Donors help to narrow the digital divide for local children

Photo of packing the stationary in Lancaster University Students Union Office

The Coronavirus pandemic and the enforced school closures it has brought have heightened the digital divide that exists between school children across the local area. Partnering with key local organisations, Lancaster University has taken huge steps towards redressing this balance. Working alongside a number of educational providers and Eden Project North the University helped to launch the ‘Connecting Kids’ campaign, which seeks to deliver equal educational opportunities for all children across the Lancaster and Morecambe Bay community.

Working with Professor Dame Sue Black, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Engagement, Lancaster’s Development & Alumni Relations team co-ordinated a fundraising effort that secured over £120,000 from local charitable foundations, businesses and individuals.

Lancaster and Morecambe is a district with many complex obstacles to young people’s social mobility and it has hit been particularly hard by Covid-19 in both infection rates and the socio-economic consequences.

As lockdown began, the internet became more vital than ever to all of us – and consequently, the digital divide was brought into stark focus. Research carried out by The Sutton Trust in 2018, found that just over a third of parents with children aged 5-16 reported their child did not have access to a computer, laptop or tablet which they could use to access the internet at home. Our conversations with local headteachers confirmed that these statistics were mirrored in their schools - they highlighted their concerns around being unable to stay in contact with their most vulnerable pupils, and the impact this would have on their education.

“We contacted our families during the first few weeks of lockdown to check in on their emotional well-being initially and then to see how they were coping with home learning. We anticipated that some would be without a device but we uncovered massive barriers; families without devices, families with one device being shared with many siblings and parents working from home and households with no WiFi or broadband. The provision of devices and ability to access the internet has had a massive positive impact on so many families. This contact has been a vital lifeline for emotional as well as academic support. Today a teacher told me she had received an email from one of her previously disconnected students, ‘I have really missed you, Miss. It was so soothing to hear your voice on that PowerPoint you made for our home learning.” Victoria O’Farrell, Headteacher at Lancaster Central High School

Connecting Kids coordinated a wide-range of support to benefit as many children as possible; an agreement was made that pupils studying in the district’s secondary schools would benefit most from increased access to technology – with eight local high schools identifying 368 young people without access to a laptop and internet and a further 118 young people being identified by community partners. Meanwhile, primary schools told us that thousands of pupils were at risk of falling behind due to not having the simplest resources such as pens and colouring pencils. To support primary school pupils, we sourced donations of and offers of discounted stationary to distribute across the district.

“Trying to get my four kids to do school work on an old laptop I had was really stressful for everyone. Getting a new laptop and proper internet connection has been life-changing. My son’s stress levels have dropped. He’s been able to do the work set by his teachers, send it to them and email them if he’s stuck.”

Parent of a local secondary school pupil

Our academics in Linguistics and Imagination Lancaster (Design) supported by the Students’ Union, created ‘Project in a Box’ – a box filled with craft supplies to engage, excite and connect with young people isolated at home. Children were encouraged to record and share their activities with their teachers. This method of free-play was energised through a series of ‘prompt posters’ created by Lancaster’s design researchers, drawing on suggestions from academics across the university.

“There has been a wonderful response to project in a box from both children and parents. Just what you would have wanted! It has really sparked their interest, as well as making them feel valued. I have treasured the interactions – some quite tingly moments! These are mainly children and families that I have had little or even no personal contact with – you can see how they have felt a bit lost and have now been given a special opportunity.”

Linda Pye, Headteacher, Ryelands Primary School

The third stream of work the partnership embarked on was a mentoring programme to support secondary school pupils. A mentoring pilot was carried out in the summer with 40 Lancaster University students being trained up to support school pupils during this challenging time – the pilot aimed to understand young people’s experiences and preferences for future mentoring provision. Working closely with headteachers, we have now been able to design a programme which offers something unique which enhances the schools’ existing provision and meets the needs of young people. We are hopeful that as the mentoring continues through November and December, that it creates a stronger connection between local school pupils and Lancaster University.

We would like to thank our donors who share the University’s determination to ensure that as many children as possible in our region have equal access to the resources needed to make the transition from the classroom to the kitchen table seamless. You have helped Lancaster University to work with partners to ensure that this rapid response to an urgent need becomes a long-term, sustainable investment in our local community.

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