THE BLOG

The New Broadband Divide: Why Our Children Need Internet Access

16/01/2014 13:03 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The teeth-gritting screech of chalk on a blackboard is now confined to dusty archives, and technology in the classroom has evolved in leaps and bounds, enabling a rich, diverse, engaging learning experience for pupils. Schools, though, are only responsible for our children for around six hours a day. Outside of that timeframe, it is largely up to children's families and carers to pick up the mantle and provide the right environment and tools for learning. The Internet is, or at least should be, one of these tools. Now campaign group Mind the Gap has revealed that one in ten pupils in the UK is being denied access to the Internet at home, giving them a huge disadvantage not just at school but when they come to join the workplace. This figure is shameful. We're a first world country: for our children, the Internet isn't a 'nice to have', it's critical.

For adults, the Internet simplifies and improves our everyday lives: it gives us access to medical care, to banking facilities, to our grocery shopping, and to a vast, powerful universe of knowledge and communications. For children, the Internet has a key part to play in their learning experience at home from a very young age: for research, for numerical and literacy games, to bring stories to life through video. It fuels a desire to learn.

Remember the children at school who didn't have a TV? Certainly for those that I knew, it was down to the lifestyle choice of academic parents, and there was no doubt that without a TV, the children read books, played games, talked, and experienced a warm family environment. But at school, the children were left on the periphery of conversations about Scooby Doo, Crackerjack and later, Top of the Pops. No bad thing, you might think, but as children get older, fitting in becomes crucial. The media empowers children with an opinion. Shared stories, experiences, likes and dislikes of TV programmes, songs, Internet crazes (albeit in a Gangnam style) help children bond with each other, and the friendship groups that children form have an impact on their confidence, self-esteem, and their willingness to learn.

Outside the learning environment, social media has a significant part to play: it isn't without its issues, but it can give young people a sense of belonging, and provides skills they can take into the workplace. How many businesses now are desperately recruiting graduates or interns to manage their digital media, as they suddenly realise they need to embrace it or get left behind? Technology encourages innovation and entrepreneurialism, both of which form the bedrock of our economy.

The aptitude and enthusiasm of children for learning is immense and should be nurtured. Why is the sky blue? Why doesn't rain go upwards? Why don't we fall off the edge of the earth if it's round? With their minds free from the minutiae of adult lives -bill-paying, form-filling, train ticket-buying - their imaginations, and their capacity for learning, are boundless. Their opportunities should be boundless too but sadly, this isn't the case. Research has shown that time and time again, children from financially-disadvantaged backgrounds do less well at school. Figures from the Department of Education reveal that in 2012, 37% of children eligible for free school meals got an A*-C in English and Maths GCSEs, compared to 63% of all other children. There are many reasons which lie behind a child's achievement at school. Having, or not having, access to the Internet shouldn't be one of them.

The Government has gone some way towards addressing this, by introducing funding for schools called the Pupil Premium, and launching the Education Endowment Foundation, both positive initiatives which are designed to help counteract the negative effects a household's financial status has on a child's education. Some schools are busy raising funds and requesting charitable donations to the same end, but many parents will expect these funds to go back into schools, not into homes.

For me, parents, extended families and the community have a hugely important role to play in narrowing the gap between Internet haves and have nots. Schools could set up 'technology buddies', in which families at the school with Internet access volunteer to provide a safe, secure learning environment for their children's classmates outside school hours. After-school technology club funding could be available, with clubs giving preference to those children without home Internet; funding could be diverted to local community libraries, mobile libraries, cafes, even churches to provide wraparound care for children and access to the Internet. Nearby local businesses could open their doors for an hour each evening.

Yes, there are practical issues and sensitivities, and we must respect that some families might not want the Internet in their homes, nor want hand-outs to provide it. There are safety issues in community care, boxes to tick and CRB checks to be carried out. I'm not suggesting a 'hug your neighbour' utopia. But we need to make sure families understand the critical part the Internet plays in our children's education, and work with our communities to support them, or risk the gap becoming a gulf.