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Pandemic exposes digital divide


“The disruption to education and learning as a result of this crisis has exposed the gulf between the haves and the have nots. The time has come when, as a society, we simply must do something to address this disparity.”


Like many of you, I am deeply concerned about the far-reaching and long-lasting effects of COVID-19 on our community and this great nation I love. But what I’m most worried about is how this pandemic will impact vulnerable children.


As CEO of The Smith Family, I want to share some of my reflections which have formed since this crisis began earlier this year. It already seems like a lifetime ago – back when we had little idea of how dramatically our world would change or how quickly this could happen.


But first, I want to tell you a little about The Smith Family. We are Australia’s leading children’s education charity, and we have been supporting children in need for almost 100 years. We help young Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds to break the cycle of poverty by supporting them to succeed at school. The premise is that a good education provides the foundation that empowers all young people to create better futures for themselves. We provide a hand up, not a handout.


The scale of poverty in this country is significant, and for many of you, it may be surprising. Before COVID-19, 1.2 million children and young people were already living in poverty1. The disadvantage these young Australians experience not only impacts their lives at home; it also flows on to adversely affect their education, and potentially, the direction of their lives.


Families living in poverty often face complex and compounding issues. Many are impacted by poor health, unemployment and housing insecurity. And, as we have seen through our work on the ground with families, despite their best efforts and incredible resilience, those already experiencing disadvantage before this pandemic are struggling even more right now.


For decades, we at The Smith Family, have been tackling the negative impacts of poverty on the educational outcomes of children. We know and understand this problem deeply. And now, the disruption to education and learning as a result of this crisis has exposed the gulf between the haves and the have nots. The time has come when, as a society, we simply must do something to address this disparity.


The digital divide


Many of the Australian families we support have told us they can’t afford the essentials their children need to succeed in their education. One student who comes to mind is a bright young boy named Thomas. His mother, Merrily, is a single mum who lost her job and now cares for her sick mother full-time. On top of this, Thomas suddenly needed to start studying online from home, which posed a significant challenge for their small family.


Thomas is a smart kid, and he loves school. The last thing Merrily wanted was for Thomas to fall behind. Before COVID-19, she saved up and went without to buy Thomas a laptop, but she couldn't afford to get the internet connected at home due to the expensive data plans. She had long been in the habit of taking Thomas to the library or the local shopping centre to do his schoolwork, using the free wifi. Then libraries closed, and with social distancing at shopping centres, security guards started moving people on. This is a classic case of the digital divide, which was there prior to COVID-19, but became glaringly obvious once schools began to close, and teachers started delivering lessons online and asking parents to support these.


For parents living in poverty, the disruption to learning caused by this pandemic has been particularly difficult. Many families have multiple children sharing a single digital device. Some could only complete their schoolwork on mobile phones, which obviously have incredibly small screens. Their homes can be chaotic, with limited indoor and outdoor space. And parents from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to feel less confident about their ability to help with their children’s learning. They might not have finished school themselves or English might be their second language, and they have few if any savings to pay for extra things needed for learning at home, like stationery or a desk.


The Smith Family was able to get Thomas connected at home so he could complete his schoolwork remotely, but many other children around Australia have not been so fortunate. Even after children return to school, the digital divide is still a reality for many. For instance, many will have to return the laptops loaned to them by the school. What happens then for these kids when schoolwork is required to be done in the home environment?

Digital inclusion


The Smith Family has facilitated digital inclusion for thousands of families over the last ten years, targeting both digital access and literacy. This includes access to digital devices (computers, laptops and tablets), software, and crucially, the internet. Digital literacy encompasses the ability to use technology and to have confidence in those abilities. So when we provide digital inclusion packages, we also provide essential technical support.


Before COVID-19, almost a quarter of the 50,000 young people we support on our flagship Learning for Life program did not have a device connected to the internet at home. And while digital support has always been important for our families, we have never seen demand spike in the way it has during this crisis. As a nation, we certainly have a long way to go to ensure digital inclusion for all.


