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Opinion

We can’t risk digital poverty locking children out of education

Choosing between food or education is simply a choice no family should ever have to make, writes Matt Hood.

As the country understandably moves to remote education, we must step up every effort to support and protect our most vulnerable students. The unfortunate truth is that economic deprivation and digital poverty is a significant factor affecting remote learning.

This is a complex problem, but there is one clear issue that we can address: the cost of accessing online resources for the lowest income families.

That’s why I won’t stop shouting about ‘zero rating’ education websites. This is tech speak for mobile networks and internet providers taking away data charges for accessing certain education websites – so it won’t cost the user, nor count towards their data limits.

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The importance of this cannot be overstated. The latest figures from Ofcom highlight that up to 1 million children can only access the internet via a mobile device, meaning that they’re trying to replicate that classroom experience through a phone.

And even worse, an Ofcom survey in December found that one in five households reported problems with the affordability of their telecoms services – equivalent to 4.7 million households. What’s more, five per cent of households had lowered how much they spend on clothes and even food to pay for data for their child to learn.

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Economic factors play a huge role in our existing education system, with house prices soaring around the best schools to give the most affluent a means of securing places.

But this is something more fundamental: families are struggling to pay for their child to even have an education. Choosing between food or education is simply a choice no family should ever have to make.

This flies in the face of the social contract we promise to our young people in this country, that they will be able to access a broad and balanced education, regardless of their economic circumstances. Instead we have added education to the list of utilities, like gas and electricity on a meter, where poor families pay a premium, or risk being locked out.

The Government has put in place measures to address this already, and they have done some real good here. The Department for Education has already provided half a million laptops to families most in need, with plans to distribute another 100,000 this week.

They’ve built on this by providing data uplifts upon request from schools. This certainly helps, but unfortunately data uplifts can run out rapidly, leaving that student back where they started.

From speaking to the telecoms sector I know there is a tremendous amount of goodwill, and some companies have offered free data SIMs to schools who request them to keep students connected.

But considering the importance of remote education over the coming weeks, and even after the lockdown ends, data uplifts and assorted free SIMs will not be enough.

That’s why I want to go further, and look towards a universal solution.

At Oak National Academy we are calling on every telecoms company to join our campaign to zero rate educational websites. I know this is tricky – many videos are hosted on websites like YouTube which obviously can’t have that blanket exemption – but our fantastic video partners Mux have come up with a plan to make this work.

Zero rating educational websites would make them free of data charges, so no child is locked out of education. It would take away one source of stress for those families worried about making ends meet, and would help make remote education a level playing field.

We know that the next few weeks are going to prove challenging for families across the country, and this will by no means act as a total panacea. But it will mean that children face one less obstacle when it comes to receiving a high-quality online education. We need that to happen, or else risk failing the most vulnerable.

Matt Hood is the principal of Oak National Academy, providing free online lessons for teaches in the UK.

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