New coalition to tackle the digital divide in the West Midlands

19 Feb 2021


A Birmingham mum who has home schooled three children using just a mobile phone believes that many people are too proud to admit they are affected by the so-called digital divide.

During the first lockdown Tamara from Balsall Heath struggled using one device with limited data, until a local charity provided her with a tablet.

She says more people need help like she received but thinks many won’t come forward and admit they need help accessing the internet.

She made the comments as the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has formed the West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion to decide on the next steps to help people like Tamara.

Working with digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, the Coalition will bring together organisations from across the region to decide the best ways to prevent residents from suffering from the digital divide - the gap between those who have full access to the internet and devices and those who don’t.

Tamara said: “I struggled during the first lockdown. I’m not a teacher - I’m a mum. I know a part of being a mum is to teach, but it was just overwhelming. All I had was my phone and limited data, between all of us.

“I could have bought a device, but I would have struggled with the monthly payments. It was great I go help but I think nowadays many people wouldn’t want to admit they can’t get on the internet.”

The West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion was formed as a result of the digital roadmap which is the WMCA’s plan to give the region a digital reboot, by tackling digital exclusion, reach net zero carbon by 2041 and support a post-Covid recovery.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “With schools temporarily closed, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how some children and their families do not have a computer and access to the internet. The Government is helping to tackle this whilst schools are closed, but this issue will not just go away when they re-open. Given the digital age we live in, digital poverty is something we must come together as a region to address.

“That is why the WMCA published its Digital Roadmap last week and has now formed the West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion, so we can look at exactly how we work together to address the issue. Everyone across the West Midlands should have access to the internet and digital opportunities, and that is what we will look to achieve through this coalition.”

The formation of the Coalition comes after the WMCA published its West Midlands Digital Roadmap last week, which identified increasing access to digital opportunities for everyone as a key opportunity. Currently 45% of people in the West Midlands are either using the internet infrequently or not at all, and the region has the highest proportion of employers - 38% - saying they find digital skills difficult to obtain from applicants of any UK region.

The digital divide has been particularly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic and

earlier this month the WMCA donated around 150 old laptops and desktop computers to school children to help address digital poverty across the region. Although some people may use digital for entertainment such as using social media, they may not have the skills needed to get a better paid job or to use technology to help with their finances such as switching online to a cheaper utility provider or banking online.

The West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion currently has 30 members representing the public and private sectors and voluntary, community and faith organisations. Working with the Good Things Foundation, the WMCA is bringing together these partners to share best practice and to use partners’ collective voice to secure investment to help close the digital gap.

After struggling to home school her children aged nine, five and two, using just a mobile phone Tamara received a tablet and internet access under a project run by Smartlyte, part of the Good Things Foundation network of online centres, which runs a project ‘Get Families Talking' to support communities that are digitally and financially excluded.

She said: “Home schooling is much easier now and my children are using the tablet for doing and posting their homework. They read books on it, watch cartoons and we do exercise videos together. We look up recipes together and baked a cake which was learning too for the children with the measuring and reading.”

In addition, the tablet allowed the family to keep in touch with other family members and enabled Tamara to shop for groceries, bank online and access health information.

Cllr Patrick Harley portfolio lead for Digital and Culture and leader of Dudley Council said: “The West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion is part of the WMCA’s Digital Roadmap which outlines five missions to digitise the region, including increasing access to digital opportunities by tackling digital exclusion.

“There is a need to close this divide in the West Midlands to make the most unique regional opportunities like HS2, the Commonwealth Games, and Coventry City of Culture.”

Any organisations, particularly voluntary and faith community groups, who are interested in getting involved should email Isobel.thomas@wmca.org.uk.