One of my daughters is a primary school teacher and her remote teaching base is located in the room below mine. Every morning at 9:30, rising up through the floorboards, comes the sound of her instructing a virtual reception class in phonics.
This has several benefits: my enunciation has improved, I’m sitting up nice and straight, and it brings me joy. Also, I have a fuller appreciation of the challenges London’s teachers, pupils and parents have been facing under lockdown.
That appreciation was further deepened by sitting in on meeting last week at which three London headteachers and some of their pupils told Sadiq Khan, London Councils chair Georgia Gould and deputy mayor for education and childcare Joanne McCartney about how education has changed because of the pandemic and what has been learned for the future.
The event was organised to launch the Mayor’s digital exclusion taskforce, a constellation of organisations and initiatives to help close the “digital divide” – the gap between haves and have nots in terms of access to laptops and other devices, to internet connectivity, and to the skills required to make the most of online learning potential, especially during the time schools have been closed.
It was stirring, moving and galvanising. The head of a Battersea primary said it had quickly become apparent that “families didn’t need just a school, they needed much more of a community hub,” and that a lack of “digital literacy” had been exposed on top of the shortage of laptops and bandwidth at home. This had been a barrier, not only for families but also for members of staff, “including myself,” she said.
A counterpart from a secondary in Barnet said engagement and buy-in from pupils and parents alike were hard to secure at the start, not only in academic terms but also with regard to student welfare: “It’s not just teaching, it’s other forms of support too.” She was critical of the Department for Education’s laptop scheme, calling it “a long and difficult process” and “a constant argument” to get even a fraction of the number needed in a school where more than half the children receive free school meals. “We order 20, we get seven,” she said.
A primary head in Camden echoed all of the above, and described a massive effort to adapt, equip and embrace the whole school community as the scale of the crisis became apparent: every device in the school has been loaned out; every day, staff were phoning parents and children to teach those unaccustomed to handling this kind of tech to log in and get online; every experience brought home more clearly how hard remote learning can be for families with too little space in homes where three of more children might have to make do with just a single laptop and a phone hotspot.
For children to be without pencils, paper and books would be unacceptable, she said. So is not being properly-resourced to learn online.
The Mayor, who grew up with seven siblings in a London council house, spoke with conviction. He said the pandemic has “exposed and exacerbated the structural inequalities that exist in the most progressive city in the world in 2020,” and that the digital divide exemplifies this. The taskforce, led by Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell, will encourage the donation of more laptops to those in need of them, working in partnership with the charity London Grid for Learning (LGfL) and in parallel with the National Education Union (NEU), which is running a joint campaign with the Daily Mirror. The LGfL and NEU were on the call too.
Afterwards, Khan told me that good internet connection “should be a basic right, like access to gas and electricity” and that he sees his leadership role entails using his convening clout to the full. He enthused about the part being played by the London Recovery Board, a body he co-chairs with Gould, and which has representatives from the voluntary sector, business, unions and national government working together.
He sees it as key to avoiding different organisations “working in silos”, an important goal “because resources are finite, budgets are going to be tough over the next few years, and this is the way we can pool expertise and resources around common ends.” He defines a goal of “skilling up London. My vision is not a Singapore-on-Thames race to the bottom, but of high-skilled, well-paid, future proof jobs. Digital inclusion is a big part of that.”
The pandemic has exposed the digital dimension of London’s inequalities. Has coping with it helped schools to learn more about addressing it?
The good news is that maybe it has. There will be a lot of ground to make up: concerns were expressed at the meeting about language and vocabulary development, eye harm from too much screen-gazing and psychological wellbeing. But one of the headteachers said there has been big benefits in terms of teachers becoming much more “literate with computers”, sharing knowledge and making use of resources such as the Oak National Academy, the BBC and the LGfL. “I don’t think I’ve seen such collaboration in my 40 years in education,” she said.
She spoke also of a further, perhaps surprising benefit – that having to adapt to teaching remotely has in some ways brought schools and those they serve closer together. “We actually have better links to our communities. I feel we’ve got to know our families much better through this virtual world.” To know them better is to be able to teach their children better too. London’s schools have been transformed for the better in recent decades. There is hope that, with the right resources and collective will, the pandemic will end up helping them to become better still.
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