Financially vulnerable people without household internet access are unable to access remote learning during the Covid-19 crisis, writes Anna Ambrose.

The move to remote learning in response to the Covid-19 crisis has been a moment of profound evolution for the adult skills sector. The extent to which online platforms were being used to deliver learning varied between providers before the start of March, rendering the level of readiness for such unexpected events hugely variable.

The sector has responded with a move en masse to digital delivery in an impressive effort to sustain training provision. As is the case in many a crisis, we may well look back and reflect that this moment accelerated a trend that was already in train.

In apprenticeships, an increase in remote learning could be particularly attractive to employers looking for more flexible ways to incorporate the required 20 per cent off-the-job training. This is a positive
development, because retaining apprentices and offering new apprenticeships will be of key importance for businesses and individuals once the recovery from this crisis is under way. The London Progression Collaboration (LPC), the initiative I lead, supports London employers to offer and sustain apprenticeships in the badly hit retail, hospitality and construction sectors. Their need for the right people with the right skills will be paramount.

However, the think-tank IPPR, which hosts the LPC, last week highlighted the extent to which the delivery of remote teaching to the nation’s school-age children risks widening the persistent gaps in achievement between disadvantaged young people and their better-off peers. So too, this move in adult learning risks
leaving behind those already experiencing in-work poverty and other disadvantages.

Whilst the ONS found that 99 per cent of UK adults were recent internet users in 2019, this disguises the fact that a proportion of this internet use takes place outside the home. Around one in ten adults does not have internet access of any form at home on any device, rising to almost one-third of those categorised in the lowest two social grades.

Three in ten of the group classed by Ofcom as “most financially vulnerable” live in households without any internet access, while eight per cent have access only via a mobile phone.

While it’s easy to assume these stats are weighted towards older people, in fact more than onethird of 16-24-year-olds live in mobile-only households. Due to the ongoing lockdown restrictions, places such as libraries, colleges and cafes – where those without internet access can get online – are closed. That means that those who we most want to reach with apprenticeship levy funds and other skills investment will have real difficulties accessing online learning.

So, while it’s great news that many apprentices are able to continue their off-the-job learning while furloughed, without further support those with the most need and most to gain will simply be
unable to do so. Without action, a move to greater online vocational learning risks expanding the barriers to training and in-work progression.

The impact on other groups also needs serious consideration, in both the short and longer term. For those with some physical disabilities, remote learning could improve accessibility and indeed has been requested for some time; but for those with some learning difficulties there could be additional challenges in accessing content remotely. While colleges and other training providers offer support to learners to increase accessibility and inclusivity of courses in myriad ways, their resources are already stretched.

To avoid perpetuating the progression gap, funded support to access online provision is needed both during this crisis and beyond. The government must work with service providers to ensure sufficient free home internet access for learners on low incomes.

A digital access fund should be established to ensure all adult learners can benefit from remote learning with suitable connections and digital devices.

Once the Covid-19 crisis eases and the economy begins to reboot, businesses will look to these key individuals and their skills to bolster the recovery. Action now will determine if they are equipped to do so.