Righting a Wrong

Addressing the digital divide in England

Home > Addressing the digital divide in England by Anja Nielsen, Senior Policy Adviser, UNICEF UK

The move to online teaching and learning during the first lockdown left many children digitally disconnected and widened the attainment gap.

Every child has the right to quality education, enshrined in Articles 28 and 29, which is why we are calling on the Department for Education to undertake a comprehensive mapping exercise to understand exactly how many children are not online at home and, importantly, why that is.

We would like teachers at Rights Respecting Schools to help us by sharing their experiences of how the digital divide has affected children and young people.

The issue

Estimates from Ofcom suggest that up to 1.7 million children in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet at home. And while the Department for Education has stepped in to support children, purchasing hundreds of thousands of devices and working with internet providers to connect families without access at home, there are still many children who have not been able to fully realise their right to a quality education. There are significant concerns that the attainment gap will widen, possibly as much as 75%, with the poorest and most disadvantaged children worst affected by the pandemic.

At the same time, the push to remote learning has meant increased online activity for children, necessitating a rights-based approach to online safety and empowerment. While children have the rights to information, play, and education, they also have the rights to safety and privacy. These must be balanced in the virtual classroom as much as the physical classroom, putting children at the heart of policy.

Our approach

We recognise that this is a long-term challenge, one that has neither arisen because of, nor will subside with, the Coronavirus pandemic. As more teaching, learning, reading, and homework is set to take place online, every child must have equitable access to the internet in order to realise their right to education.

That is why we are taking a long-term, strategic approach to digital inclusion, calling on the Department for Education to undertake a comprehensive mapping exercise to understand exactly how many children are not online at home and, importantly, why that is. Having a mobile phone with 3G at home is not the same as having a broadband-connected laptop, but many current datasets hide this discrepancy. Only by really understanding the scale of the challenges children are facing in realising their right to learn can the DfE comprehensively address the issue and take action to close the digital divide.

How to get involved

We want to hear from you. You are the on-the-ground experts, with the most up-to-date knowledge of the challenges young people are facing. At the same time, you hold many of the solutions. Schools have stepped in across the country to fill the digital divide during lockdown – experiences that must be captured in order to shape any wide-scale approach.

We are encouraging you to get in touch and join us as we work towards digital inclusion for every child in England. We are particularly looking to hear from you on the following questions:

  • How and in what ways has digital exclusion impacted children in your school? (anonymised case studies are welcome)
  • How and in what ways have you found remote teaching difficult?
  • What additional information or resources would you like to see teachers have access to, in order to support remote teaching?

Email us with the subject header: Digital Divide and we’ll put you in touch with a member of our team who will work with you to gather your experiences. 

Why only England? We are starting our advocacy approach focussing on England, due to our assessment of 1) where there is greatest need for our work, and 2) where we are best placed as an advocacy team to make change for children. Ultimately, we hope progress on digital inclusion in the other UK nations will outstrip our need to work in these areas, but if our approach in England is successful we will expand our scope.

Anja Nielsen is a Senior Policy Adviser at Unicef UK