Only six years ago government ministers were warning that poorer
families would be further disadvantaged without access to the
internet and the skills to use it.
At the time, fewer than one in 10 families had home internet access
and it was available in fewer than one in six primary
Today almost every child has access to Information and
Communications Technology (ICT) at school, while just over half
also have a connection at home.
Moreover, there is a nationwide network of 6,000 community ICT
centres and a host of schemes to help more deprived families,
including the supply of cheap recycled computers.
But it would be wrong to assume that this means the “digital
divide” between the ICT-rich and the ICT-poor has closed
People from the top two social classes are still three times more
likely to have home access than those from the lowest classes. And
there is little sign of progress – only a fifth of those in the
lowest classes have a home connection, with no improvement over the
past four years.
Cost is certainly a factor here – although a survey for the Greater
London Authority found that people tend to expect connection to be
twice as expensive as it actually is – and the speed of
technological change quickly renders machines outdated or
According to recent research by the London School of Economics, the
result is that a large group of children are being left behind. One
in six nine- to 19-year-olds never or rarely engage with the
internet, with over half citing lack of access as the reason for
Of course, there is a group of e-refuseniks; teenagers who say they
are just not interested in the web.
But many don’t engage because they lack the time or the skills to
go online. Some say they have parents who bar access or restrict it
because of concerns about paedophiles, pornography and other
dubious content. These kind of risks can put off young people
Parents wield a crucial influence. Regular teenage net users are
more likely to have parents who use the internet themselves and who
are more likely to trust them and see it as a beneficial
But almost one in five parents don’t know how to help their
children to use the internet safely, and most parents want to
receive better advice on children’s internet use and better
teaching guidance in schools.
Skills are critical to how rich the web experience is for children.
Even among the frequent users, many children make only limited use
of the web, concentrating on fewer than five different websites.
Some only use it as a passive entertainment medium rather than
explore its interactive potential.
However, more affluent children tend have spent more years
accessing the web and have better skills as a result; they also
range wider, visiting civic and political websites, for
Sonia Livingstone, author of the LSE study, warns: “Now that many
young people rely on the internet for information, homework help
and careers guidance, it matters more that some of them are getting
“Not knowing how best to use the internet may have a negative
impact on their education and employment opportunities.”
In an attempt to address this issue, the government boldly promised
earlier this year that Britain would become the first country to
close the “digital divide”.
It pledged to give all secondary school pupils – including those
from low income families – the opportunity to access the internet
A first step toward this is an extra £25m annual investment in
the E-Learning Foundation, a scheme that helps schools to finance
four-year lease deals for laptop computers for classroom- and
The first year is free to schools and parents, after which time it
is hoped they will be persuaded of the benefits. There is extra
help for areas with high numbers of pupils receiving free school
Last year, one group of pupils given laptops at Broadgreen High
School in a deprived area of Liverpool outperformed the rest of
their year in SATs tests.
Nevertheless, fewer than one in ten schools lease laptops that
pupils can take home. Cost is one barrier, especially as parents
are asked to contribute. But there are also concerns that pupils
taking laptops home may make them a target for thieves.
By 2010, the Government wants all schools to become centres where
the local community can access ICT technology, as part of the
extended schools initiative.
However, questions remain about how these centres will sit
alongside the existing UK Online network of community ICT centres,
and whether investment may be spread too thinly. The charity
Citizen’s Online points out that UK Online centres in north Wales
are facing closure due to lack of funding.
So, can the digital divide be bridged? Worryingly, even some in the
communications industry are sceptical. A study for British Telecom
last year suggested that, in 20 years time, two fifths of UK
households will still remain unconnected to the internet.
The government certainly has its work cut out if it is to bring an
end to this modern day social exclusion.
The Digital Strategy
The Government’s Digital Strategy, published in March,
* All learners – child and adult – will be given their own
web-based “learning space” to store and access their work from
school or college. In future, these sites may have the ability to
remember what the person is interested in, suggest relevant
websites and alert them to courses they may find useful.
* Parents will be given the ability to check up on their child’s
school progress online.
* £25m extra will be invested in laptop leasing schemes for
schools, enabling pupils to take laptop computers home.
* Standard anti-virus software, firewalls and parental controls
will be installed in all school PCs under a new national