Greater Manchester Combined Authority - GM Digital

Greater Manchester Combined Authority – GM Digital

Greater Manchester Technology Fund

Briefly describe the initiative/ project/service; please include your aims and objectives

Greater Manchester Technology Fund (GM Tech Fund) was a rapid response to the impact of school closure during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Greater Manchester Combined Authority invested £150,000 in 567 kit bundles which were made available to disadvantaged and digitally excluded pupils, working closely with schools and colleges to identify those in most need. The fund was created after it became apparent that insufficient connectivity, data and devices in family homes left a large number of young people in Greater Manchester without the means to carry out their schoolwork, communicate socially or access essential services and support. The fund aimed to provide learners at risk of digital isolation with the technology and connectivity needed to continue their learning at home while schools and colleges were first closed.

In April, the Dept. for Education announced a scheme whereby the government would provide free laptops, tablets and 4G dongles to certain pupils struggling to learn at home. The scheme was open to some disadvantaged year 10 pupils, care leavers and pupils with a social worker. Whilst we welcomed the announcement from the Department for Education, as a region we had already recognised the need to go further and faster to help those most in need. Our young people, their parents and guardians needed to feel assured their education will not suffer during this period of lockdown. We also hoped these young learners will benefit through reconnecting with their peers and school network. A cross-cutting team was formed to mobilise the GM Tech Fund project to explore the scale of the problem, identify where to target distribution and work with three pilot schools to understand what the young people required to become digitally enabled.

The Good Things Foundation research shows that ‘Disadvantaged young people are likely to have lower quality access and lower levels of digital skills which impede their ability to take up education and employment opportunities’.[1] As part of this scoping exercise we need to discover:  Who is in need? Why are they in need? (FSM eligibility; EHCP; overcrowding in the home; Looked after children; young carers etc.) What is their need? (Do you they have internet access but only 1 smart phone in the house? Have a laptop but no data access? Have no access to data or a device? Is this need because of COVID, or was an existing need?). We used data we had on varying indicators of deprivation (Free School Meal eligibility, number of looked after children, etc.) to analyse where the greatest need would be. To do this we used research from the Good Things foundation, and our existing data to rank X State-funded secondary’s across Greater Manchester from most to least deprived using FSM eligibility data. The project team worked with Local Authorities and schools to arrange delivery of the kits and distribution to the young people. Schools were prioritised based on the proportion of young people receiving free school meals; digital inclusion is connected to social exclusion. The decision about which children to provide with the kits was managed by the schools, allowing them to use their knowledge and experience to ensure that the digital kits went to where they were most needed. The schools were also consulted to ensure that the correct level of digital skills and online safety was assured for the young people receiving the kit. GMCA leveraged an existing relationship with Virgin Media Business to allocate a £50K seed fund for the purchase of digital kits for distribution to young people via schools in all 10 Localities of Greater Manchester. Further contributions were made by ANS Group and directly from GMCA.

The GM Technology Fund successfully purchased and delivered 567 digital kits within 6 weeks of the project conception. Each digital kit delivered included a Chromebook, a MiFi and an unlimited three-month data plan. The Technology Fund supports Greater Manchester’s existing commitment to provide essential digital skills to everyone, improve the digital capabilities of the region and strengthen the digital talent pipeline.

What are the key achievements?

The intended benefits of the Technology Fund were enabling young people to access online learning, to socialise and to access online services, information, advice and guidance during lockdown. The schools in receipt of the digital kits told us students are now benefitting through the ability to take part more regularly in online lessons and lesson plans and are able to work independently to complete homework or research. Some schools have seen an improved engagement with teachers and tutors though regular ‘check ins’ and pastoral support and an increase in the number of hours of schoolwork completed.

At the Hathershaw College, Oldham one parent explained that access to this kit has had a ‘very positive impact’ on her sons learning and that they found the equipment ‘very straight forward to use’. Andy Potts, Assistant Principal at The Hathershaw College said “Digital exclusion is always a consideration of ours, we need to ensure that pupils with limited or no access to a laptop or internet are not disadvantaged and that their ability to learn is not negatively impacted. In our school, the Greater Manchester Technology Fund has been an overwhelming success and I would like to say a huge thank you- it has been a wonderful opportunity at a time of need for some of our most disadvantaged pupils”.

We also received the following feedback directly from some Greater Manchester headteachers, pupils and their parents who
received kit under the Tech Fund:

“The laptop was easy to use and has helped me access schoolwork from home. Thank you for helping me”

There were other benefits of the project which were not foreseen at conception. The provision of digital kits to the homes of some of the most economically disadvantaged families in Greater Manchester was a key tool for teachers to use in their ongoing relationships with some of the most vulnerable children. Children who were living in homes where there is violence, substance misuse and safeguarding concern were able to communicate with their teachers face-to-face via video conferencing. This opportunity to have regular ‘eyes on’ vulnerable children had been lost when the schools closed and had been
maintained by teachers visiting the doors of households with paper copies of lessons and learning materials for the child. This had limited effectiveness due to the lack of regularity and the inability to communicate with the children for any significant length of time or monitor their everyday behaviour. The introduction of the digital kits placed the children back in regular faceto- face contact with their teachers and enabled teachers to monitor their activities and lesson completion online.

