Siân Gwenllian, Plaid Cymru Senedd Member for Arfon
Covid has exposed – more than ever – the digital divide between the most well off and least well off children and young people in our society.
The remote learning demands from the past year have made it clear how important digital connectivity is for our pupils and their education, with the level and quality of education being heavily dependent on access to appropriate devices for home learning.
The attainment gap will have been widened further through the varying levels of access for pupils – it has created a desperate need to get to grips with this situation with a robust and effective catch-up scheme.
Research from the University College London in June 2020 highlighted just how poorly Wales performed compared to other parts of the UK in terms of the amount of online learning its pupils completed whilst schools were closed. A reflection, certainly in part, of the severity of digital exclusion.
Without proper access to appropriate devices, pupils are subject to huge disadvantages, and fall behind their peers, expanding the attainment gap further.
This gap has to be addressed – substantial intervention is needed to support pupils by providing quality education and tackling the impact the pandemic has had on the wellbeing of pupils.
One crucial element of providing this support is understanding the extent and the details of the issue, meaning data must be collected and made available, something for which I have been calling since the beginning of the pandemic.
Tackling the digital divide is, of course, another key move in closing the attainment gap and ensuring all pupils have access to education, even when learning has to be completed at home.
In the past week, UK Labour have called on the UK Government to address the digital divide highlighted by the pandemic. In a letter to the UK Education Secretary, Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister, Wes Sheering and Shadow Digital Minister, Chi Onwurah included “provide access to a device for every child who needs one” in its list of demands.
What might disappoint the two Labour Shadow Ministers then is the fact that Wales piloted a scheme in which pupils were provided with laptops, but the Welsh Labour Government decided to abandon it within a year.
The scheme was based on a Plaid Cymru proposal in its campaign for the 2007 Assembly (now Senedd) election, and the pilot began in March 2010 under the Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru coalition government, despite Plaid’s call initially being described as a ‘gimmick’ by other parties.
Local authority figures demonstrated that the pilot had provided 943 laptops, giving 1,360 children access to a laptop. The Labour Education Minister Minster at the time, Leighton Andrews however decided the Welsh Government would not pursue the scheme further before even carrying out an evaluation on its impact.
This was a scheme that aimed to ensure no child in Wales would be faced with digital exclusion, and had already had an impact in some of Wales’ most deprived areas’ (the pilot was carried out in ‘flying start’ and ‘communities first’ areas).
It was a scheme that Plaid Leader Adam Price, who was an MP at the time, noted would cost less over time as laptops became cheaper. It faced heavy criticism from the Welsh Conservatives however, and Welsh Labour decided to prematurely axe it.
So now I feel we must question how the educational landscape would look in Wales had the scheme been committed to, and had all Welsh pupils been provided with access to digital devices.
Since the end of the pilot, 10 years ago, the cost of devices has decreased and the need for them has become increasingly significant. Would the attainment gap be smaller if all children were able to complete homework and engage in extra learning at home?
It certainly without doubt would have prevented the attainment gap from widening at the rate and extent it has during school closures over the past year. It would have meant pupils in Wales could learn from home using online resources and access online lessons. It would have been one less obstacle to overcome this past year in making sure our pupils are not left behind.
As it stands, some provision of devices from the Welsh Government is available, however many children who need them are being denied access due to means testing. Some local authorities’ criteria for a free device includes being in receipt of free school meals, however as the Child Poverty Action Group have pointed out, three quarters of those needing access to a device don’t receive free school meals.
This has to be addressed, and more efforts need to go into ensuring children aren’t held back from their education because of their circumstances.
We cannot let any child be left behind in this pandemic, we have to make sure measures are in place to support pupils in the fallout of the last year.