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TechUK president: Matthew Hancock must pledge to end the digital divide

digital skills

Jacqueline de Rojas, president of techUK and area VP of Citrix, explains why she thinks the new minister of Digital Policy should work to put an end to the digital divide in Britain.

Britain faces a great digital divide.

Last year, digital skills charity, Go.On UK (now part of Doteveryone), demonstrated the scale of this problem with its digital exclusion heat map.

Taking into account a number of variables from infrastructure and access, to the basic digital skills, the research demonstrated that the deficit continues to plight large parts of the UK – and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in particular.

Whether through a lack of skills, or due to the difficulty or price in attaining access, those without Internet access are at a digital disadvantage. And with a number of critical government services now moving online, many of the best utilities prices only available from providers’ websites, and with digital skills becoming ever-more crucial to jobs across all sectors, digital poverty will only continue to be felt more acutely.

Digital poverty often goes unseen by those unaffected by it, with the true effects rarely reported on. Indeed, as the heat map I mentioned before shows, there are a number of different root causes of digital exclusion.

In some areas of the UK, it’s because they live in an area without or with very poor broadband coverage, for others it may not be having the right devices at home, and some haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to use them or navigate the web.

The challenge to digital Britain

As Matthew Hancock assumes his new title as the minister of Digital Policy, it is essential that he is ready to tackle the ongoing digital divide across the UK.

For while perhaps not grabbing the headlines, the value of connectivity is widely recognised.

Indeed, research conducted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) found that three quarters of British web users think that affordable Internet access ought to be a basic human right.

The staggering task ahead will need to be examined from a number of different angles, from infrastructure to resources, to ensure that every citizen has the necessary digital skills for both their personal and professional lives.

Upskilling the nation

Building on its heritage as a leader in the fields of science and industrial innovation, the UK tech industry is proving it has the potential to be a digital nation of significance.

However, a lack of people with the necessary digital skills not only poses a massive risk to the growth of the digital and tech sectors, but across all industries where digital transformation projects are becoming increasingly essential to survival.

Indeed, a recent government report found that the UK needs another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017.

It’s essential that schools invest heavily in upskilling young people in the digital skills needed across all sectors to support future economic growth.

And in doing so, we must show that digital skills are #notjustforgeeks, but an essential part of modern society and work.

To achieve this, we must ensure that schools are equipped to teach computing. By training more ICT teachers and giving current ones further development opportunities, we can help them confidently inspire pupils.

And beyond ICT classes, by equipping all teachers with at least basic digital skills, through introducing digital teaching qualifications, we can help ensure that these skills are exercised throughout their school career.

But we also must make sure that everyone has the right opportunity to learn these digital skills – not just young people. Classes like those offered at the Bromley by Bow Centre in East London support the local community improve its both digital literacy and English language, as learning goes hand in hand.

Ensuring access

A key element to upskilling the nation is ensuring that everyone has the right resources and infrastructure to develop these skills.

In Q1 of 2015, Ofcom reported that 20% of adults still don’t have broadband at home. Whether it’s connected by satellite, fibre or beamed from a church tower, it is of paramount importance that all British households are connected with reasonable Internet speeds to support the development of these crucial skills.

But the impact goes beyond digital skills. A report launched by the Children’s Commission on Poverty in 2014 found that nearly a third of children whose families were “not well off” reported falling behind at school as a result of their family not being able to afford a computer or the Internet facilities at home they needed to do their homework.

And with new digital demands from job seekers to pursue online applications in order to receive their allowance, let alone essential in helping them find a job itself, those without Internet at home can significantly struggle to meet this target: especially given the 6,000 computer terminals in the job centres don’t come close to covering the 791,200 claimants.

Bridging the divide

Matthew Hancock must ensure that the government’s existing work to close the digital divide, through its Government’s ‘UK Digital Inclusion Charter’ and in supporting initiatives like Doteveryone, is maintained and extended to ensure that we can put an end to digital poverty by 2020.

As the Internet plays an ever more crucial role in our personal and professional lives, ensuring that everyone has the infrastructure and skills to take advantage of these opportunities and achieve their potential in modern Britain will be essential to the country’s future growth.