Closing the Digital Divide: What can schools do?

Written by: Bukky Yusuf & Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
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A recent SecEd and Stone Group webinar discussed what schools can do, practically and realistically, to support those families on the wrong side of the digital divide. Panellists Bukky Yusuf and Fiona Aubrey-Smith pick up the conversation...

A survey conducted last autumn by Stone Group, Headteacher Update and SecEd found that the digital divide remains one of the biggest barriers to the effective use of technology in schools (cited by 57% of the responding schools).

In an era of blended and hybrid learning, the digital divide has become an ever-growing barrier to education for many pupils, especially those who are disadvantaged. And there is a second front emerging in the fight to close the digital divide – that of digital competency and skills.

Following the survey results, we brought together five experts to discuss what schools can do to support families and pupils who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. The webinar offered practical solutions, examples, and advice for schools and is still available to watch. Below, two of our panellists reflect further on the challenges presented by the digital divide...

The choices we make

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith says that the digital divide is about the choices we make, as school leaders and classroom teachers, as to what technologies we allow into our classrooms

As we enter the new school year, schools are looking to a new horizon – one which learns from the giant remote schooling experiment that we have all been part of.

I have had the privilege of speaking to more than 100 schools across the country about their plans for this coming year – all of which include a fresh approach to how technology can support teaching and learning.

Every one of these schools recognises that education in 2022 and beyond must involve forms of blended and hybrid learning – utilising technology in ways that enhance, support and extend learning.

There is a clear evidence-base showing that pedagogically led uses of technology accelerate progression in learning and raise attainment – particularly for children with different forms of disadvantage (Aubrey-Smith, 2020, 2021).

Pedagogically led technology-use can offer solutions to existing classroom challenges – allowing better inclusion, creating teacher capacity, enabling targeted intervention, offering individualised pathways, opening up new stimuli, audiences and resources...

Yet to access these transformational opportunities, devices are required, and many now argue that a one-to-one device ecosystem sits at the heart of a fully personalised, modern curriculum.

Pre-Covid, “digital divide” was used to draw attention to the lack of connectivity experienced by many children. Historically, this focused on home access to internet-connected devices.

But data from Ofcom suggests that more than 99% of children are now able to get online at home. However, the nature of the devices being used has shifted from traditional laptops and computers to include smartphones, gaming consoles and tablets. Indeed, only 48% of school-aged children have their own tablet or laptop (Ofcom, 2021).

The digital divide clearly still exists, yet its nature has changed – it is no longer just about connectivity, but about the nature of that connectivity. As fellow webinar panellist Paul Haigh, headteacher at King Ecgbert School in Sheffield, told us: “Those children had the devices and the connectivity at home, it’s just those families had never seen a reason to buy office-type, qwerty keyboard-type equipment. There was plenty of other consumer technology in the house – it wasn’t the issue that we had thought it was.”

The digital divide is not just an issue relating to the home environment. Pre-pandemic, schools in England had approximately three million devices (e.g. laptops or tablets) in circulation to support the learning of nearly nine million children (BESA, 2019).

Then, as part of the government’s chaotic laptop roll-out during the pandemic, nearly two million additional devices were distributed (DfE, 2022). And most schools, trusts and bodies working with schools purchased an additional number of devices. Cumulatively, these figures suggest that there might now be more than six million devices for our nine million students. But few of us are seeing these kinds of ratios in practice.

If nationally there is at least this 2:3 device-to-pupil ratio then surely technology should be seen more readily in everyday classroom learning? Further, if 91% of children have access to a device at home (Ofcom, 2021), then in-school devices should be targeted to those most in need, thus creating an education system where every child has access to a device for their learning at home as well as at school.

However, the survey conducted by Stone Group, Headteacher Update and SecEd ahead of the webinar found that 57% of respondents still cited the digital divide as one of the biggest barriers to the effective use of technology in school. There is clearly a mismatch.

I was recently involved in analysing unpublished data from approximately 120 schools. It shows that the average number of devices used in-school in any given month equates to about two-thirds of the devices available. Which means that on average, a third of all school-owned, usable laptops and tablets are not being used.
Even accounting for operational issues, this hints at a huge problem. As Mr Haigh memorably told the webinar: “You don’t solve this issue just by chucking a laptop at it.”

