Digital exclusion in Scottish education

In a new report for the Nuffield Foundation published today, I-SPHERE’s Professor Morag Treanor and Dr Patricio Troncoso highlight key issues of digital inequality in Scottish secondary schools.

Digital inequality operates in the same way as traditional inequalities, through income, age, gender, race, ethnicity, disability and social class. These create inequalities in access to, experience of and success in education and further widen the attainment gap between the poorest and richest children.

Our research explored the patterns and impacts of inequalities in the access to (participation) and use of (engagement) digital technologies in secondary schools, with an emphasis on young people experiencing socioeconomic and other inequalities. The research utilised a proxy for digital inequality using data from an online digital platform in Scotland, called Scholar. Scholar  delivers online e-learning services to 97% of Scotland’s publicly funded secondary schools (encompassing 31 out of 32 council areas) and 74% of the independent schools that put their students forward for Scottish qualifications.  We analysed use of the platform by students across 346 secondary schools pre pandemic in 2018-2019 and post pandemic in 2020-2021.

Our research addresses three key questions:
1) What is the patterning in the use of online learning for exam-aged students (S4-S6) over time?
2) How has the use of online learning changed during and after the Covid-19 school closures?
3) What is the extent of the variation in use of online learning resources across secondary schools in Scotland?

Key Findings

  • Overall, both engagement and participation have increased substantially from pre Covid times.
  • For all students, participation increases across the school years and qualification levels and peaks at Advanced Higher level across all the portfolios.
  • Across all the learning portfolios except English, there have been patterns of increasing participation and engagement of students in deprived schools from 2018-19 to 2020-21. The findings show that what schools do accounts for around a fifth of the variation in participation and up to a third of the variation in engagement of all students. This provides strong evidence that what schools do matters – especially for low-income children.
  • While this is promising, there remain socioeconomic inequalities in participation and engagement as the students from more deprived schools are often starting from a lower base. While the level of inequality by socioeconomic position did decrease between the two years, students in the most deprived schools remain less likely to engage with Scholar in 2020-21. Further, if we look beyond the most and least deprived, we see that schools in the middle FSM band appear to have a widening gap compared to the least deprived group; that is, inequality appears to be increasing for those students. It is important not to lose sight of the middle band of students and schools.
  • There are also differences in socioeconomic inequalities by subject area studied. The English portfolio uniquely shows a large increase in inequality.
  • Students in rural schools engaged with online learning between a quarter and a third more than students in urban schools do. Not only are students in rural schools more likely to participate, students in rural schools also have a sharper increase over time in participation compared to their urban counterparts.

The report makes a series of recommendations for policy makers and for individual schools to reduce inequality and in turn narrow the attainment gap.

The full report is available here along with an executive summary.