‘I absolutely know the education system, certainly in England, is not working for all sorts of students’

In conversation with Paul Finnis, chief executive of the Digital Poverty Alliance and the Learning Foundation, on tackling government shortfalls and addressing the growing digital divide in UK schools

The UK government attracted criticism back in June following the resignation of the recently appointed education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins. 

Sir Collins quit after the government announced an extra £1.4bn for its catch up programme, which is reportedly less than a 10th of the amount needed for the investments he recommended.  

The average pupil has missed 115 days in school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One conservative estimate for the long-term economic cost of lost learning in England is £100bn. 

However, the amount of money the government is willing to spend on helping schoolchildren catch up is not the only problem – the main issue is with the government’s strategy. This is a prime opportunity for the government to address the shocking digital divide in the UK education sector, exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Here, we talk to Paul Finnis, chief executive of the Digital Poverty Alliance and the Learning Foundation, who challenges the ways government is spending this money and suggests better policies that could help school children and close the digital divide.

Q. How big of an issue is digital poverty and how does it affect different education levels across the UK?

PF: More people now know about it than they did when we first launched the work of the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA). Initially, people were not aware of the scale and nature of the problem, nor the urgency. Of course, we’ve been pushing both of those.

I think everybody kind of understands not just the scale, but also the urgency

Now, I think everybody kind of understands not just the scale, but also the urgency. In answer to the question, though, it really depends on how you define it. There are a wide variety of definitions about what constitutes digital poverty; it might be, for instance, having absolutely nothing at all. In reality, nobody right now knows how many we’re talking about. I would estimate perhaps as many as 10-15% are households that have nothing at all. But digital poverty also encompasses things like skills – that’s skills in terms of people actually being able to use the device well enough to get on with their work and their schooling – it’s certainly in excess of 10m.

There was some great research done recently by Citizens Advice which showed that even in households that do have broadband, something like 2.5m are currently behind on their payments. That means they’ve got it, but they’re teetering on the edge.

The last thing I’ll say is that all the figures we’re seeing from the government about pupil premium children and free school meals – what they never catch is often the millions of families who are just above that; you know, what Theresa May once called “just about managing”. With three kids, for instance, having a device each for them remote learning, and that kind of stuff is a cost that they can’t bear. The reality is that nobody knows [how bad it really is]. All I can say is that it continues to be a major issue for the UK and globally.

Q. This is an issue that affects teachers too – can you share your insights on that?

PF: Well, from personal experience, with my youngsters – who were seven or eight at the time – I noticed a distinct change from the first lockdown, when teachers and schools were really trying to do whatever they could; through to the second lockdown, when it was clear that teachers were beginning to get the hang of it. They’d had some time to think about how to deliver lessons remotely. Teachers have been, as they always are, very adaptable and flexible.

But the reality is too, that teachers and teachers’ families are no different from anybody else

But the reality is too, that teachers and teachers’ families are no different from anybody else. They’re not a well-paid profession. They’re incredibly overworked. When we conducted a survey with Dixons Carphone, there was one headteacher I spoke to who said, “Paul, my pupils are getting devices thrown at them left, right and centre, but my teachers hobble in with something that they have at home, or if they have nothing at home, they come into school to find out what they can use from there.”

…if the teachers are not in a [good] position either, then obviously the system begins to fall down

At the same time [as conducting the survey], we’re also providing devices for them. We found something like half of all teachers said that they did not have access to a device or the connectivity they needed at home to be able to work remotely. So there’s another big problem. We’re in conversations now with the Department for Education (DfE) about that, because it’s all very well getting all the youngsters fixed up but if the teachers are not in a [good] position either, then obviously the system begins to fall down.

Q. What sort of economic costs would the nation face if we fail to address the learning gaps caused by pandemic-driven school closures?

PF: I have really mixed feelings as an individual about this subject, because I think, talking more from personal experience, I’m aware that kids don’t stop learning, full stop. Just because they’re not in a formal system, that doesn’t mean they stop learning. Of course, lots of schools – particularly independent schools – were able to continue because lots of them were using digital anyway, so it was an easy switch over. It was the state schools that struggled. That’s where the biggest problems occurred. But I couldn’t begin to estimate what the cost to the nation might be.

We already know that there are big gaps, particularly in the IT sector, in terms of skills sets

From my own personal point on view, I also think these youngsters are going to be growing up without the skills they need, and without the skills that the UK needs. That’s going to have a knock-on effect. We already know that there are big gaps, particularly in the IT sector, in terms of skills sets. Those gaps will undoubtedly lead to an untrained workforce which will impact the economy.

But I do think there’s a whole variety of other factors in this, too. As more and more things move online, the youngsters and families that can’t get online get more and more excluded. One thing I was struck by quite a long time ago is that Scotland and Wales are already doing great stuff. So it’s actually more about England than the UK and Northern Ireland. I remember reading some research way back when Scotland were producing their edtech strategy – I love that strategy. I recommend anybody read it, because even though it’s two or three years old, it’s made a clear commitment from the government to support young people in their learning. They have a commitment right now that every school-aged child will have a device of their own to study within the frame of the current parliament. I think that’s a fantastic commitment.

There are lots of other things – like CPD for teachers, and investments that need to be made. The reality is that youngsters are using devices all the time, whether or not it’s part of the way their school delivers learning, using edtech to enhance outcomes, to catch up – to do all the things that youngsters need to do. What I’m saying is that school children are using devices anyway, and more of that needs to be encouraged.

Q. Why did the government receive such heavy criticism when the recently-appointed education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned?

PF: I’m not privy to Sir Collins’ brief, but it’s not dissimilar to many other examples where people are tasked with the job of finding a fix for a particular issue, coming back with a series of recommendations. But then vast numbers of those just get ignored or forgotten or not followed up.

