Covid-19, Home-Schooling and Reclaiming Digital Rights

Children from disadvantaged households are far behind when it comes to their digital rights, whether the issue is internet access, or the devices needed for distance school-learning Heather Floyd  |  Wed Apr 14 2021
Children and young people in less affluent homes often have to share a device on which to do their school work.
Moving Up Moving On (MUMO) is a project based at Forthspring Inter Community Group in West Belfast. MUMO provides holistic family support to families from two local primary schools – St. Clare’s Primary School and Springfield Primary School.

Covid-19 is likely to have a particularly pernicious impact on children and young people already living in poverty in the UK, and this is especially true when it comes to digital poverty.

A report published by the Sutton Trust in early 2021 included some extremely worrying findings:

  • Only 5% of state school teachers believe all their pupils have adequate access to devices for online learning
  • 19% of parents report their children do not have access to devices suitable for their online learning and the figure swells to 35% for households with the lowest incomes
  • Over half (54%) of teachers are now using online live lessons, compared to just 4% in March 2020

Children and young people in less affluent homes often have to share a device on which to do their school work. While the majority of UK pupils (65%) have access to digital online platforms, for those who come from economically disadvantaged households the figure falls to just over 40%.

Internet access is a key issue according to the principal of St Clare’s Primary School, Cathal O’Doherty. “Digital poverty is a really serious issue,” he explained in a BBC interview last month. “It's something we have to think outside the box on to provide learning to these children.” He argued that access to free WI-FI vouchers is important for pupils whose families did not have fixed internet access: "This is where digital poverty bleeds into actual poverty in the house," he said. "If they don't have access to WI-FI when they are desperate to try to get some learning done, they're eating up their own mobile data usage and that will cost additional money. It very quickly runs up a bill. WI-FI would be pretty important in terms of being able to access the learning we would want the children to have."

MUMO family engagement worker, Cathy Lewsley, who has worked with families throughout the lockdowns, explains that “there can be no doubt that both the lack of suitable devices and good access to the internet has been a great burden on parents during lockdown. Parents have had to continually juggle with devices, space and time to be able to fit in the differing needs of their children. Many have expressed the worry that they don’t feel they are doing it right”. Cathy continually emphasises to families that “we need to remember that we can only do our best, very little in life is perfect, and as long as we keep trying and manage to keep our children motivated, we will have done well.”

Case Study

A MUMO participant, Seana (not her real name), is home-schooling three children – two in primary school and one in secondary school.

During the first lockdown, all home-schooling was taking place using parents’ mobile phones. During this current lockdown, the situation regarding devices has improved somewhat. The secondary school pupil now has a laptop, one primary school pupil has a tablet and the other a mobile phone.

The main issue facing the family now is access to the internet. They and other households in the area have been told that there are problems regarding internet access in the area – possibly due to metal beams in the houses.

Seana is paying over £100 per month and the internet continually drops out – she subscribed to one of the more expensive internet plans in order to maximise access and to accommodate the needs of everyone in the home. She has bought boosters, internet dongles and other software to try to improve internet access. Whilst these have helped, they have not solved the problem.

Feedback from the secondary school pupil’s teacher was that the work is of a very good standard and is being submitted on time, but, that they dip in and out during online classes. Seana had to explain that this was an internet issue, not to do with her child’s attendance at online sessions.

One of the primary school pupils has continual issues with the internet connection on the tablet when doing school work. Seana did manage to negotiate a reduction for her package at the start of the most recent lockdown but is still paying a hefty fee every month for a service which is not reliable.

Seana suggests that the internet provider must prioritise fixing the problem in the area – it is simply unacceptable that a densely populated urban area has unsatisfactory and continually interrupted internet access

Seana also recommends an implementation of free school internet programmes through the X-box, or other games consoles, since they can be used effectively for normal computing and education as well as for gaming.

Another family which MUMO works with living in the same area has appalling internet access. When the mum attends MUMO online events, her internet is continually interrupted – she freezes, has to leave and join again – she often has to use significant amounts of data to attend a workshop or meeting. She has been in contact with the internet provider on numerous occasions, but access has not improved. She has to top up her children’s phones frequently so they can access their school work, or, as she expresses it ‘go to school’.

Recommendations from the Sutton Trust, which MUMO supports, include the following:

  • As a matter of urgency, every pupil should have access to a device and internet access for remote learning. Laptops, internet dongles and other learning devices should continue to be rolled out at speed through the government programme.
  • Educational websites and online learning services should be ‘zero rated’ by internet data providers. While there are technical obstacles to this, telecoms companies should continue to work with the sector to find solutions to excluding online learning from mobile data allowances.
  • There should be a collaborative approach to the re-opening of schools, when it is safe to do so, that commands the confidence of school leaders, teachers and parents. Despite the huge efforts by schools and teachers, it is clear that nothing can replace face to face teaching and learning. If partial re-openings are considered, vulnerable and disadvantaged learners should be prioritised.

Heather Floyd is a community worker with over 30 years’ experience working in the community, voluntary and community arts sectors. She has worked in a range of organisations including the Community Arts Forum, Shankill Women’s Centre, Arts for All and the Playhouse.

Heather is currently employed as project manager with the Moving Up Moving On programme within Forthspring Inter Community Group which provides family support with two local schools – parental support and in-school support.

Heather is committed to social justice and working to address structural causes of poverty.