Almost half of education settings in Wales have insufficient devices for remote learning
A snapshot survey by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales finds a “wide range of barriers” facing learning to access online learning as the Welsh Government announces a potential return for primary schools in February.
A new report focusing on the level of access to online learning for children and young people in Wales has found a wide variety of issues.
There had been growing concern over the ability of Welsh education settings to properly accommodate for online learning, specifically focused on issues around access to appropriate devices and quality internet connections, as schools remain closed under UK coronavirus restrictions.
The survey of 167 school and college leaders in Wales found that 42% of educational settings did not have enough devices to ensure that all children were able to access online learning, more than half (52%) said that there were some households who did not have access to the internet.
In addition, over a third of those surveyed (35%) said that more than half of their learners were using shared rather than exclusive devices, and one in ten reported that 20% of their learners did not have access to a device at all.
The report also found that social barriers were “as important as digital access,” with low confidence and lack of time and space affecting the ability of some parents to fully support their children’s online learning.
The findings were published as the Welsh Government announced that primary schools could be in line to return earlier than expected, with a phased return following the February half term being considered.
This is in contract to the UK Government’s recent announcements that schools in England would not return until 8 March at the earliest, with Northern Ireland also confirming that date for students to return to the classroom. Scotland has said it will review the issue on 2 February.
But the Welsh Government is facing pressures to ensure that children return to the classroom sooner partly due to the issues surrounding access to online learning – especially in more rural areas of the country.
Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford revealed that if infections continued to fall then the youngest primary school pupils may be able to return from 22 February.
"Our children and young people have had a torrid time, over the last 12 months, they are missing out on education, every week," said Mr Drakeford.
He added he hoped older pupils and college students who had to do vocational examinations could also be in line for a phased return to education settings following the February half-term.
Mr Drakeford said he wanted "everything to be on the table", including whether having smaller groups of children in school would be possible, but did warn that "things we don't know about today could emerge, even before half-term.”
Professor Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, said that her report was not intended to be critical of education settings for the emergent “digital divide” in the country, but rather to call on the Welsh Government to urgently improve broadband coverage and step in to ensure that children had access to the relevant devices.
“I’ve been particularly struck by the huge and varied efforts schools and colleges reported making to provide for the varied needs of their pupils, to try to get them all online and to provide appropriate lessons and wellbeing support using a wide variety of methods,” said Professor Holland.
“[The] Welsh Government should consider the findings of this report alongside their own current audit to ensure remaining local devices supply issues are resolved without delay.
“To ensure Wales-wide coverage, Welsh Government should progress with urgency their discussions with major UK mobile and broadband providers so that offers to English counterparts are extended to learners in Wales.”
“Education relies on learners being able to study independently at home and the pandemic has reinforced social and educational inequalities. Digital inclusion is one of the routes towards ensuring that every child has an equal chance to reach their full potential,” the Commissioner concluded.