In a major policy announcement that complements existing plans for mobile and fixed networks across the country, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has set out the latest step in the government’s plans to roll out gigabit broadband across the UK, committing to every school across the country having access to such connectivity by 2025.
Speaking at the Bett Show in London, Zahawi said digital technology, and the data and infrastructure that underpins it, was changing the way we live, work and learn, and that the country needed to use its experience from the pandemic as a springboard to embed new and better ways of using technology in schools and across education.
As part of the ambition in promising access to gibibit connectivity, the Department for Education (DfE) is publishing its first set of technology standards, which are aimed at supporting schools and colleges in understanding which technologies they should have in place to best support effective teaching.
The standards refer specifically to broadband and in-school connectivity. Schools and colleges will be able to access advice on the most recommended technology infrastructure, which itself will support best practices in helping pupils learn.
Over the next three years, the DfE will reach out to schools in priority areas to facilitate the introduction of faster and more reliable connectivity. Schools will be able to access the standards online via Gov.uk, and eligible schools will be contacted by the department to enable them to access the funding available to upgrade their technology infrastructure.
The government also announced a £150m fund to support schools most in need to upgrade their Wi-Fi connections. The money provided to help schools upgrade their technology will include those in the department’s previously identified “education investment areas”. These 55 areas, first set out in the Levelling Up whitepaper in February 2020, refer to areas of the country where school outcomes are the weakest. They will receive targeted investment, support and action to help children from all backgrounds and areas succeed at the very highest levels.
“This new investment moves us a giant step forward to helping ensure that every school across the country has the best technology,” Zahawi added. “Upgrading schools to high-speed broadband, setting out clear standards so that schools know what technology they should have in place, as well as providing funding to support them in achieving this, is the latest way we are levelling up education across the country.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it welcomed the focus on supporting improved digital technology in schools through the measures outlined by the secretary of state.
“It is really important to seize the opportunities offered by technology to enhance the learning experience of young people and having the right infrastructure in place, and an evidence base of what works is vital in achieving that goal,” he said. “Schools are very keen to make the best possible use of technology for their students, and many already do fantastic work in this direction. Anything which helps will be warmly received.”
Caroline Wright, director-general of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), noted that its annual research of thousands of schools showed that teachers’ top three concerns were connectivity and infrastructure, ICT training, and a lack of funding.
“I’m glad the DfE has listened to the evidence on this occasion and is announcing plans to improve connectivity and provide digital standards guidance to better help schools understand the baseline infrastructure that is needed to start addressing the digital divide that exists in our schools,” she remarked.
The latest steps to further improve technology in schools and colleges are intended to contribute to the government’s aim to level up education for all – improving pupil access and outcomes, reducing teacher workload and making running a school more efficient.
They come almost six months after the government revealed that children in more than UK 1,000 schools were enjoying next-generation internet speeds. With the connectivity boost in schools, the government also launched a call for evidence to understand the UK’s future wireless connectivity needs and how it can support the roll-out of 5G and other advanced wireless networks. This includes looking at technologies such as satellite, the internet of things – which will underpin innovations such as driverless cars – and the development of 6G networks.