The pandemic has had a huge impact on society and accelerated our transition to a digital world. Everything from the way we work, live, learn and even receive healthcare has been irrevocably changed and while the swift move online has been incredibly beneficial in a myriad of ways, it has also undoubtedly exposed the digital divide that exists in the UK.
This was a problem long before the pandemic but the last two years have thrown into sharp focus the prevalence and critical nature of this issue and its links to social mobility.
A recent Ofcom report, ‘Online Nation’, highlights some stark figures. 1.5 million homes lack internet access, 20% of students had no access to a device for online learning, and 11% of lower income as well as 10% of the most financially vulnerable homes lack internet access. The picture becomes bleaker when these figures are placed within the current state of social mobility in the UK. The 2020 Social Mobility Commission found that only 24.7% of disadvantaged students get a good pass in English and Maths GCSE, compared with 49.9% of all other pupils; and half of adults from the poorest backgrounds receive no training after leaving school and they earn 17% less on average than more privileged colleagues. For people from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are multiple roadblocks which limit their social mobility, from the educational attainment gap to the lack of pre-existing networks and now the digital divide.
Digital and technology skills are important, now more than ever, particularly for the future world of work. These skills are a universal requirement in the job market from entry level to high level roles and the data from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport suggests that acquiring both baseline and specific digital skills makes career progression more likely, unlocks more opportunities and ultimately increases the chances for social mobility. However, this is not possible for a large subset of the UK population as without access to the internet, a digital device or digital skills, it is extremely difficult to gain employment or be a part of the digital age. Not only are job adverts, applications and interviews entirely online, so are the opportunities for upskilling, training, and development.
Digital Poverty Alliance has a crucial vision to end digital poverty by 2030 and is calling for collective action by individuals, the government, businesses and third sector organisations to close the digital divide, providing access to digital devices, skills and opportunities for all. Businesses in particular have a large role to play to close the digital divide, prepare people for the future world of work and in turn improve social mobility for the next generation.
Since joining Amazon at the height of the pandemic to lead our ‘Amazon in the Community’ programmes across Europe, I have overseen the implementation of various initiatives to improve access to digital technology, computer science skills and career opportunities for low-income communities, so they do not get left behind as the nation recovers from the pandemic. We have taken a holistic approach to tackling the digital divide through Amazon Future Engineer, a comprehensive childhood to career programme designed to inspire, educate and enable children and young people from low-income backgrounds to try computer science and engineering, as well as partnerships with charitable organisations and industry experts.
One the biggest lessons from the pandemic was that children from underserved communities did not have access to devices for home schooling and learning in the long term. Amazon teamed up with education charity Teach First to donate 10,000 Fire Tablets to schools most in need. These devices can be used to run popular apps for remote and online learning. Amazon is also working with Digital Poverty Alliance on device donations to schools across the UK.
Of course, tackling the digital divide is not just about access to devices, it is also about improving science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education and preparing young people for the future. As part of Amazon’s commitment to STEM education, we brought charities and education institutions like the Open University together to expand our free Maths4All programme to provide a fun way for students to learn. Maths4All has hundreds of free games, apps, Alexa maths challenges and worksheets that caters to all ages and learning abilities.
The best place to tackle the digital skills gap is in the classroom but research by the Royal Society found that 54% of secondary schools in England did not offer GCSE computer science, and the Department for Education also reported that recruitment for computer science teachers has fallen short by 25% or more since 2015. To address this issue and improve computer science education in schools serving disadvantaged communities, Amazon is supporting the training of 50 secondary computer science teachers, and the development of 200 Teach First career leaders to provide career guidance to young people and increase their chances for success beyond school. Each trainee teacher will be linked with in-house Amazon specialists to offer mentoring, regular refreshers and information about career opportunities for students improving access to much needed work experience in the tech sector.
Lack of digital skills and access to tech opportunities in the future world of work has a gender as well as a class divide. Women are significantly underrepresented in engineering and technology in higher education. UCAS data on university applications and acceptance figures for the 2020 cycle highlighted that women represent just 16% and 18% of accepted applications to computing and engineering degrees respectively. To help increase the representation women in the UK innovation economy, Amazon teamed up with the Royal Academy of Engineering on the Amazon Future Engineer bursary scheme. The bursary scheme targets women students from low-income households and offers twelve awards worth £5,000 a year for up to four years to students who have demonstrated a drive and passion for computing engineering. In the last few years, the scheme has supported women engineering students who have attended schools such as University of Edinburgh, King’s College London and the University of Warwick amongst many others. A recurring theme in their stories is that the bursary alleviates financial worries about study equipment and materials like laptops and software giving them the freedom and opportunity to learn, network and grow. One of the stories that had a lasting impact on me is from Genna Hollis, a mother of two who struggled with ADHD at school but made the brave decision to return to education and pursue her love for design and technology. Genna’s university experience was made so much easier without worrying about paying for food, travel and other necessities.
Amazon also supports a range of other activities that target the digital divide with an overarching aim to improve social mobility. Amazon Class Chats, which has reached 549 students in schools in social mobility cold spots, is a virtual career talk from Amazonians speaking about the various roles and routes in tech. Our Virtual Fulfilment Centre Tours, which has engaged over 13,000 students, provides teachers with the chance to immerse their pupils in a real-world tech environment to see how computer science and engineering play a part in delivering Amazon orders. Students will also engage in a live Q&A session with Amazon engineers after the tour.
As we look to the future, every individual needs to be able interact with the online world fully. STEM-based careers will grow to be an integral part of our future and educating young people about the opportunities available to them coupled with the provision of devices, bursaries, mentorship, apprenticeships will place them in a better position to thrive in a digital age.
We all need to come together to eradicate digital poverty and I’m proud to be a part of the DPA and encourage others to share this message and act on this critical topic.
*The views expressed in this blog are my own. These views and opinions do not represent the views of Amazon*