‘Postcode lottery’ internet access isn’t good enough
Evan Wienburg, CEO and co-founder of Truespeed, makes his case for making ultrafast broadband a top priority for education, everywhere
It seems that the wider world may be starting to wake up to the funding challenges that have for some time been threatening to engulf schools across the UK. Public warnings have been sounded by teachers across Devon, Cambridgeshire and Conwy since the beginning of the year.
My home region of Somerset is no exception – in just the past few months headlines have been made across the region due to an open letter penned by more than 70 local headteachers to the families of their pupils. The letter warned that the impact of ongoing funding cuts could no longer be ignored, and that families needed to accept the likely consequences, which ranged from larger class sizes to a narrowing of extra-curricular activities.
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These schools clearly face an uphill struggle to provide children with a first-rate education while reducing their spend per pupil. From my own conversations with headteachers across Somerset schools, it’s increasingly clear that greater digital connectivity could provide a vital lifeline, helping compensate for funding cuts without impacting upon the quality of education provided. In fact, with curriculums more and more invested in technology-enabled education, the need for secure, reliable and future-proof broadband is paramount in providing a sound learning platform for our children.
Schools clearly face an uphill struggle to provide children with a first-rate education while reducing their spend per pupil.
The additional learning aids afforded to pupils continues to grow, from access to online lectures or online exam revision such as GCSE Bitesize, to international Skype calls for languages and even the implementation of coding sessions in ICT lessons. Pupils also rely upon web research and access to online careers services to determine where to go next – both in terms of education and vocation – and what they might need to do to get there.
Then of course there’s school staff to consider. Teachers’ ability to plan and deliver lessons is hugely aided by a reliable broadband connection. Administrators use the internet to communicate with parents and, increasingly, to manage all aspects of running the school. For example, these days, the best and most affordable accounting, budgeting and financial management programs are delivered via the internet. Schools can save a fortune by deploying more agile, software-as-a-service tools to replace the expensive, cumbersome and increasingly obsolete management programs of old – but only if their broadband infrastructure is reliable enough to support it.
In short, the arguments for investing in ultrafast, future-proofed broadband are manifest: to achieve greater efficiencies in the running of schools that can help to offset the impact of any funding cuts, and to enhance the educative experience and ensure children are receiving a 21st-century education that will prepare them properly for life as citizens in our increasingly digital-first economy.
Teachers’ ability to plan and deliver lessons is hugely aided by a reliable broadband connection.
The problem is that right now access to this calibre of infrastructure – best-in-breed rather than just about adequate – is not equal across the UK. Urban areas are getting the infrastructure first, because it’s easier to deploy, while rural areas are being left in the digital slow lane, despite a range of government incentives to try and nudge the infrastructure providers into the countryside.
This postcode-lottery approach means that rurally-based schools are left to pay top-dollar for substandard broadband services delivered by providers that don’t see these communities as a priority. It might be better than nothing, but it’s far from ideal when funding cuts are already starting to bite. Furthermore, don’t forget that if these schools are unable to access ultrafast broadband services, there’s a high likelihood that the schoolchildren won’t be able to access them at home either.
Indeed, there’s a strong argument that within every local community, connecting the schools should come before any other facilities, be they residential, civic or commercial. Equip the school with the digital infrastructure it needs, and then at least children can be guaranteed a means of accessing the online tools they need for five days of the week.
The problem is that right now access to this calibre of infrastructure – best-in-breed rather than just about adequate – is not equal across the UK.
Access to ultrafast broadband is improving in some rural areas. There are growing numbers of community-oriented, locally-based infrastructure providers that are stepping up where the traditional market has failed.
One initiative gaining traction – and which my business is pursuing in rural Somerset – is to provide primary and secondary schools in communities passed by new ultrafast broadband networks with free broadband for life. Supporting staff and pupils by providing an internet service free of charge allows schools to save money and reallocate desperately needed budget elsewhere. Investing in our younger generation’s education is after all an urgent priority.
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But while this type of initiative is of course to be welcomed at the local level, there has to be a giant shift in the current ‘make do’ mindset across the whole of the nation, and a willingness to reject the inadequate digital status quo and explore alternative routes to securing future-proof broadband.
Whether this is by the government incentivising broadband infrastructure providers to offer free broadband to rural schools, or by providers taking the initiative and doing it themselves, something needs to change if we are to meet every rural schools’ connectivity needs. And prevent a clear urban/rural divide in education quality from emerging.