Culture change over digital divide in Leeds is a slow process as school lockdown debate continues

Changes are happening to address the digital divide but it won't be fast enough to help the young people who need it now.

Wednesday, 27th January 2021, 6:00 am

The stark realisation comes from organisations of tech savvy volunteers who have spent the last few months getting hold of unused laptops, tablets and internet kit to give to school children and college students so they can continue to learn at home during a third national lockdown.

Leeds Tech Angels was established in December to do just that. It's aim was to hand out 200 devices and already has 100 donations and pledges so far.

Digital Access West Yorkshire (DAWY) is another group of volunteers with backgrounds in refurbishing and distributing tech, digital inclusion, education and community development. It says it has not had a week since it was set up in April last year when it has managed to clear the "ever-increasing" request list.

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Having access to the right equipment is crucial to home-learning for Leeds youngsters in lockdown.

It comes as divisive debate raged in the Commons about whether schools should re-open on a region by region basis following suggestions by education secretary Gavin Williamson that reopening would be Easter at the earliest, followed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson alluding that it could be earlier.

The Northern Powerhouse states there are at least 116,000 families in Yorkshire and the Humber without access to a laptop, tablet or desk computer. Tech Angels found that more locally in Leeds, 50 per cent of pupils overall lacked their own suitable device to undertake their studies.

The Vodafone schools.connected programme launched in November 2020 and started with 250,000 data SIMs which were snapped up by primary and secondary schools across the UK in just four days. More were made available and today the mobile phone provider has confirmed that of 57,000 distributed to schools and colleges in the North East and Yorkshire - 4,730 have been handed out in Leeds.

However, despite this and the work by local computer shops, and even a £5000 to his local school by Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford, it still won't be enough.

Ben McKenna of Leeds Tech Angels gets to work on re-purposing laptops for handing out to schools.

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Some case studies include students not being able to hand in work until midnight because they had to wait their turn for the one device being shared by the family, doing essays on mobile phones and even re-programming games consoles to complete school work.

"There are some incredibly promising signs of the agenda changing here. We’ve spoke to a great many public bodies who are looking to work out a way they can recycle their technology to the benefit of their service users, or in some cases donate it out to people who need it. But this sort of culture change is often a slow process, and needs buy-in from people at the very top of organisations. We do think that the change is happening, but I’m not sure this will be fast enough for the young people who need it now. Once lockdown is over there will still be a problem of people not having the kit they need, so whilst we would like to be obsolete, we doubt that we will be."

Claire Garside of Digital Access West Yorkshire said it had noted "an increased awareness" of the need to help others get online. A crowdfunder set up earlier this month to help the cause has already raised more than £7300 of a £20,000 target.

She added: "There are now more volunteers focused on repurposing devices and equipping others with digital access in their own community, with one group in South Leeds receiving their first donation of an iPad within 24 hours. Just last month we launched the Digital Access National Network which saw over 100 volunteers, groups and decision makers from organisations coming together to share practice and challenges as we set out to build momentum and sustain support across the country with a next event in February."

Both organisations are focused in getting equipment to those in education that need it immediately and have crowdfunder appeals in place, but going forward DAWY says it will also be supporting adults across the region with community partners and Tech Angels.

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