Why addressing the ‘digital divide’ is the strategic educational priority of our age

Michael Pain, Founder and CEO, Forum Strategy

This week the government announced its intention to implement step 4 of its roadmap and the return to a greater degree of normality across society and, indeed, in schools. Whilst this gives rise both to a sense of hope and concern, it’s also clear that life has changed forever in some respects. We must begin to learn to live with the virus; adapting as individuals, organisations and professions for the longer-term. In some ways, there’s no going back.

One of the most telling sentences in the government’s revised COVID19 operational guidance for schools this week, but rather buried within it, was that “schools should maintain their capacity to deliver high quality remote education for the next academic year.” One suspects this is an expectation that will continue long beyond 2022, as the reality of living with the virus crashes together with our increasingly online-based lives and economy, and the demands from both staff, parents and pupils for continuing some degree of remote learning.

we are still ill-prepared as an education system for some of the unintended consequences of a longer term emphasis on remote and online learning

And herein lies the big strategic and operational challenge for trust and school leaders in the coming year. Despite the pandemic and the experience of a huge shift to remote learning over the last eighteen months, we are still ill-prepared as an education system for some of the unintended consequences of a longer term emphasis on remote and online learning. Indeed, it’s an issue that our CEO Strategy Group on remote learning and working have been wrestling with over the last twelve months, working with leading thinkers in this space such as Natterhub, Lionheart Trust, and others.

In June, UNICEF published a report setting out its concerns about the growing digital divide in this country, and particularly for children and young people. As a starting point, it found that 8% of children aged 5-15 do not have access to an internet enabled desktop computer, laptop, or netbook at home. This means in a world where substantial amounts of education have been delivered through the internet, thousands of our children and young people have been excluded at the first hurdle. 

Now, it’s clear that the government gets and understands this and is trying to get equipment to all those without it; however, access is only the beginning of this issue. As the UNICEF report recognises, bridging the digital divide is also about ensuring the skills and support (for teachers and pupils) and a safe online environment. Indeed, three years ago, the former Children’s Commissioner was telling us “at the moment, children are not being equipped with adequate skills to negotiate their lives online. Offline, adults should aim not just to ‘educate’ children as they grow up, but to help them develop resilience and the ability to interact critically with the world; recognising that without these ‘softer’ skills, they cannot grow up as agents of their own lives.” On the whole, the pandemic has done little to change that, but it has ramped up the urgency and presents us with some big strategic implications that have a direct bearing on trust and school leadership, going beyond just getting a device into the hands of pupils.

At Forum Strategy we have long talked about the ‘have and have nots’ of this generation of pupils not simply being defined by issues such as poverty or lack of qualifications, but also whether they are masters or servants of technology.  Even with technology in their hands, are pupils safe using it? Are they using technology to broaden their horizons, to create, and to enhance their learning and knowledge? Or are they the ‘mere addicts’ of technology, scrolling through a world of mis-information, feeling pressure from superficial ‘influencers’, and tapping into social media into the early hours – affecting their sleep and concentration as a result.  As a report from Natterhub last week found, the use of technology is now woven across children’s lives – over 70% of children chose ‘messaging’, ‘gaming’ and ‘streaming’ as the best way to chat to friends; with just 23% choosing an offline option.

the ability to use technology as a force for good, and as a solution to many of society’s intractable challenges – from tackling climate change to enhancing health care – is becoming evident.

The world is experiencing the dawning of a fourth industrial revolution, one where the ability to use technology as a force for good, and as a solution to many of society’s intractable challenges – from tackling climate change to enhancing health care – is becoming evident. Many pupils are – as I write this – developing the skills and experiences in order to prepare them to thrive in this world, and to live fulfilling lives in doing so. Others are either simply stumbling at the first hurdle, or developing an unhelpful at best, harmful at worst, relationship with technology. This will define a generation. Simply pretending schools have nothing to do with ensuring young people are equipped for the safe, healthy and creative use of technology – through policies such as banning mobile phones – is a rather naive and unambitious outlook. Those policies miss the bigger picture.

The challenge now is for trusts and school leaders to invest not only in the hardware, but in preparing and equipping children and young people to be the masters and not the servants of technology. That will require leaders themselves to look beyond their own experience and skill sets to wider experts and thinkers, developing a deep understanding of the complexity of this challenge. We need a curriculum in this country that equips young people to be self-regulators in their use of technology and the online world, that empowers them for the inevitable part it will play in their lives. It is clear that being part of a trust that has the skills, expertise, and capacity at the very top to deliver on this agenda is going to be a huge advantage. Forward-thinking and strategic CEOs recognise they need to invest in leaders of technology who are up to addressing this challenge, through relevant partnerships, fit for purpose hardware and software, and carefully designed curriculum content that creates ‘masters of technology’ at all levels.

The UNICEF report concludes that “if digital exclusion is not tackled effectively, there is a risk that technology will continue to deepen inequalities.” There is no avoiding the fact that our education system cannot sit back and watch this issue – that will define the lives and life chances of a generation – happen., Indeed, it requires a strategic and operational response of a magnitude rarely experienced by any generation of leaders before this one. The time for that response is now.

Michael Pain is CEO of Forum Strategy and author of Being The CEO


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