Long-lasting impact


For our older students, many have lost part-time work because of this crisis, which is an added blow. There’s a delightful, focused young woman who we’ve been supporting for some years; an Aboriginal student who is at university now. Jasmyn is 20 and studying medicine. She wants to become a doctor, supporting people in rural communities. But COVID-19 has taken a toll on her too. Jasmyn was working part-time to be able to afford her studies, and she too recently lost her job. Finding another job in this current climate as we all know, is an uphill battle.


Motivation and self-esteem can be such a challenge for our students. Having a job helps them to feel independent, so losing that part-time work can be a major set-back. We know that motivation – that desire and impetus to do well – is a big part of why young people do succeed. It’s why they keep going to school; why they finish school and go on to further study. If they lose that motivation, then they are less likely to succeed.


But in Jasmyn’s case, she knows The Smith Family will stay by her side, just as we have since she was 14 years old. We will help her to stay engaged in her educational journey by providing the support she needs to do that.


A recent study commissioned by the Australian Government2 shows the educational impact of COVID-19 is likely to be significantly greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, than their more advantaged peers. Without intervention, the impact of this pandemic on children's education could last a lifetime.


We will stand by Jasmyn and all Australian children we support, so they stay interested in learning, through the tough times ahead. Because there’s a very real danger that without that support, they’ll not only fall behind, they’ll disengage altogether.


To address the gaps these students experience, a collective effort is needed, similar to Australia’s response to the immediate challenge posed by the virus. As the threat of COVID-19 intensified, we witnessed unparalleled collaboration and coordination between different levels of government, and across the community and business sectors. Maintaining this collaboration should be the foundation of our national response to alleviate the impact on the education of students living in poverty.


Tackling digital disadvantage should be a key priority in our recovery from this pandemic. We can no longer allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to fall behind in their learning because of the digital divide. It must no longer be considered adequate, that students only have access to devices and the internet at school, and not at home.


We don’t want our students to lose sight of their goals and dreams because of this crisis. It’s so important to support their aspirations and to make sure what’s happening now doesn’t impact their longer-term futures. They’ve all got such great potential.


While there is a lot of work to be done, I am buoyed by the strength and resilience of the families we support. They are deeply invested in their children’s futures, and despite all the challenges they are facing, they are resolutely determined to ensure their children’s education does not suffer.


I am also overwhelmed by the generosity of ANZ in its support for these young people in need. ANZ has contributed significant funds to respond to the needs of our students and families – through the development of our online portal and to help us further digitise our out-of-school programs. Particularly those suited to online learning, with a focus on financial wellbeing and work-readiness for young people.


Despite the challenges and uncertainties ahead, it is so heartening to see this ongoing support, which enables us to continue helping children in need, not just through this difficult time, but into the future as well.


For more information, visit www.thesmithfamily.com.au


1 Poverty in Australia, 2020, ACOSS/UNSW Report. 2 Government (CIRES & Mitchell Institute 2020 Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes of disadvantaged children


About Dr Lisa O’Brien


Dr Lisa O’Brien has been the Chief Executive Officer of The Smith Family since February 2011.

Lisa has worked in leadership roles across the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors over the last two decades. She is a Non-Executive Director of BUPA Australia and New Zealand, a Council Member of the University of Technology Sydney, a member of Chief Executive Women and a former CEO of the Skin and Cancer Foundation Australia. Lisa is currently a member of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission Charity, Philanthropy and Fundraising Group and the Charities Crisis Cabinet; both formed as part of the COVID-19 response. Lisa was also a founding member of Sydney’s Lou’s Place, a drop-in centre providing respite and support for women in need.


A Medical Practitioner registered in New South Wales and a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators, Lisa also holds a Masters of Business Administration and a Masters of Human Resource Management and Coaching.


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