The digital divide is now more nuanced and more localised. For example, as one headteacher told me: “Previously, I had one classroom with a full class set of laptops not being used, while next door there was a teacher desperate to use technology with only a handful of devices.

“The solution for us was to take a fresh look at where our devices were, who was actually making use of them, and how we could get those devices more effectively distributed to children. It’s not necessarily about getting more devices, but being smarter about how we allocate and timetable what we’ve already got.”

During the webinar, John Haslam from Stone Group added: “Having a device isn’t enough. It’s about getting it into students’ hands, and there are lots of routes to implementing one-to-one device access.”

Different schools have taken different (and often very creative) approaches to getting devices into children’s hands – and particularly into the hands of the most disadvantaged. The Ofcom findings cited above show that around half of children have their own devices at home. As such, bring your own device (BYOD) policies could free-up school resources by reducing the number of children dependent on school-owned devices (Aubrey-Smith & Evans, 2022).

In turn, this means that school-owned devices can be allocated to those who need them most – children who either do not have access or devices at home or who are experiencing other forms of disadvantage and require specific apps (e.g. EAL translators) or SEND software support. This approach looks holistically at what devices are available and matches devices to need.

As webinar panellist Sophie Powell, executive headteacher at The Compass Partnership, explained: “We took a fresh look at redistributing our devices. In particular we looked specifically at our SEND children and how we can continue to support their learning more effectively – not only with one-to-one while they are in school but when they are at home as well.”

The key point – as she explained in more detail during the webinar – is that there has been a clear strategy for rethinking how devices are used both at home and school. Different groups and needs have been considered in turn, with the technology improving inclusion, stretch and challenge, and more precisely targeting individualised learning support.

One-to-one in three steps

I would offer three steps to achieving one-to-one device access in your school or your classroom.

  1. Identify the number of potential devices available to your children. Be clear about exactly how many devices you already have available in school (search those cupboards!), and remember that they don’t all need to be high-spec. Find out which children have their own devices and talk to schools who are running successful BYOD policies to explore how you could adopt or adapt this idea.
  2. Identify opportunities for improving existing teaching and learning. Identify when and where device access could support, extend or enhance existing curriculum provision.
  3. Timetable school devices and design the detail of your BYOD policy so that the available devices are being targeted at specific learning activities within the existing curriculum.

The digital divide today is about the choices we make as school leaders and classroom teachers as to what technologies we allow into our classrooms and how we then allow our children to use them.

Furthermore, as I have written about previously (Aubrey-Smith, 2022), the digital divide is about how we use those technologies to support, enhance and extend learning. If these new forms of digital divide are left unaddressed, the gap between the under-connected and the hyper-digitalised will widen, aggravating existing inequalities.

As I see consistently in my research work, children across the country are using everyday technologies to support, extend and enhance their learning. Children who attend schools where teachers and leaders allow, encourage and plan creatively for this, make greater progress. Most powerfully – regardless of age or school context – it is children who experience different forms of disadvantage that benefit most from targeted use of technology in their learning.

The gap between the children who are given these opportunities by their schools and those who are not is growing. To put it bluntly, schools who are not actively seeking out ways to embed technology into classroom learning in 2022 are choosing to magnify this gap.

Our call to action is to consider the start of this academic year as a catalyst for a fresh review of what technology children could have access to. Then to use that technology to improve, support and enhance learning for every single child. The technology and the support is out there for those open to using it.

  • Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith supports schools and trusts with professional learning, education research and strategic planning. She is the founder of One Life Learning. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Headteacher Update Webinar: Closing the digital divide – what can schools do?

Our webinar lasts for one hour and tackles key questions and topics including: What issues are we still seeing in our communities with regards the digital divide? What are the main barriers to education/school with regards edtech-use? What can schools do practically to support families in the short-term? It’s not just devices – how can schools close digital skills gaps for students? What steps can schools take now to make a difference to the digital divide?

Our expert panellists are: Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith, associate lecturer at The Open University; Bukky Yusuf, senior leader at a special school in London; John Haslam, business development manager at Stone Group; Paul Haigh, headteacher at King Ecgbert School in Sheffield; Sophie Powell, executive headteacher at The Compass Partnership of Schools.

