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After creating a device loan system to support young people in digital poverty through the pandemic, Richard Clegg shares a five-point plan to address the inequality.

The UK prides itself on its creative and digital sectors. With the job market rapidly changing, we are seeing the creation of roles that didn’t exist five years ago. As leaders in the sector, we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn using modern technology, which can ignite an understanding of individual passions, capabilities and ambition.

Digital poverty is often hidden and it’s damaging to young people’s prospects and the future workforce. In 2020, one million households were estimated to have broadband affordability issues, a figure which it’s estimated will rise along with inflation. 

In the same year, only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,000.

Children in poverty are already significantly disadvantaged, as evidenced by their achievements in school. Only 29% of those eligible for free school meals, or who have been in care or adopted from care, achieved grades 9-5 (A* to C) in GCSE English and Maths in 2019, compared with over 55% of all other pupils

Why does addressing digital poverty matter?

It is universally accepted that learning and education improve and increase brain function, which in turn provides a more stable future for individuals. Acquiring digital skills can lead to an increase in earnings of between 3% and 10%. And as employability prospects and the ability to find work improve, so does the potential for a prosperous life. 

Not only does alleviating digital poverty help create equal opportunities, in line with the government’s mandate to ‘level up’, but people with successful lives are more likely to be able to give back to the community. 

Digital skills also improve communication both in the workplace and in personal life, crucial to building understanding and strong relationships at work and home. And using digital services has been shown to reduce working hours by two weeks a year.

But in terms of immediate impact, those living in digital poverty miss out on money-saving deals. With businesses increasingly moving away from physical high street stores in favour on online trading, the digital divide means those without internet access or lacking devices lose out the most.

The device loan scheme

As the CEO of a youth organisation - Community Music in East London - the severe impact of digital inequality was exacerbated during lockdown. 

While the majority of young people had smartphones, they didn’t have access to the technology required to follow their teachers on Zoom - such as functional apps or multiple screens. This resulted in many cancelled sessions and falling further behind. 

One of the ways we set about tackling the problem was to set up a device loan system of 100 Apple Mac desktops that we supplied to the young people to ensure they could learn effectively.

One young person in particular, who was unable to leave home - even when lockdown restrictions were loosened - due to mental and physical health problems, benefited enormously from the loan system. He was able to continue connecting with our organisation and support team while studying and feeling part of the community. He is now able to go on to a degree course and move forward with his career goals.

But much more is needed to combat digital poverty – perhaps starting with rolling out such loan systems on a national level. 

Five-point plan

As a result of our success with Community Music’s loan scheme, I have thought further about how to ensure young people have the tools they need – and it’s not just about devices or access to broadband, it’s also about engagement. Here’s my five-point plan for tackling digital inequality:

1 Availability of devices
There are some 6.5m 10–19-year-olds in the UK. Laptop access is required these days for every young person to develop skills and engage in learning. While this could be expensive, dedicated locations should be set up across the UK with access points.

2 Learning and working environments 
We need modern digital library environments that function as places to learn and engage. With so many empty retail spaces on the high street, this offers ideal locations to build access points for young people – as well as their parents or carers.

These learning environments could be integrated into existing strategic initiatives: either the DCMS Youth Investment Fund strategy, which will distribute up to £368m over three years from 2022/23, or the DCMS High Street Heritage Action Zones strategy. 

3 Digital skills and literacy for teachers and parents
We need modern creators to work in the education sector to bring exciting, engaging and thoughtful online learning and support materials into schools, colleges and universities. Such as the kind of content we create at Community Music which is designed specifically to encourage parents to get involved with their children’s learning. 

It would involve a rethink of teacher training to recruit, train and employ teachers willing and able to develop schools’ online products to meet modern educational needs.

4 Broadband affordability
Broadband costs are set to increase by over 9% this year. With the entry level monthly price of broadband higher than £20 in 33% of LSOAs of England and Wales, and the cost of living crisis, there will undoubtedly be pressure on households. Those living in digital poverty need assistance to remain connected or they risk falling further behind. 

5 Broadband access
Ofcom states that 96% of the UK currently has access to superfast broadband with some 55% having access to 5G. Over the next few years, it will be possible for everyone to access broadband and 5G, depending - crucially - on pricing and affordability.

In order to build and maintain young people’s cognitive skills, ambition and aspirations in this fast-paced, new era of technology, that pricing and affordability question must be addressed. 

Digital inequality is largely hidden. Access to devices, software, broadband and hence education itself is determined by economic status. If everybody had access to modern digital tools and felt confident online - that would steer education and development. That would be real levelling up. 

Richard Clegg is Chief Executive Officer of Community Music.

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