In Luton, 46% of children live in poverty, the impact of which is stark; affecting the health, well-being and educational outcomes of our young people. This disadvantage is compounded for those from minoritised communities, who face additional structural barriers. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us, it would be wrong to say that this effect has been equal – the poorest have been hit the hardest. According to Centre for Cities, 6,560 people from Luton put in new claims for unemployment benefits from March to May this year – that’s almost one in every 20 working adults. At 4.9% of the town’s population, this is the largest increase in the country. Government figures show that more than 25,000 people in Luton have been placed on the furlough scheme. Luton Foodbank says that the number of families relying on emergency rations has almost doubled since the pandemic started and community organisations, including Luton Mosques have worked around the clock to respond to a surge in families reaching out for support. Being involved in the delivery of some of this support and seeing the impact up close has been a deeply distressing and humbling experience.
The many challenges set by COVID-19 has also shed light on the digital divide and the effects of digital exclusion on low-income communities. Only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001. Digital access is important, not only in terms of the learning opportunities that it opens up for us all, but also for ensuring that we remain connected. A lack of digital access excludes people from participation. It means that important voices in parts of our community will go unheard. It means that as a town we lose out on valuable insights. This, in turn, exacerbates social and economic divides. It would be wrong of me to write about this issue without addressing the long-standing racial injustices that have been highlighted once again. The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been painfully felt in our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities – both in terms of the cases of sickness and death, but also the loss of jobs and earnings. Communities are feeling isolated, forgotten about and unable to communicate their thoughts, feelings and fears.
What Does This Mean for Children and Education?
On Wednesday 18th March 2020, the government announced that all schools would be closing to try and slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is a date that few parents and young people will forget. Following closure, schools worked rapidly to shift most, if not all, educational provision online. I have been incredibly moved by the efforts of teachers who have been doing their utmost to ensure that children who do not have access to the internet are receiving paper-based support. However, despite the hard work of schools and teachers, the learning experience of those children without digital access will have been impoverished. They will not have access to the wide range of online resources that their peers have. We know that children living in poverty are already significantly disadvantaged in comparison to their wealthier peers. Key Stage 4 data from 2019 shows that only 24.7% of children from poorer families who are eligible for free school meals (or those who are in care) achieved grades 9-5 in their GCSE English and Maths, compared with 49.9% of other children. According to a recent report from the Sutton Trust on the impact of school closures, 15% of teachers report that more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning from home, compared to only 2% in the most affluent state schools. It seems inevitable that this gap will widen as a result of the pandemic.
Being isolated without any social contact with friends can also have a negative impact on children’s psychological and physical health. This is compounded for children who are living in households where their parents’ employment is precarious and incomes uncertain. Our children, and particularly those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds have faced disproportionate economic impacts, mental health challenges, and disrupted education. One young person recently told me:
“I don’t have a laptop or computer. I haven’t done any school work, or spoken to my friends since schools closed. I feel lonely and worried about catching up.”
With so much uncertainty about the future, it is important that we take steps now to mitigate these impacts and try to safeguard our children from the most acute negative effects.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Digital Exclusion must be taken seriously. Put simply, we need to ensure that every single child has access to the equipment that they need for learning. As a chair of governors at a school with a significant proportion of the cohort eligible for free school meals, I understand well the impact of poverty on educational outcomes, and how important it has been for our students to have access to online resources.
How we respond to the challenges that we face here in Luton and across the country is both very simple and incredibly difficult. We recognise the economic constraints that are being felt, and the difficult choices that need to made. However, equitable access to education is not a luxury, it is a basic right of every young person.
(Henrietta H. Fore, Unicef Executive Director)
This is a responsibility that we must take seriously. Bridging the digital divide is an important first step.
Rehana Faisal (Luton Mosques)