Why the Labour Party have got it wrong on education and the “digital divide”

So here we are again, another lockdown. And after much reluctance (despite all the evidence available) of the government and the abject failings of the Opposition to support teacher unions and parents, schools are once more closed. No-one really wants the schools to close, it creates additional pressures and stresses for those working from home as well as for low-paid, precarious workers who now have an additional challenge before them to keep their households safe whilst also keeping their bosses off their backs. However, it was undeniable that this move was required to ensure comunit safety.

Down here in Kent (home to the Kent Strain of course), it was becoming increasingly obvious in the lead up to Christmas that there was…a problem. The number of cases at the schools are children went to were clearly rising and it was sheer chance that we didn’t have to deal with either daughter picking it up before the end of term. Despite all the claims about testing in the new year, we knew that it would still be an issue going into the new term, and so were reluctant to send both children back to school.

Despite hollow assurances to the contrary (does anyone trust this government’s management of the pandemic?), we took the decision not to send our youngest to primary school on Monday. This was an “easy” decision for us as I am able to comfortably work from home and be a parent. For many others, it wasn’t so easy and their children were sent to primary school. For me, the failures of the government to close the schools, and the Opposition not to demand it, are criminal. Kids went back to school at a point where it is now clear the virus is far easier to spread. The government knew this, yet refused to close the schools. The Opposition were warned by teacher unions, but they ignored them, presumanly part of their new posturing to attract Daily Mail readers as they pivot to a position more sceptical of organised labour than the previous leadership (and more openly racist as recent pronouncements seem to suggest — “britain first…[with the vaccines]”, Union Jack flag a ubiquitous prop etc etc).

As if to try and re-establish some sense of progressive credentials, the Opposition has now repeatedly pushed the case for broadband for all to ensure children aren’t left behind due to school closures (“broadband communism” I believe it is called…). Pushed by MPs across the party, from Wes Streeting to Siobhan McDonagh to my own representative, Rosie Duffield, there have been growing calls to give everyone broadband access and give everyone a computer. (edit: at time of writing, Labour have also published a call to get every child onlinemore on this at the end to save me re-writing everything). Great idea. Sounds positive and supportive of those that will struggle during this period. Except, like Blairite era Labour, it only sounds good, think about beyond the soundbites and you realise it doesn’t really solve the problem.

There are three main problems that spring to mind with respect to this suggestion:

  1. Digital inclusion is not achieved simply by distributing equipment. Our understanding of the “digital divide” has long moved beyond simply providing access to the internet and provisioning devices. This is only part of the problem. Equally crucial is addressing the divide in digital skills. It is no good simply providing the equipment if there is a lack of digital skills within the houshold. The question is how do we ensure that the households that receive the equipment are able to use it effectively in a pandemic where social distancing needs to be ensured for community safety.
  2. Space. Not every child lives in a house where they have the space to study. Without a suitable space to conduct their studies, how will a computer alone help ensure they aren’t left behind?
  3. Abusive households. Children living in abusive households with dominating and abusive parents will surely just see the computers being dominated by the parents who won’t permit their children to access the device and use it for school work.

(There are many other reasons I’m sure, but those three stick out for me like a flashing red warning beacon.)

Regarding the skills issue, shortly after it was announced that schools would close, I saw a Facebook thread created by a trainee teacher offering remote help for those that need it. One comment in the thread summed up the situation perfectly as one parent expressed the difficulties her child had with logging into the school online. They won’t be alone in this and expecting children not to be left behind simply on the basis that they have a device is naive and unhelpful.

If anything, this position will simply ensure a “hidden” left-behind. On the return to schools there is a risk of a belief (by politicians, not teachers) that because every child had access to a device, there are no further issues that need addressing and education can just proceed as normal. What then for those that had devices but were unable to maintain their schooling? What will be done when they return to ensure they aren’t left behind?

None of this is to say that children should be in school, nor is it to say that nothing should be done. But we have to be very careful not to assume that to ensure no-one is disadvantaged, we need to ensure broadband access and a device for everyone. Broadband for all is an excellent policy (one of many that we would have benefitted from if the election went a different way in 2019), but it doesn’t solve all the problems. There is a danger of slipping into the idea that the younger generation are naturally adept at technology, equally we must not assume that all parents are equally adept and able to provide support. Internet connected devices are no good unless you are able to ensure the skilled support is available too. Unless that too is grasped, then we risk entrenching divides rather than closing them.

Update: So that policy document (which appears to be Wes Streeting’s idea) outlines the following:

  1. Provide access to a device for every child who needs one
  2. Provide internet access for every child who needs it, through rapidly expanding Get Help with Technology programme
  3. Work to remove data charges by “zero-rating” educational websites and where possible ensure school digital delivery is exempted from mobile and other data packages, to stop mobile data charges from pricing disadvantaged families out of education
  4. Redeploy officials to help identify and meet technical support needs
  5. Work with schools and pupils to deliver a guarantee of minimum contact time with teachers

It’s a really poor attempt to address the issues and brushes over skills (which are absolutely crucial) in such a superifcial way, it’s hard to believe that anyone who spent any time on this understands the issues faced by so many. As in the post above, this looks like they are trying to do something to address the divide, the reality is that it will do nothing to alleviate the “digital divide” and will simply entrench the gap.

Additional: there are many other reasons it is crap, I’m focusing on the digital divide aspect because it’s something I’ve written about many times in the past (here and here for eg). There are many other reasons it’s crap that I haven’t covered. See, for example this thread on Twitter by LabAnimeCaucus:

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