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Digital a ‘fundamental component’ for rebuilding economy, finds parliamentary group

Digital, and in particular a focus on digital skills, will be extremely important for the UK as it aims to recover from the pandemic, according to a parliamentary group

Digital will have a “significant role to play” in the UK’s economic recovery following the coronavirus outbreak, according to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Digital Skills.

Originally set up to raise awareness of the importance of digital skills throughout government, the APPG has now also taken into consideration how increased use of technology during the pandemic may have impacted the use, need for and delivery of digital skills, and made several suggestions for the government going forward.

These include developing a cross-departmental approach to digital strategy which works alongside educators, local authorities and industry, developing more support for those not online, and investing in groups and initiatives aimed at increasing digital skills and inclusion.

Julie Elliott, chair of the APPG on digital skills, said: “We’ve had a strong response from the sector to learn what issues have emerged across the UK during the last few months. It is clear that as we look to re-build our economy, digital should be considered as a fundamental component in all future policies.

“There has never been a more pressing time to develop and implement a cross-departmental digital recovery strategy working alongside industry, educators and local authorities. The Government must act now and set a clear strategy in place or the UK risks a slower economic recovery.”

Not only is there a skills gap in the UK whereby there are not enough skilled workers to fill digital roles, a large number of adults in the UK also don’t have the basic digital skills they need to complete basic tasks.

The 15 recommendations made by the APPG are categorised into: accessibility and digital inclusion, communities, employment, education, and responding to the pandemic.

Retraining

Highlighting how the pandemic has not only meant an increase in home working and schooling but also a large number of adults deciding to use the time to learn new digital skills, the APPG stated it’s more important than ever to help people retrain, and also to ensure the UK has adequate digital infrastructure to allow widespread connectivity, use of digital services, and an increase in digital skills.

Using data from the office of national statistics, the APPG claimed 36% of adults have used the UK’s lockdown to retrain, 37% of people are increasingly using technology to manage their mental health, and according to the CBI, the likelihood of widespread redundancies.

Though the government has claimed it will publish a Digital Strategy in the autumn of 2020, the APPG advised it should go further than this, ensuring it works with educators, local authorities and industry to develop a “cross-departmental digital economic recovery strategy”.

While many have adapted well to using technology to perform work and day-to-day tasks during lockdown, there are others who do not have the digital skills appropriate to fill the gap left by coronavirus with digital services.

This now exacerbated skills gap was apparent even before lockdown, but as well as a lack of skills, some are unable to access the digital technology or skills they need to continue offering services, such as community organisations and charities.

Resources network

Focusing on accessibility and digital inclusion, the APPG suggested the government works with educators, and industry to introduce a “digital training resources network” aimed at giving people basic digital skills, as well as investing in digital infrastructure, particularly targeting those who currently aren’t able to get online.

While there has been a sense of community during the pandemic while people try and help each other through tough times, the APPG also points out there others who have played on uncertainty created by the outbreak to digitally perpetrate fraud, and in some cases funding or government backing might be needed to continue offering support, awareness and education.

When it comes to supporting communities, the APPG had several recommendations, including government backing for initiatives aimed at increasing digital access, such as DevicesDotNow, investment in community groups to ensure digital skills training, fraud awareness campaigns and partnerships between local and central government, employers, educators, charities and community groups to create “lifelong learning hubs” focused on helping people impacted by coronavirus-induced changes to employment gain the digital skills they need to find new work.

Employment has been an ever-changing beast during the pandemic, with some sectors laying off people in their masses, while others are creating a plethora of new roles and positions.

The APPG claimed more will need to be done post-pandemic to ensure the existing workforce is given new skills and training.

A summary of the suggestions put forward by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Digital Skills:

  • Expand on plans to publish a Digital Strategy with the help of educators, local authorities and industry
  • Develop a digital training resources network alongside industry and educators to provide basic digital skills
  • Work on the UK’s digital infrastructure and provide support for those not online
  • Provide backing for initiatives aimed at increasing digital accessibility
  • Invest in community groups
  • Develop fraud awareness campaigns
  • Partner with local and central government, LEPs, employers, educators, charities and community groups to develop hubs aimed at lifelong learning
  • Develop a Sector Skills Grant Scheme to help sectors develop training schemes for sector-specific digital skills in the wake of the pandemic
  • Help small businesses understand what digital skills support is available for them
  • Reform the apprenticeship levy
  • Create a Covid-19 response working group to encourage more collaboration between government, industry and academia
  • Develop financial schemes backed by the Department for Education to promote remote learning
  • Develop an approach to flexible, blended learning through infrastructure and policies
  • Accelerate the development of digital skills standards through the introduction of new standards and accreditation
  • Encourage a shift towards lifelong learning

Some sectors have been training people in skills specific to their sector, and Nesta has been working with organisations to develop digital tools for people as risk of being automated out of their jobs, prompting the APPG to call for a Sector Skills Grant Scheme to be developed to help businesses develop training for existing employees and new starters in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The APPG also advised ensuring smaller businesses know what digital skills training support is available to them, as well as a reform of the Apprenticeship Levy, and the creation of a Covid-19 digital response working group to encourage the government to collaborate with academia and industry to develop recruitment opportunities for students.

In regards to education, remote learning has become the norm, but for some it has been more difficult to implement – the APPG found teachers are not always comfortable with the use of digital technologies, and delivering education remotely is not something many schools had planned for.

This has also shown the skills gap between those who can use digital and those who can’t, with some left without the skills needed to use digital devices to access education remotely.

Read more about digital skills

  • The education sector’s response to the coronavirus crisis demonstrates how digital systems and skills will be essential to the future of learning.
  • A £3m fund from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Lancashire Digital Skills Partnership will be used to fund projects aimed at getting under-represented groups into digital.

The APPG recommended increased support for remote learning through financial support for students from the Department of Education, implementation of infrastructure and policies for “blended learning” going forward, development of new standards and accreditation for digital skills, and a shift towards lifelong learning encouraged through the introduction of a Lifelong Learning Loan Allowance.

The APPG was already focused on finding ways to promote digital skills, but pointed out in some cases the response to working and learning digitally during the UK’s lockdown has been creative and innovative.

Earlier in the year it asked for examples of this to see if response to lockdown life could be useful in developing digital skills recommendations for government policies, and as a result collected a number of case studies and ideas from third parties.

City & Guilds, which adapted to lockdown quickly by switching events to online and utilising digital technology, pointed out there are several “cast in stone” notions about the delivery of education which could be challenged going forward, while BT used resources such as videos and guides called BT’s Top Tips on Tech to help people learn more about tech and how to use it to improve their time at home during lockdown.

While the UK was already working to make sure everyone has the digital skills needed to navigate day-to-day life, it’s clear the increased use of technology during the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the existing need for increased digital skills among the UK’s citizens.

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