NI further education students to receive one-off £60 payment to help with remote learning data costs

  • The NI Department for the Economy today (3 March 2021) announced a £2.9m package of support for further education students to address digital poverty.

    Eligible full-time and part-time further education students will receive a one-off payment of £60 to help address data costs incurred through remote learning.

    The department added that 500 additional devices will be distributed to students most in need.

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    Economy Minister Diane Dodds said that “digital poverty should not be a barrier to learning and this additional support will help address that challenge."

    "Our local further education colleges were quick to react to the pandemic and make the move to online teaching," she added.

    "This has been very effective under the circumstances but it has come at a cost for students in terms of device and data usage."

    The data poverty payments will be issued to students by their colleges, who will contact their students to ensure they have all necessary details.

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    The NI Executive previously provided further education colleges with £4.8m Covid-19 funding for IT equipment to help both staff and students with remote working/learning. 

    Paula Reynolds, Chief Executive of the Belfast Charitable Society, recently told BBC News NI that the digital divide in Northern Ireland is "across the board."

    "There are rural issues with no access to broadband and, of course, a digital poverty problem," she said.

    "On one level, it is people who are already disadvantaged but there are the new poor who will be coming out of this because of redundancies."

    The society put together funding for 225 laptops to schools in north Belfast last spring, along with the Halifax Foundation, the National Lottery Community Fund, Ulster University and the Ulster Community Investment Trust. 

    Recent months have seen more organisations help with digital device donations across NI. Asda announced in January it is providing 170 Dell laptops across the region and last month local businesses provided 50 laptops for students at a Lurgan school.

    However, Ms Reynolds feels that the Department of Education should "speed up the delivery and provision" of devices.

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    While the Department for the Economy deals with further education colleges, the Department for Education is responsible for schools.

    On 21 May 2020, Education Minister Peter Weir announced a process to lend digital devices to disadvantaged pupils who may be unable to access devices at home, during Covid-19.

    The Education Authority's (EA) website states that the scheme is still available and parents should contact the school directly if they have any queries.

    On 8 July 2020, Minister Weir also announced a free wi-fi scheme, to support vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils.

    Again the EA's website states this "process is being managed through the school and parents should contact the school directly if they have any queries."

    Data from the Education Authority obtained by Sync NI disclosed that to the end of June 2020, 9003 devices had been requested as part of that process and the initiative would continue into the new school year, with schools also being able to request devices.

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