The inequalities of our education system have never been more sharply in focus than now when, for most children and young people, learning is taking place exclusively in their homes.

The vast majority of schools, colleges and providers have stepped up, transforming classroom-based sessions into online learning modules almost overnight. There is already a wealth of online learning resources, such as the excellent BBC Bitesize material.

While this is a major leap forward for education into fully embracing digital technology, there is a real danger that the already sizeable gap between disadvantaged young people and their better-off peers will widen to an unbridgeable gulf, with digital poverty adding a further layer of inequality.

An estimated one million children cannot access the internet, either because they have no computer or laptop, no connectivity, or both. Around 8% of 16-24-year-olds can only access digital technology through their phones, excluding them from many online learning platforms, teacher support and restricting them from receiving and submitting work online.

Supporting the digitally disadvantaged

Some of the country’s biggest Academy Trusts responded quickly. Academies Enterprise Trust, for example, committed to spend £2 million on equipment and connectivity for their students on free school meals. The Government followed suit, promising laptops and connectivity to thousands more disadvantaged children.

This will inevitably take time, but it is a positive step forward. Recognising that an immediate, nationwide solution is impossible and that local solutions would be quicker, I have been working with a group of senior industry figures, politicians and charities in a partnership called Operation Educate. This seeks to support digitally disadvantaged young people both during and after the current crisis.

We have launched a pilot project in Hull – supported with laptops donated by the National Grid – in an area where two thirds of children are eligible for free school meals and teachers had been photocopying work sheets to post through their letterboxes.

Jonathan Roe, the Executive Headteacher of Yorkshire and the Humber Cooperative Learning Trust, said typical stories included households of four children “all sharing a parent’s smartphone with limited data. That household might have been connected according to the official statistics, but those kids weren’t able to access learning in any meaningful sense.”

Acknowledging the need for a national strategy

We recognise that, even if the challenge of providing physical devices and internet connectivity can be met, this alone will not address the educational disadvantage faced by these children. It is equally important to ensure that online curriculum content is appropriately designed and that young people have access to a teacher to guide, monitor and motivate them. From this and other pilots, we need to learn best practice for successfully engaging these young people.

We need a national strategy to ensure a co-ordinated and properly funded response for the future. The Coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the vital importance of technology for learning. When schools re-open, children will continue to need digital resources for independent research, homework, and projects, to learn the skills they need for the workplace.

Discussion across many sectors has focused on the ‘new normal’, post-pandemic. In education, this could be the catalyst for making a transformational leap forward, changing the way we learn and the way in which learning is delivered forever. While fully integrating digital technology, we must ensure that we do not leave disadvantaged young people further behind.

Working together to accelerate change

We must accelerate the pace at which our education system adapts, both in schools and in post-16 education, to avoid disenfranchising this group of young people from an increasingly technology-based society.

The Government needs to work with partners and suppliers to ensure every child in the country who receives free school meals is issued with a laptop or tablet by their school and that schools most needing help are supported to introduce them effectively.

This pandemic has affected us all, but the evidence will show that it disproportionately impacted those in poorer areas, including children. If we don’t act the gap will grow wider, denying these young people the life chances they deserve.

It does not have to be like that. This crisis has shown what is possible when people, communities, businesses and governments work together for a common cause. Like health, education needs to be at the heart of our nation’s plan for recovery and it needs to be available to everyone.

By Neil Bates, Associate Director of advanced technical skills specialist Innovion, part of the Seetec Group, and Chair of the Edge Foundation.

Innovion is an industry-focused partnership launched in 2020 to deliver the higher-level skills training needed in engineering and manufacturing. For more information visit the Innovion website. For more information about Operation Educate, contact Neil at Neil.Bates@technicalprofessionaleducation.co.uk