I was particularly struck by Collins’ response – to resign – which I think was a fantastic statement

I was particularly struck by Collins’ response – to resign – which I think was a fantastic statement. It was a reminder to everybody that what he was asked to do was incredibly important to the UK right now. It’s about our youngsters growing up, struggling with learning, struggling in so many different ways.

…but they have to pick where their priorities are – and you can’t have a higher priority than education

In terms of the government, you understand that there can’t be a lot of money left lying around in the Treasury, but they have to pick where their priorities are – and you can’t have a higher priority than education. I can’t remember what the exact figures were off the top of my head, but I think the translation in the government’s actual response was something like £150-200 per child in the state school system – that was the level of investment they were talking about in terms of enabling youngsters to catch up on what has been a terrible year and a half. That pales in significance compared to other countries that were investing the equivalent of thousands of pounds in that process. And that was what Kevan Collins was suggesting, because [the government’s pledge] was about 10% of his suggestion, so they got a kicking for it.

Q. The £1.4bn the government pledged to its catch up programme is less than a 10th of what Sir Collins recommended, as you mention. But what exactly would that money fund, and, given the funding shortfall, where are they likely to cut corners?

PF: Firstly, I absolutely know that the education system, certainly in England, is not working for all sorts of children. The one figure that sticks out in my head is that something like 15% of all school leavers are functionally illiterate; so they’re not illiterate, but they aren’t literate to the point of being able to conduct a full home or working life. So there’s something fundamentally wrong anyway.

Image source: ArthurHidden/Freepik

Then, adding this last year and a half and the pandemic response, and not even managing to do everything that needs to be done to help youngsters catch up means we’re just going to fall further behind. I don’t know where the cutbacks are going to come. I know the government’s trying to do bits and pieces where it can with education, but it still feels as though there’s something fundamentally wrong. I think the answer lies in education technology (edtech). I think we should dream about a time where every single youngster in England has access to a device for learning – because it’s going to happen in Scotland and I’m sure it will happen in Wales. This will enable [kids] to make connections and catch up and watch the millions of YouTube videos about how to work out the square root of something. Otherwise, they have to wait until they can talk to their teacher to maintain their learning.

In the formal education system, we want to ensure [young people] have access to technologies that support [all forms of learning]. That’s my dream.

So even in the 21st century, it’s not an integral part of the way teachers learn to teach

But we also have to make sure teachers are trained and ready. The pandemic showed that huge numbers of teachers, even now, have as little training as half an hour to an hour’s worth of digital tacked on the end of it. So even in the 21st century, it’s not an integral part of the way teachers learn to teach. Everybody needs to be involved [in digital]. Teachers need to be comfortable with what they’re going to be asked to do and how to do it, and governors and parents need to be involved.

Q. The DPA are putting together an alternative strategy to address the UK’s digital divide, so what would the Alliance do differently to the government? Can you list your main points by order of priority?

PF: The DPA is not in a position to say that at the moment, as we’re building towards what we’re referring to as a national delivery plan. We’re expecting to produce that as early as possible next year, because there is some urgency attached to this.

But in the meantime, we’re listening to people

The reason the DPA is an Alliance is because there are lots of people with lots of views about how best to take this forward. We’re not going to fall into that trap of getting very aggressive about it, listing 27 recommendations for the government in the hope that they’re going to listen – so we’re going to get on with some of the work ourselves. But in the meantime, we’re listening to people. This is not just about education; if you’re a young person – depending on how old you are – you’re thinking, “What am I going to do about work?”, “What am I going to do about my mental health?”, or “What am I going to do about” a wide variety of things. So, one of my concerns has been that if the response is exclusively about education, then that will tick a big box for me and you in terms of education and young people growing up, and while that would be good, it would miss some really important things for those youngsters and for the families too.

We will eventually be able to say, “This is what we propose”, and it’s going to be a mixture of things to deliver change for youngsters in lots of different ways. And that’s what we plan to do in 2022, directing the government to three or say five things they absolutely have to do at that point.

Q. Let’s talk education policy – how can we ensure the right procedures are in place so no child or student is left behind as digital needs and technologies evolve?

PF: So [the government] has handed out well over a million devices but none of them come with any support. They don’t actually belong to the families, they belong to the schools. They don’t come with connectivity and all that stuff. When I’m talking to the DfE, I say that these children, because by and large they’re coming from families that are struggling, are disengaged with education, for lots of reasons, one of which might be technology. It’s not about the device alone, but rather what the device does. The school has to be device-ready; it has to be enabled to support learning delivery. I find it odd that in the 21st century, schools generally still aren’t doing that – because they don’t have enough money, or enough time, and everybody is working too hard. [Fixing these things] doesn’t have to take forever. One of the things I love about edtech is that it can change lives and change learning, almost overnight. I’ve seen young people go, in less than a year, from being completely disengaged from education to being completely engaged. I love that change. That’s what you and I will want for all children.

Q. What do you envision for the UK education sector in the next five to 10 years in terms of digital digital inclusion and access?

I’m not only in a believer in edtech and the way it can help teachers, I’m [also] absolutely a believer in everybody understanding the urgency of this. This is about people’s lives.

This is about people’s lives

Children can be enabled to be better at school to live up to their potential. And when you’ve got the answer there, and you can’t give it to them, it’s incredibly frustrating for us at the DPA. Because you know, there isn’t enough money or time in the world right now, or enough leadership in this area. It’s heartbreaking. And if you leave it for more than five years, that’s a whole cohort. This means that [vulnerable] families remain in poverty and continue to struggle. That’s absolutely not right. I don’t want to have a timeline pf 10 years or 20. I want it to be tomorrow, if possible. But knowing how complex it is, five years would be the maximum for me.

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