared in our Bristol Unpacked episode on education.

Merchant Academy only received 22 laptops and only Year 10s were eligible for the scheme as they prepared for their GCSEs. “So it only scratches the surface of the digital divide. There’s so much more to be done on that.”

Teachers had to produce physical copies of work set for students who couldn’t access the online content alongside making one-to-one calls to offer support.

There were also delays in handing laptops out to pupils. Shaheim’s school, for example, could only offer him a laptop toward the end of lockdown. “They were handing out laptops for the summer. But obviously that’s quite delayed”, Shaheim says.

Fortunately for Shaheim and Mariama, a local grassroots organisation, Integrate UK, gifted them laptops to use during lockdown.

Existing educational inequality

Early on in lockdown,  Integrate UK, a Bristol-based grassroots youth organisation campaigning for gender and racial equality, purchased 16 laptops with help of a grant for their young people, who mainly come from economically deprived areas of the city.

Amaal Ali, Integrate UK

“[With the laptop] I could do my work, receive feedback, go over it again and then send it to the teacher. It made things more efficient”, Shahiem says, who is entering his final year.

Amaal Ali, Project Officer at Integrate UK, raises concerns about less focus being given to year groups like Year 7, 8 or 9 during lockdown.

She recalls working with one Year 7 pupil, who couldn’t access the different online learning portals and was: “doing his work through his iPhone” during lockdown, Amaal explains. She adds that many young people felt guilty for not being able to do the work. 

Shaheim empathises with his classmates without laptops or internet at home. “A lot of teachers would get mad at people for not doing work but wouldn’t know the reasons why they’re not doing work in the first place – like not having access to a laptop”, Shaheim says. “It seemed really really unfair.”

Even with a laptop, Mariama adds, she had been struggling to keep up with the work set.

Integrate UK was lucky to be able to offer online tutoring to their young people which both Shaheim and Mariama have benefited from. But Amaal acknowledges that there are many young people out there who don’t have that access to support.

“I think [Covid-19] just highlighted the inequalities that always existed, it just heightened them.”

Bridging the digital divide

Looking ahead, the biggest challenge for schools this academic year is how to bridge the educational gap further widened by Covid-19 and school closure. Merchant’s Academy already knows which young people didn’t access online learning as frequently. These pupils will get priority on catch-up classes, Williamson says.

“Throughout the academic year we’re going to do some assessments. We really need to find out where the kids’ gaps in their learning are and work it out from there. We’ll identify who needs it most”, she adds.

Other schools in the city are taking similar measures early on in the year to prevent affected pupils from further falling behind.

The government states more laptops and tablets will be made available to pupils in different year groups this academic year. It would mean other year groups would finally benefit.

As talks of a second wave continue, bridging the digital divide across communities has even more pressing.

“[Addressing] that digital divide is important whether we’re in a Covid-19 period or not, to be honest with you. But Covid-19 has really highlighted it”, Williamson says.

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