On 18 March this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread throughout Europe, all schools and colleges in the UK were given two days to close for all but vulnerable students and children of key workers. Now it appears that not having to go to school has come with much more serious consequences for some pupils than for others.
Overnight, teachers had to resort to remote ways of delivering lessons while buildings were closed, ranging from social media to video-conferencing sessions through to pre-recorded videos. During the months of March and April, technology was used to deliver education to up to 98% of pupils.
Not all students, however, were equipped to follow the move – and equally, not all schools were provided with the appropriate means to support their pupils.
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New research commissioned by Microsoft, in fact, shows that a bleak 1% of primary state schools were able to provide devices that their pupils can take home, compared with 38% of private primary schools.
The need to equip some students with devices to remotely connect to their classrooms cannot be overlooked: it is estimated that one million children in the UK do not have adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. In the most disadvantaged schools, only 2% of teachers believe that their pupils have adequate access to online learning.
But as Microsoft's research highlights, not all schools have been given equal means to make sure that their students have benefitted from online learning during the pandemic. Although the government pledged £127 million ($165 million) worth of laptops and Wi-Fi routers for some disadvantaged pupils, it is now emerging that equipment is still lacking to connect children to their teachers in the country's most deprived areas.
A recent report for the non-profit organization the Institute for Government recently condemned the government's response to the education crisis as "too little, too late", leading to ill-equipped and disadvantaged students falling further behind other pupils. For example, wealthier students spent around 75 more minutes a day on educational activities during lockdown than the least well-off pupils.
"What we definitely know is that poorer children have less access to online learning," Nick Davies, program director at the Institute for Government, told ZDNet. "Part of that is because they don't have their own mobile, laptop or iPad, or their Wi-Fi isn't good enough."
It didn't take a pandemic to create a digital divide between students from different backgrounds in the UK. According to Microsoft's latest research, the COVID-19 crisis has only aggravated a gap that has been widening in the education sector for a long time.
The report found, for instance, that in the state sector, only one in three teachers has access to one-to-one technologies in the classroom, compared to two in three teachers in the private sector. While almost half of teachers in schools rated "outstanding" by Ofsted reported having access to the right tools to develop their students' future skills, this was only the case of 29% of teachers in schools rated as "inadequate".
Loic Menzies, the chief executive of the Centre for Education and Youth, said: "Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief the inequalities that divide England's children and young people. Whilst the crisis has created new inequalities, others have been there for years, hiding in plain sight, but left unaddressed for too long.
"It is indefensible that it has taken a crisis of this scale to reveal the material barriers to learning that stand in pupils' way. The need to act now could not be more urgent."
The gap between poorer students and their well-off peers is growing faster than ever in schools, therefore, in part due to a widening digital divide that the COVID-19 crisis has now aggravated – and that is in turn fostering unequal life chances in children's futures.
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From developing more independent learning skills to empowering students with special educational needs, digital technologies have been shown to enable better learning for pupils. According to Microsoft's research, the majority (60%) of teachers who have access to one-to-one devices believe that their students benefit from appropriate resources to learn the skills they will need for future work, compared to 34% of teachers who do not have access to such devices.
Howard Lewis, head of Microsoft Surface Business Group, said: "Our findings show that access to technology across England at a one-to-one level can help meet students' individual learning needs, supporting them in their development of critical life skills.
"Yet a digital divide is now widening the achievement gap, with teachers citing a lack of access to edtech tools in the schools that are least able to provide access to technology for individual students."
The COVID-19 crisis has only deepened this gap: the Institute for Government's report found that children who have missed out on schooling because of a lack of digital equipment could result in up to 2.5% less earnings later in life, as well as higher chances of unemployment and of living in poverty.
According to the Institute for Government researchers, it is the government's responsibility to ensure that the achievement gap narrows. "If the government wishes to prevent disadvantaged children from falling further behind during the crisis, it must ensure that every child who needs a laptop, router or other technology to properly access remote learning can have them," said Davies.
Digital technologies will only grow into a more important part of school curriculums in the future. So-called "hybrid learning" is expected to become the norm, with more learning happening outside the classroom thanks to connected devices, as well as VR and AR applications. Even once the COVID-19 crisis subsides, therefore, government will have to work with technology firms to make sure that digital resources reach every classroom – and that no student is left behind.