Coronavirus: How a donation of laptops helps students cross the digital divide

‘This is about equality of access and equality of opportunity’

Paula Stuart, principal of Belfast Model School for Girls in Belfast,  with a consignment of laptops  which have been donated to disadvantaged children. Photograph:  Stephen Davison

Paula Stuart, principal of Belfast Model School for Girls in Belfast, with a consignment of laptops which have been donated to disadvantaged children. Photograph: Stephen Davison

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For school principal Paula Stuart, the laptops donated to Belfast Model School for Girls are more than just laptops. “They mean that 45 children are going to have access to learning. Without this project, they wouldn’t have had that.”

Hers is one of five secondary schools in north Belfast that have benefited from a donation of 225 laptops which will enable students to study at home while the schools remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Some of our kids are brilliant, they’re very motivated, they’re very driven, they’re very clever, but through no fault of theirs, nor their family, they just don’t have access to the same resources and they’re therefore disadvantaged, and this situation is increasing or exacerbating their disadvantage again,” Stuart explains.

“Children have been accessing some of the learning online with their mobile phones, but some of the platforms aren’t compatible and the screens are very small.

“Then they’re getting anxious, because they’re concerned the rest of the cohort have access to something they don’t, and they’re somehow going to be left behind.”

Digital divide

Dr Noel Purdy, director of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement at Stranmillis University College in Belfast, has written of the “digital divide” which has been exposed by the need for home schooling during the lockdown, and its potential to increase educational divides yet further.

One way of addressing this, he suggested, would be for the North’s Department of Education to make funds available to provide iPads with free data plans to low-income families unable to access online lessons.

The department said it already funded programmes in north and west Belfast to provide digital resources where there was a specific need, but it was “happy to consider supporting schools in whatever way we can”.

“Work is ongoing across the education sector in collaboration with schools to determine what more could be done to support learners,” a spokesman said.

At Belfast Model, laptops have been arriving for the students since Easter. “There is a sense that, for at least some of them, their anxiety will be reduced and their feeling of being less than someone else will have been addressed,” says Stuart.

According to Paula Reynolds, chief executive of the Belfast Charitable Society which, along with the Halifax Foundation, the National Lottery Community Fund, Ulster University and the Ulster Community Investment Trust, has provided £50,000 to buy the computers, “This is about equality of access and equality of opportunity.”

In this “unprecedented” situation, she explains, they realised that a high proportion of students in north Belfast’s post-primary schools simply didn’t have the equipment to keep studying at home.

As a parent herself, she is well aware of the new reality of home schooling. “You’re sitting at home with different devices and there’s never enough when you’ve got the kids at home, so you were therefore acutely aware there are children with none of this.

“These kids are every bit as valuable and deserve everything as much as somebody at the top of the Malone Road.”

Founded in 1752, the Belfast Charitable Society built a poor house and the first infirmary in Belfast, and still works to tackle disadvantage through philanthropy; in recent years, it has built up a relationship with the five schools which are now to receive the laptops – Belfast Model School for Girls, Belfast Boys Model School, Mercy College, Hazelwood Integrated College and Blessed Trinity College.

Deprived areas

North Belfast was badly affected by the Troubles; areas such as Ardoyne, Woodvale and New Lodge remain among the most deprived in Northern Ireland.

“It’s effectively a patchwork quilt of areas which are part of different communities and these schools work across all of that,” says Reynolds. “Nowadays it is also a much more diverse population than you would think, because there are quite a few other immigrant populations coming into areas of north Belfast.”

In Northern Ireland, children from low-income families are entitled to free meals at school, and their numbers are often used as a rough measure to gauge deprivation. At Belfast Model School for Girls, 61 per cent of students receive free school meals.

“Some of our kids come from the most deprived areas in the city. You know families are struggling financially,” says Stuart. “There is additional expense now in terms of food and running the home, and, therefore, spending that money on resources for learning, even though it’s very important to them, in real life, it’s not their priority.”

At the same time, even though the schools are closed, teachers are still trying “to reach out and draw the children in and keep them connected, to keep a sense of community going, a sense of belonging”, Stuart says.

The laptops will leave their own legacy; once this year’s students are finished with them they will be returned to the school, for loan to future students, or to be used as a mobile computer suite.

“That funders can do this shows real belief in terms of the students’ ability and their aspirations,” says Stuart. “It’s supporting their future, and I think it’s a real vote of confidence for the community.

“It restores my faith in the goodness of human beings,” she says. “I think through this Covid-19, kindness will triumph.”

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