Sutton Trust highlights ‘digital divide’ in online learning

A new report from the Sutton Trust, Learning in Lockdown, has highlighted the ‘digital divide’ between the poorest pupils and those who are better off. The report, which examines various aspects of the provision of education during the pandemic, utilises data from Teacher Tapp and YouGov of feedback from teachers and parents respectively. It finds that there are still big gaps in the access different groups of pupils have to online learning, and that in some cases these have even grown since the first lockdown in March 2020.

The report’s authors find that there has been a big increase in online learning, with over half of teachers (54 per cent) now using online live lessons, compared to just 4 per cent in March 2020. However, 86 per cent of teachers in private schools report that they are using this method, compared to 50 per cent in state schools. This gap has therefore increased since March 2020, when the figures were 28 per cent and 2 per cent respectively.

The increased provision and expectations around online learning make ensuring all pupils have internet access and a suitable device even more crucial. However the report finds that this is not yet the case. 77 per cent of parents overall report having sufficient devices suitable for home learning, with another 17 per cent saying they have some, but not enough, devices. 2 per cent say they have no devices, however the authors acknowledge that estimating the number of families without any equipment or internet access is difficult, as they are by definition harder to survey. The figures reveal stark differences in access between poorer and better off pupils, with 35 per cent of households in the lowest income quintile saying they did not have sufficient devices, compared to just 11 per cent in the top income quintile. Additionally, just 5 per cent of state school teachers reported that all of their students have access to the internet, compared to 51 per cent in the private sector.

The report also suggests that the government efforts to close this ‘digital divide’, such as the distribution of laptops and other devices to schools, have not been sufficient – nearly half (47 per cent) of senior leaders in state schools report that their school has only been able to supply half of their pupils or fewer with the devices required. This rises to 56 per cent at the most deprived schools. Overall two thirds (66 per cent) of senior leaders in state schools report having to source IT equipment for disadvantaged pupils themselves while waiting for government support – this rises to 72 per cent in secondary schools.

The report makes a series of recommendations including that ‘as a matter of urgency’ all pupils should have access to the internet and a suitable device. It also recommends that schools receive a £750m ‘boost’ for disadvantaged pupils via the pupil premium – equivalent to £400 additional funding per pupil - to spend on catch-up work.

Commenting on the report Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘It is pretty clear from this research that there are still significant gaps in laptop provision despite the government’s programme to provide devices to disadvantaged youngsters. The government was too slow to respond to this issue earlier in the crisis, and we are not sure it has ever really got to grips with the level of need. It has also been very poor on supporting schools and colleges financially, handing out catch-up money with one hand, while refusing to reimburse them for coronavirus safety measures on the other hand.’

A DfE spokesperson said: ‘We are aware of the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged children during this crisis, which is why we are providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for those who need them most, with more than 800,000 of these delivered already, alongside access to free mobile data for disadvantaged families’.

Full report: 

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