Preparing disadvantaged students for the economy of tomorrow: what has COVID-19 taught us?

Delving into online learning, the digital skills gap, and preparing students for the digital careers of the future, following the release of the annual Ofsted report

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for the UK’s digitisation progress, arguably long-overdue in the workplace. Now more than ever, with so much of the nation working from home and advancements on automation and AI technology modernising how we live and work, we need our young people to be well prepared and skilled in order to take up emerging roles in this rapidly-evolving technological world.

However, as the UK finds itself gearing towards this digital future and in need of a diverse workforce to provide creative solutions to varied issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has left another problem at the door. As always in times of adversity, it has been the least privileged among society who have felt the sting the most; disadvantaged students are predicted to fall further behind in their digital education, leading them on an uphill battle to compete for future jobs.

The government’s recently published Ofsted report illustrates that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted disadvantaged young people to a greater degree. The report points to big differences between state and public schools in the support and digital resources made available. Often, children from lower-income backgrounds have parents with competing demands from other children, jobs and wider family responsibilities, and were not able to give children as much structure or digital support as they needed to cope with schools’ expectations.

The growing digital skills gap

According to the latest research from Lloyds, 90% of UK businesses feel they have a shortage of relevant digital skills, while over half of UK employees (53%) lack the ‘basic digital skills needed for work’. When we focus the lens on employees from low-income families, only one in four have the digital skills needed for work.

The solution may seem simple: introduce comprehensive digital education into the curriculum. However, there’s currently little to no attempt to formalise this education in schools. By contrast, other developed economies are well ahead; Singapore’s educational system starts cyber wellness instruction in the first year of primary school and integrates it across multiple subjects, rather than treating it as a standalone topic. Similarly, the European Commission has also recently published a strategy that aims to enhance digital skills and competencies to attain digital transformation by 2027. With the UK now out of the EU and no longer bound to the European Commission’s benchmarks, it’s crucial that the UK sets its own targets and structure to educate and train young people with the skills that will be relevant in tomorrow’s economy, ensuring our workforce is not burdened by a native skills shortage.

This rapidly increasing digital skills gap between disparate socioeconomic backgrounds leaves educators with the question: what can we do to ensure the digital workforce of tomorrow is composed of talent from all walks of life?

Diversity is key

It’s clear to me how vital it is that the UK’s diversity and equality issue is fixed from the bottom up. Introducing grassroots projects into schools with the aim of improving diversity in senior leadership and digital positions later down the line, and introducing pathways to disadvantaged students at an early age, will help solve this problem.

We at the Patrick Morgan Foundation aim to alleviate the digital skills gap exacerbated by COVID-19 and provide disadvantaged young people the skills to fulfil their potential, with the ultimate goal of improving diversity in employment.

We’ve worked with partner schools to create a series of free workshops for young people, ensuring that no matter their background or regional location, they are confident and equipped to pursue their chosen career path. The platform aims to close the socio-economic employment gap by providing essential information and resources regarding pathways into employment, teaching the importance of digital skills to students through online videos with industry experts, and introducing careers they may not have been exposed to previously.

Having secured vital National Lottery and City Bridge Trust funding this year, we’ve been able to move the career-based workshops, previously taught in schools, online during the pandemic, ensuring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds still have access to tools to further their development.

In the UK there is work being done to prepare the future workforce for the emerging digital age, but with the gaps widening due to COVID-19 and the lack of digital education for the UK’s future workforce, it’s uncertain if we can reach the full potential out there in this rapidly evolving technological world.

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