To Level Up we need to Fix The Digital Divide
The Government needs to put digital inclusion at the heart of Covid-19 recovery, harness the appetite for change, and take decisive action to fix the digital divide writes our Group CEO Helen Milner.
Announced today, the long anticipated Levelling Up White Paper sets out the Government’s plans to address entrenched geographical inequality across the UK.
The White Paper sets out the key actions the Government intends to take to pursue this agenda, shaped into 12 missions that will be enshrined in law. These include some potentially positive ambitions, including a new Digital Education System, a shift to greater devolution, local skills improvements plans and a new strategy for Community Space and Relationships. The full white paper is a long one and we’ll continue digging into it.
At Good Things Foundation, since the start of the pandemic we’ve been calling on the Government to put digital inclusion at the heart of Covid-19 recovery, harness the appetite for change, and take decisive action to fix the digital divide. In this context, it’s disappointing that the Levelling Up White Paper doesn’t go further in committing to closing the digital divide.
Tackling digital exclusion is a vital part of levelling up. Figures from 2021 show that 92% of employers say a basic level of digital skills is important for their staff (WorldSkills UK, 2021), yet 11.8 million adults in the UK lack the essential digital skills required for work (Lloyds Banking Group, 2021).
And – we know that increasing digital skills supports economic growth. An analysis we commissioned in 2018 – soon to be updated in 2022 – showed an estimated return on investment in digital inclusion of £15 per £1 invested – a net benefit to the UK economy over 10 years of over £21 billion.
Unless decisive action is taken, digital exclusion will remain a significant barrier to unleashing individuals’ potential, creating thriving communities and ensuring a prosperous economy.
Foundation digital skills and levelling up
The education sector will play an important role in tackling digital exclusion. Adults can now gain a first qualification in essential digital skills with full funding from the Government. It’s good to see this policy finally rolling out on the ground. It makes basic digital skills as essential as literacy and numeracy.
However, a high proportion of those without basic digital skills have not traditionally engaged with formal adult education opportunities. They frequently face a range of material and motivational barriers that will prevent them from simply ‘taking up training’: 40% of those who are offline earn less than £15k a year, and 47% of those offline ‘just aren’t interested’ in the internet and digital skills (Lloyds Consumer Digital Index, 2021).
That’s why the role of the community sector is vital. Across the country, our local community partners in left behind communities are helping people build their digital confidence and skills, and in the process their motivation and ability to learn. They are able to work with local people to build trust, make digital relevant, and help overcome the wide range of barriers that people can face, including lack of access to a device, sufficient connectivity data, and a lack of digital skills. In addition, through the Future Digital Inclusion programme – funded by the Department for Education – we saw very high levels of progression from this first tier support to further learning, including formal learning in the Further Education and training sector.
We’ve seen first hand the remarkable impact of community engagement on the lives and opportunities of those in greatest need. People such as Victoria:
“I didn’t think I would be able to study online but getting the laptop and support to learn how to use it and the online courses has been amazing. I feel like I have more opportunities now.”
The Government has invested £560 million in the national Multiply programme to fix the failings of the formal education system for the 8 million adults with basic numeracy skills. Where is the parallel investment in basic digital skills?
A new model of digital skills in communities
Through the UK Community Renewal Fund, we’re running three pilots in the West Midlands, North of Tyne, and Greater Manchester to test a Community Digital Skills Pathway – a new model of basic digital skills delivered through partnership between the local and informal community sector and the formal education sector.
By bringing together Online Centres (our local community partners) with Further Education colleges and adult and community learning services, the pilots aim to reach those who will not benefit from the Government’s policy of free formal courses in digital skills, build their digital confidence and engagement with learning, and support them to progress to positive skills and employment outcomes.
By rooting this work in communities, and focusing on empowerment and opportunity for those left behind, this model goes to the heart of the priorities set out in the White Paper – and we hope will provide an impactful, scalable model that Government can invest in as a vital pillar of levelling up, bringing together the best of the community and the education sector to help everyone succeed.
Levelling up needs digital inclusion
Fixing the digital divide is essential to realise the ambition of levelling up. It is not a sideshow, but a fundamental part of the economic and social fabric required to build opportunity, pride and growth.
Regional and local leaders recognise this. Both Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester have made ambitious commitments to digital inclusion and have significant plans in place to deliver; and digital inclusion is a growing priority for many local authorities.
There are promising signs in the White Paper that greater devolution and further investment could allow regional and local areas to do more on digital inclusion, supporting and reinforcing wider policy priorities. It is now for the Government to show national leadership on this vital agenda, and the investment to match.
If the Government, and others, don’t prioritise fixing the digital divide we will never level up opportunities for the people who most need it.
Helen Milner OBE is the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. Founded as a staff-led mutual charity in the UK in 2011, Helen led the establishment of a subsidiary charity, opening an office in Sydney in August 2017, and running the Be Connected Network for the Australian Government.
Helen has over 30 years experience of working in and leading organisations creating and delivering education over and about the internet. She was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.