Tackling Educational Inequality and the Digital Divide: Reflections on the IES report for the OVO Foundation on education inequality in the early years

Anneka Dawson, Principal Research Fellow

The first UK lockdown, back in March 2020, saw children begin learning at home in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19. As the year progressed, children were slowly allowed to attend schools and nurseries as lockdown measures were eased. However, the beginning of January 2021 saw the majority of children learning from home again, often relying upon the presence of an online platform provided by their school and the assistance of their guardians in carrying out their learning at home.

The onset of national home-learning since last March has brought to light, and in fact worsened, the digital inequalities among school children. In September 2020, government guidance afforded local authorities and education providers the ability to classify children without access to a digital device or internet as vulnerable. This means that children unable to learn remotely are able to attend school, along with children of key workers. In light of this guidance change, schools have seen a sharp increase in the number of pupils attending school compared to the previous lockdown in March 2020, with one survey finding that one in six primary schools in England reported that 30% or more of their normal roll was attending in person in early January. There are concerns around an increased number of children attending nurseries and schools during a time when pandemic-related infection and death rates remain significantly high.

Whilst the government has delivered some devices to children, enabling them to learn remotely, it is widely reported that this process has been largely inefficient, with many children still without resources to adequately learn from home. Further, a report from the Sutton Trust found that in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, just 10% of teachers overall reported that all their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning. The same report details the digital inequality gap to be widening, with 54% of private sector schools reporting that all their children have devices, compared to 42% in the previous lockdown, whereas state schools reported a rate of 4% in the previous lockdown and 5% in the current lockdown.

Our report published today provides further insight into this important topic. ‘Educational Inequality in the early years’ an IES study commissioned by the OVO Foundation and conducted in collaboration with Sutton Trust and Professor Kathy Sylva (University of Oxford), sought to evaluate the impact of three existing educational projects on children’s communication and language skills from June 2019 to December 2021. Expectedly, the study found that the three projects had to adapt delivery methods during lockdown — usually by adopting virtual modes of delivery. Accordingly, the evaluation was also adapted to examine the changes that the projects made — to continue their delivery and support families during the pandemic (for more on changes during the pandemic please see Anneka’s previous blog here). However, in implementing these changes, the providers were faced with issues of accessibility among children and families.

Our research showed that three providers: Doorstep Library, PEN and Tales Toolkit have all quickly adapted to the pandemic over the last year and created various new resources including live webinars, recorded book readings and tasks, lending of equipment and signposting additional support where families have needed it. These inspiring models could be used by others working with early years groups to maintain support during this current and any future restrictions on in-person provision. Specifically, the providers have delivered the following:

  • Doorstep Library had to stop their usual practice of home visits on account of the first lockdown and were able to adapt to offer families a mix of services providing crucial support during a difficult time. Their services included: online interactive story sessions with volunteers and families; sending out books to children; offering pre-recorded video stories; providing a book swap service; and weekly newsletters to parents to circulate important information.

However, our interviews with the providers, schools and parents found that despite these efforts not all children were able to access the resources virtually. Some families did not have access to IT equipment such as laptops or iPads, and whilst schools, nurseries and the providers tried to mitigate this by providing materials directly this still proved difficult for some families. Additionally, some staff (for example some Teaching Assistants) did not have access to IT equipment in schools, making it difficult for them to access resources for students. Furthermore, some families also faced difficulties in accessing resources such as printers and the Internet, and in some instances even basic resources such as pencils or paper.

IES makes a series of recommendations in the report including the following:

  1. The government needs to urgently action calls from the early years and school sectors to combat the digital divide and support all families to have access to an electronic device per child for learning.

As the impacts of the pandemic will be seen for some time to come, urgent action is needed now to begin to tackle the digital divide exacerbated by Covid-19.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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