Teachers to BCS: Closure of schools has exposed the digital divide leaving poorer children unable to access learning

LONDON (22 April 2020) — Lack of access to the internet, suitable computers and teaching resources means many children are now excluded from online learning warns BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.


BCS welcomed the Department for Education's plan to provide technology for some children to help with remote education during the COVID-19 crisis, but it is calling for a longer-term strategy, after its own research published today has shown that there are wide disparities and many children, of all ages, are unable to access remote learning.


Teachers told the charity how variations in access to tech, highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis, are increasing inequalities in both academic attainment and social engagement.


BCS conducted detailed interviews via its grassroots network Computing at School. It spoke to a sample of primary and secondary schools in Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyneside the Midlands and London, with an estimated population of 2000+ students.


BCS and CAS teachers welcomed the Department for Education's announcement that laptops and 4G dongles will be made available to some disadvantaged Y10 pupils, care leavers and children with social workers - but they are calling for a long-term strategy to level up the quality of broadband internet access and digital learning support for all pupils.


Teachers reported a number of key issues, including;


  • Parents using 4G data plans as sole access to internet, when that runs out children don't have access until their monthly plan is renewed
  • Parents relying on PAYG connection
  • Poor broadband speeds especially in rural areas
  • Many children only device is a 'hand me down' phone and with screens too small for any worthwhile learning
  • Many children have to share phones/laptops/tablets, especially with large numbers of parents now working at home.
  • Where children have some access to better devices it's often a games console or tablet which they have to share with siblings.


Dawn Walker, who teaches with the Bentley Federation of primary schools in Walsall said: "Many of our most disadvantaged children live in homes without access to broadband. Parents have 4G data plans and when that runs out the children often don't have access until their monthly plan is renewed or until they have the money to purchase a top up.


"A survey of our pupils in summer 2019, showed that a quarter of children only had access to the internet a couple of times a week or less. Inconsistency of access is an issue.


"Many children don't have devices that are suitable for working on presentations / docs / design type projects. They may only have access to the Internet through games consoles or tablets which they have to share with siblings. In our summer 19 survey only 10% of the children accessed the Internet through a PC or laptop."


Adrienne Tough, who teaches computer science at a Bolder Academy in Hounslow said; "We see many children who don't have access to devices to be able to access the curriculum. Others are reliant on 4G data plans. We as a school have been working hard to address this with our partners where we can, but I've no doubt this is an issue for many schools and will need a broad approach, particularly if we are to avoid a long lasting impact on children's education."


Dr. Bill Mitchell OBE, Director of Policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said: "Supplying laptops to disadvantaged children's families is a hugely welcome initiative, but we need to remember that these devices are a means to an end.


"To have value they need to be used to enrich children's knowledge, understanding and skills; we all have to help connect those laptops to outstanding interactive content and high quality access to teachers and fellow students, supported by affordable, consistent internet connections.


"There will also be many other children, including at primary schools, who will need extra support to ensure they don't get left behind. We will also be looking at ways of supporting the DfE and industry using our national networks of expert teachers, educators and IT practitioners."