Watch for free: Click here.

Supporting families

Bukky Yusuf considers some solutions to the digital divide facing families (and schools)

For many years, the digital divide has referred to some children having easy access to technology while others do not. There are various reasons:

  • Families not being able to afford new devices or extra internet data.
  • Devices being shared between siblings.
  • Issues in rural areas accessing reliable, cheap and quick internet connectivity.

However, this definition is limited: “We cannot close the digital divide only by increasing broadband internet, technology ownership, and technical know-how. Youth and adults must also be able to use digital tools creatively, critically and strategically to produce new knowledge.” (Prins, 2021).

Nielsen (2019) presents three stages of the digital divide: The economic divide (affording technology), the usability divide (the skills to meaningfully use technology), and the empowerment divide (active engagement with technological benefits). He argues that the latter aspects are what makes it more challenging to truly address digital divides.

Van Dijk (2006), meanwhile, states that the digital divide encapsulates five components:

  • Technological (technological opportunities).
  • Immaterial (life chances, freedom).
  • Material (economic, social, and cultural capital; resources).
  • Social (positions, power, participation).
  • Educational (capabilities, skills).

During the webinar, it was stressed that, left unaddressed, the gap between the under-connected and the hyper-digitalised will widen, aggravating existing inequalities. Key points I took from the discussion for addressing this gap included the need to:

  • Build trust and rapport with families to help identify ways to support. Find out what support they need for technology. Consider drop-ins for parents to work with a device in a safe environment within school (we should not assume what their competencies are).
  • Work with digital leaders (students, adults and parent forums).
  • Proactively address the digital gap. Create a strategic vision for digital learning within the school development plan and set priorities.
  • Focus on competencies, mindsets and behaviours.
  • Be research-engaged and agile, with high-quality CPD.

Examples of meaningful solutions for your school and your families might include:

  • Exploring how local libraries or school libraries can provide the opportunity to use devices or hotspots.
  • Focusing developments upon closing the five gaps highlighted by van Dijk (2006).
  • Building upon the diverse range of digital literacies that students already deploy in texting, gaming and social media.
  • Cost-effective approaches for devices, such as repurposing old devices and accepting donations of laptops and tablets.
  • Using web-based platforms to ease access to resources from any type of device including old phones.
  • Setting up offline access on Chromebooks for Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams to allow students to access learning resources without internet connectivity.
  • Including digital citizenship frameworks within the curriculum to help students take ownership of their digital lives.
  • Reviewing what digital engagement looks like for students and families.
  • Helping students to understand “why society values certain digital skills and practices more than others and to analyse digital resources and information critically” (Prins, 2021).

In order to avoid repeating failed strategies, we must change the narrative and find meaningful solutions that focus upon the pedagogy and the person.

As Fiona Aubrey-Smith, my fellow panellist, has said previously (Aubrey-Smith, 2021; 2022), “we should start talking about ‘pedtech’ – focusing on human purposes and behaviours, the role of language, the nature of relationships, the enacted curricula and pedagogies. This is where we will see meaningful and lasting change”.

  • Bukky Yusuf is a senior leader at a special school in London and co-chair of the Department for Education’s EdTech Leadership Group.

Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022

  • This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Autumn Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

Further information & resources

  • Aubrey-Smith: An exploration of the relationship between teachers’ pedagogical stance and the use of ICT in their classroom practice, EdD thesis, The Open University, October 2020:
  • Aubrey-Smith: Forget edtech – we need to talk about ‘pedtech’, Headteacher Update, June 2021:
  • Aubrey-Smith: Where next? Taking edtech into 2022, Headteacher Update, January 2022:
  • Aubrey-Smith & Evans: The case for one-to-one device access in schools, Headteacher Update, June 2022:
  • BESA: ICT in UK maintained schools 2019, August 2019:
  • DfE: Laptops and tablets data, April 2022:
  • Nielsen: Digital Divide: The 3 Stages, Nielsen Norman Group, November 2006:
  • Ofcom: Digital divide narrowed by pandemic, but around 1.5m homes remain offline, April 2021:
  • Prins: Closing the digital divide: It’s about more than access, Only Connect, September 2021:
  • van Dijk: Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomings, Poetics, (34), 2006:

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