Government must raise its game as pandemic highlights 'huge' digital divides, warns Yorkshire entrepreneur

The Government should prioritise digital devices and the internet amid concerns that the region will see an “huge” skills gap for the future, a Yorkshire business leader has claimed.

The head of a Yorkshire organisation - who instigated a laptops for children scheme to bridge the digital divide - said the Government must prioritise connectivity across the region and the North of England as families are still having to choose between providing food or education due to a digital poverty.

New analysis for The Yorkshire Post by the data software company, WANdisco, estimates that the North of England had a deficit of 160,000 laptops, while 100,000 homes were without any internet connectivity at the start of this year.

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Special report: Widening education gap
To help fill a 10,000 deficit across South Yorkshire, David Richards paired up with a not for profit company, Learn Sheffield, to deliver revamped laptops and has gone on to provide more than 14,000 laptops in the North of England, alongside 5,000 dongles. Photo credit: PA

David Richards the chief executive for WANdisco, who previously worked in the Silicon Valley for more than 20 years, has stressed the need for the Government to treat digital devices and the internet as a utility on par with water, gas and electricity.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “We call it the digital divide but it’s actually a poverty divide - people don’t not have the internet and have laptops or notebooks that they can work on out of choice.

“It’s a function of not being able to afford to do it.”

Mr Richards, 50, added: “The internet is now a utility and we should treat it like a utility just like we do with water, gas and electricity.

Pictured, David Richards, the chief executive for WANdisco, who previously worked in the Silicon Valley for more than 20 years. He has stressed the need for the Government to treat digital devices and the internet as a utility on par with water, gas and electricity. Photo credit: Submitted photo

“We don’t say well you can’t have fresh running water - we just provide it and the same thing has to apply particularly with the internet because if you don’t have the internet you are at such a massive disadvantage that you will get left behind.”

He said the Government's £400m scheme to dispatch laptops to disadvantaged children had “failed to deliver” after a “faulty” calculation based on the number of free school meals.

To help fill a 10,000 deficit across South Yorkshire, Mr Richards paired up with a not for profit company, Learn Sheffield, to deliver revamped laptops and has gone on to provide more than 14,000 laptops in the North of England, alongside 5,000 dongles.

As part of the Government’s scheme, Computacenter, whose founder Sir Philip Hulme is a Conservative Party donor, was awarded a £198m contract to deliver laptops.

Pictured father-of-three Robert Robinson and his young family - daughters Rane (8), River (5) and son Storm (3). The family were greatly aided by David Richardson's digital scheme launched in South Yorkshire which has supplied 14,000 free laptops and 5,000 across the North of England/ Photo credit: JPIMedia/ Jonathan Gawthorpe

Mr Richardson said that “questions around cronyism” needed to be answered, and added: “Is it mates rates, I don’t know - the company are certainly donors to the party - whether that influenced them I don’t know - but I do know they failed to deliver what they promised to.”

WANdisco estimates that there are currently 150,000 software jobs in Yorkshire with unfilled vacancies, due to a lack of digital skills.

He said: “Nevermind a digital divide there is a big skills gap. We already have demand for skills we can’t fulfill in the region - that to me is a huge problem.

“You can create jobs but if you haven’t got the skills to fill them - you may as well throw it in the trash.

“Whatever the levelling up agenda is, skills and doing it quickly needs to be very high. The current education system in its current format isn’t working in doing that.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Over 1.35 million laptops and tablets have been distributed to schools, trusts, local authorities and further education providers for disadvantaged children and young people as part of a £400 million government investment to support access to remote education and online social care services.

“We have also provided support for over 110,000 families to get online through uplifts in mobile data and 4G wireless routers.”

A special Yorkshire Post report includes:

- Parents, headteachers, university students and leaders open up about the challenges to education over the past 18 months.

- Anne Longfield, the former Children's Commissioner for England, has called for a 10-year education plan, including the creation of a northern learning team, to be instigated to help combat a a “triple whammy” of disadvantage for thousands of children across the region and give pupils the “rightful” support to ensure they fulfil their full potential.

- Justine Greening - a former Education Secretary and the architect of the opportunity areas programme during her time in government - has made an impassioned plea to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ensure more powers are given to local communities to create more opportunities for young people.

- Labour Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said due to a number of Department of Education “fiascos” over the past 16 months including the exams chaos of last summer when an algorithm “cheated children of results”, a government u-turn on free school meals and “last minute”planning, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is “not fit” to remain in post.

- A Northern education leader has warned of a “perfect storm” across the region ahead of exam results next month.

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