Why online learning is key to social mobility

Digital skills are becoming a necessity in almost every sector, says the MP for Morley and Outwood.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Earlier this month I received a knock on the door and was handed an Amazon parcel. As I waded through the packaging and started examining what looked like an advanced Thunderbird aeroplane, my three-year-old son, Clifford, burst into the room announcing that it was, in fact, a “Paw Patrol” which he had ordered from my phone.

Not only that, but he had purchased it using voice recognition technology – something I haven’t even got round to experimenting with yet.  

I often wonder what Clifford will think when I tell him that I was taught how to use a typewriter at school, when he learns by speaking into Youtube and requiring “Crazy Frog” to teach him how to play the piano.

The demand for online learning is going to be so much greater for my son’s generation than it ever was in mine. And lockdown has only hastened the transformation from classroom and lecture theatre to the tablet and laptop. This is a good thing.  

I studied online at the Open University as a mature student – while fighting a seat to become an MP, working full-time and looking after my father who was ill at the time. The experience was fulfilling but also practical and I couldn’t have studied if they didn’t offer such a flexible approach.  

Universities need to start thinking outside the box: why can’t young parents study while looking after their children? Can students study while travelling, or while they are on a work experience placement? In countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, infants and secondary school children were learning online as a central part of the curriculum long before Covid-19.  

The UK must embrace this technological online revolution. This is the only way we can ensure our education system delivers for the next generation. But as we embark on this exciting new adventure and the opportunities it opens up, we must accept that this brave new world has been leaving people behind.  

I was elected back in December 2019 on a platform to “level up” opportunity throughout the country. I remember when the Prime Minister said that he believed talent, skill and genius is distributed uniformly throughout the country and that the Conservative Party’s mission would be to ensure everyone had an opportunity to flourish, prosper, and to have access to equal opportunities and skills, regardless of background. 

This was one of the main reasons my party made such huge strides in the new “red wall” constituencies in the north. But the school closures and the move to online learning have left some of the most vulnerable children, many in precisely these constituencies, far behind. 

That is why I am so proud of the work we are going to be doing at the Research Institute for Social Mobility and Education (RISE), a think tank we are about to launch at the University of Bolton, that will examine how to level up opportunity in education for everyone, regardless of where they come from.

There is no doubt that lockdown has heightened the educational divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots". It is having a devastating impact on social mobility and the government’s aim of levelling up. 

School closures have increased the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, and almost half of primary school students we talked to had not spoken to teachers during lockdown.

The government has started to solve the problem with its £1bn “catch up fund” but this forgets that the Covid-19 problem isn’t over. Children returned to school in September, but with the north of England heading into a second lockdown this week along with the recent spike in coronavirus cases, online learning is going to become part of the daily educational routine. It needs rapid reform and future proofing so that we don’t let generations of children down.

That is why we need to see significant and targeted investment in technology and training in schools, as well as new systems to train teachers in virtual teaching methods, to check children are engaging with online learning and to establish strong links between teachers, parents and students.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has warned that, “the education divide is broadening” and “almost a decade of catching up on that education gap may well be lost”. There couldn’t be a stronger call to action for us all.

I went to a comprehensive school and left when I was 16 when I got my first job in a Greggs bakery. I never dreamed then that I would be able to sit on the green benches in the House of Commons. That’s why social mobility is so important to me: fighting for other people’s futures and ensuring that Margaret Thatcher’s vision that “the person who is prepared to work hardest should get the greatest” is achieved.

Technology and the online learning revolution have the capacity to future proof our economy, to open up myriad opportunities, to level up opportunity and ensure that Britain becomes a world leader in education, equipping people of every background to compete in the ever-changing global jobs market. But it can also be a huge barrier to social mobility.

So let’s pick up the baton and help our educators at every level and in every school, department, university and higher education institution to be equipped and to embrace technology to the highest possible level, so that we equip all our people with the skills to flourish.

Andrea Jenkyns MP for Morley and Outwood and director of the Research Institute for Social Mobility and Education think tank based at the University of Bolton.

Free trial CSS