We have, for example, seen first-hand how low-income families have been struggling with home schooling in disrupted and sometimes chaotic environments full of stress and anxiety.
For many children and young people, the Covid-19 crisis has only amplified difficulties that already exist in their lives, increasing their isolation and forcing them to spend many more hours in homes that lack the bare essentials and comforts most people take for granted.
Like many others, I welcome recent initiatives to help families: the government’s £1b cash injection in the form of a national tutoring fund; the recent Private Members Bill to increase the availability of computers and internet access to children and the U-turn on free school meals during the summer holidays. However, I have real concerns that without careful thought these initiatives will be a missed opportunity. More than a third of the poorest children do not have the internet at home and a similar number do not have a computer, official figures suggest.
The current crisis is highlighting the ‘digital divide’ in the UK and the impact that not having IT equipment and internet access at home is having many children’s education. But this divide has been clear for years now, it is hitting hard now because we have failed to collectively tackle the problem.
If the majority of children will not be back at school until September, and if we are serious about the poorest children having anything like the same chances in life as their wealthy peers, then this issue does need urgent action. September is a long way off, and for most children it will mark six months out of formal education.
However, what Buttle UK sees through applications for support is that that there are other factors that are dramatically impacting on home schooling. Without considering these, throwing money at the problem of IT and internet access will not reduce the growing educational divide.
What have we learnt through lockdown?
Buttle UK provides grants directly to children and young people and their families. Since lockdown, these grants have been funding household essentials, IT equipment and internet access, educational books and toys, and in some cases funds to buy food and toiletries.
These Chances for Children grants are designed to offer a holistic package of funding support to meet children and young people’s specific needs, but critically, also to work in tandem with local frontline support services who offer longer term support to the whole family. Key items and activities for children, alongside longer-term support on the ground, makes a clear difference.
From our grant giving we know that the situations of the most vulnerable families are complex, but what we are currently seeing are high levels of mental health problems and a struggle to feed the family. Frontline workers have seen significant increases in domestic abuse, alcohol misuse and mental health problems in parents, carers and children alike since the beginning of the pandemic. These issues make the environments where children are home schooling incredibly challenging. Parents and carers, who may also have low educational attainment themselves, are struggling to provide the support needed for effective education at home.
We have been supplying laptops and tablets to help children without access to education for years, long before the pandemic brought this issue into focus nationally. We understand how critical these items are for children and young people’s studies. However, providing this equipment on its own without support to help families address their wider issues will massively limit the effectiveness of this intervention.
Buttle UK believes that an effective solution is possible, and we need to learn from initiatives like this, where multiple sectors are working together (charities, schools, government, and the corporate sector in the longer term). We need public and private sectors, schools and frontline services to come together to find the best solutions for breaking the digital divide in the long term, and, critically, we need to listen to what families themselves say they need.
We also know that whilst the government can do more, it cannot endlessly fund initiatives to address the impact of the pandemic. However, the private sector has a lot it can offer here and needs to be pro-active in its response. While this is a difficult time for the economy, tech firms have not been those worst affected. Where there are resources and the potential for innovation in the private sector, we need to harness these to support children and young people in poverty and crisis.
Take, for example, internet access. Broadband packages are usually out of reach to low-income families who cannot commit to, or afford, two-year contacts, let alone pass the strict credit checks. They also move around more than better off families and often live in temporary accommodation where internet access is challenging. Buttle UK are currently working with a national broadband provider to look at a solution to this.
The charity sector also has a responsibility to collaborate with others. I am hugely impressed by the way, for example, a group of charities that provide welfare funds in a similar way to Buttle UK, have come together recently to share learning and look at ways we can offer more coherent and efficient support between us. We need more of these kinds of initiatives.
It sounds trite, but it really is only by working together that we will make a dent in these seemingly intractable issues. We must do it; we all have a stake in preventing a lost generation.
Joseph Howes is chief executive of Buttle UK