Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Digital exclusion

Last month I featured the latest Ofcom Child and Adult Literacy Audits. I was so intrigued by this that I asked Ofcom to provide me with more detailed ‘granularity’ on the use of the internet by children in the various socio-economic groupings. I am particularly interested in this because of my involvement with the Prince’s Trust (where I chair the Technology Leadership Group) which helps young disadvantaged people get a start in life.

The Ofcom research is about as disturbing as you can get. 76% of youngsters aged 8-11 in the ABC1 socio-economic group have access to the internet compared with just 52% in the C2DE group. It gets worse in the even more important 12-15 age group (ie just coming up to the start of their GCSEs) where 88% of ABC1s have internet access compared with 67% of C2DEs.

Put round the other way, only 12% of ABC1s have no internet access compared with 33% - or nearly three times the number – in the C2DE group. I’m sure that a comparison between ABs (probably nearly 100% having internet access) compared with DEs (probably less than half) would be even worse.

Bluntly, how any youngster can progress at school nowadays without internet access – preferably via their own PC at home – is beyond me. It is the equivalent of a house without a book or encyclopaedia.

Not having access to a PC also means that the rapid growth in popularity of social networking (like Facebook) is not available to the very poor. Does this matter? Let me quote from an article by Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times of 12th June. It is a good read – about how social mobility has got worse under Labour and how we now have “to act to reverse this shameful trend”.

Sieghart says “The working classes on the whole have smaller (though often closer) networks of friends. The middle classes tend to have wider (if shallower) circle of acquaintances from whom they get the best advice on schools, universities and jobs, and with whom they can place their children on work experience. They can afford to buy houses in better catchment areas. They have broadband access at home, shelves of books and quiet places for their children to study. They can even “help” with coursework.”

I happen to believe that social networking could assist social mobility. Even at its most basic level, I’d rather have youngsters socialising on the net than in groups on street corners. If the net can help them broaden their minds and circles too – what a real bonus that would be!

I remember a calculation in 2000 that the money spent building the Millennium Dome could have equipped every youngster in the UK with a laptop. Today the cost would be even less. Frankly I think that every UK youngster should have a PC and a broadband connection ‘as a right’.

Many of the ills of this country are down to us going backwards in terms of social mobility. I was extremely lucky to have lived in an age where grammar schools allowed working class lads like me to progress. Generation M could find the same social mobility via digital media. But clearly the very poor are being excluded - Digital Exclusion this time. We really should do something about this before we lose a whole generation – a terrible price to be paid by all socio-economic groups.

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