Digital divide impacts vulnerable students

24 June 2020

An independent report commissioned by the Australian Education Union (AEU) has revealed the persistent long-term gap in digital access, affordability and ability experienced by many public school students from disadvantaged circumstances.

The independent report Addressing digital inclusion for all public school students, by Barbara Preston Research, has shown that the change in learning arrangements due to COVID-19 brought into sharp focus the lack of digital inclusion for many students, including access to the internet from home and indicators of possible lack of facilities and support at home that are conducive to home study and school work.

The report found that

o approximately 125,000 public school students lived in dwellings that were reported to have no internet access in 2016 (the latest available data)

o Nine percent of students with low family incomes (that is, family incomes in roughly the bottom third of family incomes of all Australian school students) have no internet access at home, compared to only 1% of students with high family incomes without access to the internet at home.

o Public school students were more than twice as likely as either Catholic or independent school students to have no internet access at home

o Public school students living in remote areas were much more likely to have no internet access at home – almost a third of the more than 20,000 living in very remote areas had no internet access at home

o Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were much more likely to have no internet access at home—21% compared with 5% for all public school students

o Low family income is associated with many factors that make studying at home more difficult. These include

  • a lack of internet access and a lack of appropriate software and hardware
  • generally less well-educated parents who can help with school work at home
  • overcrowded or insecure housing without a regular place to carry out school work undisturbed
  • the psychological stresses on family members arising out of financial stress and a lack of resources.

According to the report:

“It is important to recognise that the data used in this report identifies the persistent long term gap in access to the necessary resources experienced by many students. Disruption to regular schooling caused by COVID-19 was not the cause of the digital inclusion gap, but served to illuminate the severity of the existing structural problem.”

This gap is often accompanied by other factors that inhibit home study such as low income, remote location, English proficiency, disability and insecure or inadequate housing.

AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe said that the Preston Report was a damning indictment of the failure of the Federal Government to ensure that all students have access to the digital tools and resources that they need for their education.

“The Preston Report has highlighted the deep inequality experienced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds in relation to digital inclusion and in particular internet access,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“This must be a wakeup call for the Federal Government about the urgent need to close the persistent long-term gap in internet access, affordability of IT hardware and software that is experienced by around 125,000 public school students.”

“In 2020, it is a shameful indictment on the Morrison Government that any child does not have access to the internet, the digital resources and support needed to ensure they can achieve their full potential in school. With over 125,000 students missing out, public schools must be fully resourced to be able to implement learning programmes to support these students,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“This report demands an immediate response from the Commonwealth to undertake a digital equity audit to identify the long-term, critical areas of need that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular to ensure the digital inclusion gap experienced by vulnerable students is addressed permanently.”

“As an immediate priority, the Federal Government must carry out a thorough digital equity audit to determine the impact on students of a lack of access to the internet and digital resources. Then a comprehensive plan must be developed, in consultation with the teaching profession, and be backed with resources,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“In order to address the digital inclusion gap, the Federal Government must put in place funding and policies that ensure that all students have ready access to reliable, high speed internet and digital resources at home to support their learning. And this must be backed up with resources in schools.”

“COVID-19 has exposed the long-term systemic inequality that already exists for Australian students, particularly those from vulnerable backgrounds. This is exacerbated for students who are living in poverty, remote locations and insecure or unsuitable housing,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“The vast majority of these students attend public school and it is time for the Morrison Government to address this inequality”

The full report can be downloaded here: