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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 June 2007, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Digital divide 'is still there'
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

David Puttnam
Lord Puttnam warned technology had to be more than a "sticking plaster"
"Opportunity for all is a cruel myth," said Lord Puttnam, warning that technology, rather than opening up learning, could be reinforcing social divisions.

Speaking at the launch of a report calling for a fresh approach to "digital inclusion", Lord Puttnam said the education system currently "is failing to challenge a whole slew of longstanding inequalities in opportunity and access to learning".

And despite large sums of money being spent on technology in schools, the report from education researchers Futurelab says we need an urgent re-think in how that information and communication technology (ICT) is applied.

"We need to move beyond the assumption that simply providing hardware and offering access to ICT will bridge the gap," says Futurelab's research director, Keri Facer.

As Lord Puttnam put it: there needs to more than a "technological sticking plaster".

The "digital divide" has been a problem almost since computers first arrived in education - with warnings that the haves would become the have-mores and the have-nots would be left even further behind.


While the government has put in the cash to install the latest digital kit in schools - spending about 5bn in the last decade - it has been much harder to influence children's experience of technology in the home.

Computers in school
5bn has been spent on school technology in the past decade

And Futurelab's report is a sharp reminder of how much of a digital gap lies below the surface.

Most households now have internet access - and for readers of a news website, it is easy to assume that everyone has e-mail at their fingertips and the instant information of the internet is on every desktop.

But if you look closer, that is not the case.

In Scotland or Northern Ireland, most households do not have internet access, let alone broadband.

While 77% of households in south-east England are online, that number slumps to 52% in Yorkshire and the Humber.

More than half of adults on very low incomes - less than 10,400 - have never made use of the internet.

There have been estimates that about 800,000 school pupils do not have access to the internet at home.

Information rich

At the other end of the scale, there are homes where the technology being explored by youngsters is way in advance of what is available in school.

There, the digital divide is between the quick-fire innovation of home technology and the sluggishness of what is being used in education.

Online shopping
Online shopping, online travel... are still out of reach in many households

And one of the unintended consequences of such pervasive online and mobile communication networks is that we spend more time with people like ourselves - people who are plugged into similar networks.

So these worlds stay apart. Motivated, affluent families provide the support and space that allows their children to take advantage of technology.

They have got the internet and the research skills, they get the results.

And on the other hand, as Lord Puttnam explained, there are almost a fifth of 16-year-olds who are outside any education or training; there are five million adults who cannot read or write and there is a growing prison population of the young and unqualified.

Where there are youngsters growing up in poverty, with low expectations of education and fractured home lives, throwing a few laptops in their direction might not make much difference.

"We've learnt a lot from some of the more extravagant rhetoric and hype of the 1990s - we know that most of it doesn't work," says Lord Puttnam.

Computer screen
"Digital inclusion" is about more than having access to computer screens

The report from Futurelab highlights the importance of allowing people to have the skills to make choices about how they use technology - and that how technology is used is more important than simply having access to it.

But it is not going to be easy to make it more equitable. Advantages in education relentlessly go to children from the families with the sharpest elbows.

And despite the early optimism about the egalitarian nature of the internet - and a lot of talk about "empowerment" - it seems technology that promised change has been absorbed into the status quo.

Futurelab's look into the future predicts that digital technology will become more deeply embedded in our lives - in work, home and in learning - making things even more difficult for anyone excluded from these networks.

Lord Puttnam says a much more radical approach is needed.

"Incremental changes are far from being enough," he said.

"We're convinced that it's time to step back and ask whether some very different approaches need to be brought to this area."

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