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Digital skills

Access to digital skills: who is being left behind?

A teenager smiles at her laptop while working.

This report is from a series of reports developed by Catch22 and Nominet to explore the barriers to digital skills and access for some of the most disadvantaged people in the UK. These insights will inform recommendations, which will in time support Catch22 and Nominet in developing a strategic partnership which tackles systemic inequality, whilst responding to grassroots need. We are making it available in the hope others can use the lessons, ideas and insights.

The second paper seeks to identify who is at the most significant risk of being left behind and which marginalised groups are most impacted by the four barriers to digital access and skills that were identified in the first paper. Through conducting a series of focus groups across Catch22 services, the research forefronts the voices and experiences of young people through the lens of digital disadvantage. These interviews included young people who are care leavers, those in contact or at risk of contact with the justice system, those in special educational settings and those in mainstream further educational settings, like colleges.

Who is being most impacted?

  • Poverty and digital opportunity are inextricably linked. When asked who was left behind, young interviewees first cited those without reliable access. Research from The Learning and Work Institute shows that one in five (21%) households from lower socio-economic groups with children have no access to an appropriate device. However, despite the prominence that our interviewers gave poverty, there is still widespread disagreement on the scale of the issue and a lack of data on the link between poverty and digital opportunity. This means the problem is still poorly understood and the nuance of those most affected is missed.
  • Lack of physical space is a crucial barrier to digital access. In the focus groups, teachers and young people regularly referred to the challenges of accessing space to digitally learn or work. This may be having the physical space to work or needing to share devices or broadband. This challenge is exacerbated in households with high numbers of occupants, which tends to be more frequent for those in the lower-income bracket. In this way, digital poverty and poverty interact; it is harder to find space and data to learn or work in lower income households.
  • Care experienced young people are a group at significant risk of being left behind. The research suggests that they often don’t have the appropriate devices, Wi-Fi access or support to develop digital skills. This directly impacts their ability to undertake training and find employment. Further to this, while many of the young people interviewed have access to hardware, the restrictions placed on the devices meant they had very limited functionality and access to essential software such as email or Microsoft Office.
  • For young people in contact with the justice system, meaningful access is a major challenge. In some cases, these challenges related to the young person being in a custodial setting with limited access to appropriate devices. However, the interviews showed that, even after release, digital access beyond a phone was a serious barrier. Workers supporting young people coming out of the justice system also expressed that the young people they work with haven’t experienced digital positive role models. As a result, pursuing opportunities for digital skills may be less appealing.

A young person’s digital lived experience, and the role models they interact with play a crucial part in reducing digital disadvantage. If you grow up in households from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are in the justice system or have experience of care, the evidence suggests you are less likely to have digital role models in the home. The research also suggests this issue is compounded by not receiving meaningful Information Communication Technology (ICT) education, creating a need for self-teaching.

A key element of digital disadvantage and lack of digital role models is based on location. Young people and schools in rural and coastal areas have less access to digital opportunity and are less likely to have parents, carers and teachers with advanced digital knowledge. Despite the growth of Tech Hubs outside the main urban areas, their intentions of expanding digital opportunities for young people seem to have not yet been realised. None of the young people we spoke to had heard from or had experience with a tech business or employer.

The digital world presents exciting and innovative ways for people to thrive and ensure an inclusive and diverse workforce. However, research suggests that opportunities to develop digital skills are not inclusive for those with disabilities, who are 35% less likely to have Essential Digital Skills for Life. We need to ensure digital devices and opportunities to learn digital skills are catered to everyone’s needs, particularly for those who have disabilities or are neurodiverse.

The findings were shared by Charlotte Turner from Bean Research, during a virtual event. She was also joined by contributors to the paper from Catch22, Krystal Donaldson and Joe Raby, who shared their experiences of how digital exclusion has impacted the young people who use their services.