The children we left behind: How the digital divide plagued the poor

Great Britain, a symbol of industrialisation, sovereignty and power is now also the perfect example of inequality and poverty. Earlier this year, the lack of resources available to feed and teach the nation’s children even forced UNICEF, global children’s charity, to intervene. Recent findings have also revealed that the switch to online learning has left millions of disadvantaged children without an education. When almost 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop, a desktop, or a tablet at home, is it truly a surprise that Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world? Perhaps not, but it is certainly embarrassing. 

In the fifth largest economy of the world, children are being denied an adequate education due to their wealth. Not only do children in low-income households have limited (or no) access to digital devices, they are also less likely to have WiFi – in fact, only 51% of households earning under £10K have internet access, in comparison to 99% of households earning above £40k. Instead of WiFi, low-income families rely on costly mobile phone data…Javed Khan, chief executive of the charity Barnado’s, described the dangers of parents being forced to used expensive mobile data to help their kids stay in school.

“With some families facing the choice between heating and eating, and now trying to afford data too – we need urgent action to support those suffering most during the crisis.”

COVID exacerbated and exposed pre-existing wealth inequalities that plague the nation. Not only does education provide disadvantaged children with an opportunity to exit the poverty-cycle but it is also considered a basic human right – it is inexcusable that sufficient resources have not been provided to children that cannot afford online-learning, what’s even worse is that this ever-widening gap between the classes is not being acknowledged by those most responsible for this damage. Even before online-learning, children from low-income households faced far more obstacles than their wealthier counterparts: children on free school meals are only half as likely to achieve grades 9-5 (A*-B) in GCSE English and Maths; later on in their education, only 49% of working-class children will earn a place at university compared to 77% of the richest…Statistics from high-paying careers shows that 70% of High Court judges, 54% of top journalists, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs, 51% of top Medics and 32% of MPs had a private school education, despite only 7% of the population doing so. No doubt these statistics will only get worse in future years when the damage of online-learning to education will become more evident. Children in wealthy families have the support and influences of parents that hold degrees and an understanding of digital devices, children born into disadvantaged families have parents that are currently struggling with furlough or unemployment, who don’t have the benefits of a university degree and don’t have the digital devices or understanding to support their children’s education. As a result, children from disadvantaged backgrounds will remain socially immobile, forced to endure the same poverty that their parents were subjected to. 

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Children are being abandoned by the school system through no fault of their own, or their parents. Families with multiple children also have to share already limited Wi-Fi, share desks and even digital devices, making simultaneous live online learning a near-impossible feat. Khaedra Siyad, a mother of seven children, living in Bristol described how she struggles to afford broadband charges – let alone provide her children with additional devices.

“It’s very, very hard – the internet is the food money I don’t have.”

The latest government scheme to distribute a million laptops to school children has failed to acknowledge a lack of internet connection – perhaps ironically, the government’s attempt to resolve the issue provides the perfect example to show how detached they really are…In an attempt to remedy this divide the BBC’s Make a Difference campaign launched a laptop project which raised £700k to be donated to schools and local businesses and donated almost 18k laptops to families in need of digital devices, such as Khaedra’s.

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New research shows that the richest six people in the UK own as much wealth as the bottom 13 million, emphasising the widening differences in wealth and opportunities between the rich and poor. So during this lockdown, whilst the rich preach about how “we are all in this together” in their mansions or private swimming pools, complaining about how the pandemic has negatively affected all of our lives, take a moment to think about the children whose health, aspirations, and education have been irreparably damaged as a result of government incompetence. The digital divide is a consequence of wealth inequality prevalent in all regions of the UK. As stated by the UN, poverty in the UK is a tragic systematic issue which has condemned disadvantaged children to lives in poverty. Many of us will leave this pandemic with a slight dislike of staying inside, perhaps a newfound love for banana bread, but for millions of children across the country, the lasting effects of this virus will be something they will battle for the rest of their lives.

Header image credit: BBC News