The way the fund was financially supported was also seen as an achievement. Investment from Virgin Media Business came through their delivery of a local full fibre network for Greater Manchester following their commitment to support local people when they were successful in securing that contract earlier in the year. ANS Group are another private sector partner the authority is working with – developers of two application launched across Greater Manchester (early years application and the community hub application). This was seen as great example of private and public sector collaboration, with both these organisations using the GM Tech Fund as a way to acknowledge that addressing digital exclusion doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of the public sector.

What are the key learning points?

The Greater Manchester Technology fund was managed in an agile way. The rapid sprint required high intense activity for a short period of time. The user requirements of the young people were quickly learned through a pilot with three schools and the kits were based on the minimum specifications required by the young people to enable the funds to spread further to support more young people. The project was then rapidly scaled and successful delivery to 567 young people was possible in a very short period of time.

One of the lessons learned from this approach included the value of using small pilots to test assumptions before a scaled-up delivery. We had assumed that the young people would need a high specification laptop with particular software provided. However, through running a pilot we discovered a lower grade device would be adequate and that the schools could place software on the devices themselves. This meant the cost per ‘kit bundle’ became lower than originally anticipated and the tech fund was able to reach more young people. The team also learn that, when a project is time critical, the value that can be achieved depreciated as time progresses. Every day that the project went on was another day of young people being disconnected from learning, from friends and families and from vital support and services. It was therefore necessary to forfeit some of the analysis and precision in approach to enable an early realisation of benefits. Managing relationships with stakeholders was key to the success of the tech fund – working with suppliers, head teachers and potential investors. Where possible, we utilised existing relationships due to the time constraints of this project, we utilised the relationships that GMCA’s Bridge GM team have with schools and colleges across Greater Manchester that are part of the largest Enterprise Adviser Network outside of London.

These EC’s were able to reach out to schools in their network, who they had established relationships with, and effectively manage this part of the stakeholder relationship. As the EC’s already had links with many schools who benefitted, it enabled us to quickly contact, get consent from, and finally deliver kit to schools. Without the links of the EC’s this may have taken much longer and likely wouldn’t have been as effective. These established relationships also meant it was straightforward to garner feedback for our evaluation, as well as anecdotes from teachers, parents and pupils to use in our communications. We harnessed existing relationships with suppliers of ICT equipment, through our digital team with the aim of purchasing kit in bulk at a lower rate and worked with a supplier who were keen to support our young people in Greater Manchester through the fund.

COVID-19 Response Recognition Award

The GM Tech Fund supported our young people, their families, carers and educators across the region. These children were at risk of exclusion from not only their education but their friends and other social interaction they experienced during the school day. One school told spoke to us about Huma, a Greater Manchester pupil. Huma found the laptop she was provided easy to use, when completing her schoolwork from home. Huma was sharing a device with her siblings, so having access to her own IT equipment has been very helpful.

We also heard of some unintended consequences of the GM Tech Fund, with one family suffering a small house fire at the start of lockdown. To be able to replace their fire damaged laptop made a huge difference to that student. The provision of WiFi connectivity was also of immense value to them as a family as their modem had also been destroyed in the fire. (Hazel Wood High School, Greater Manchester). A significant lesson learned is that there is great opportunity in working in partnership and cross-sector working when there are clear shared goals. Digital inclusion is a huge issue, with the pandemic highlighting the UK’s digital divide.

A new report by The Good Things Foundation and Liverpool University suggests that levels of digital exclusion is much worse than previously thought with over 700,000 people in Greater Manchester only using the internet in a narrow or limited way and a further 450,000 are classified as ‘non-users.’ As many as 1.2m residents in Greater Manchester could be excluded in some way to access the benefits digital brings. By working together, we were able to use our different strengths to rapidly address one part of the wider challenge of digital inclusion. The scale and quality of what we can achieve in the future is enhanced by the right organisations and stakeholders playing the right roles in activities which contribute towards those goals. Throughout the project delivery connections were made with several community groups, organisations and national schemes to share information and explore how we could strengthen our approach through collaboration in the future. The lessons learned from this process contributed to the development of a strategic agenda for change to address digital inclusion in Greater Manchester – our intention that Greater Manchester be a 100% digitally enabled city-region, a region that puts people at the heart of our plans. Access to the digital world should be a basic human right, everyone in Greater Manchester whatever their age, location, or situation, should be able to benefit from the opportunities digital brings. Most recently, a digital inclusion taskforce met for the first time, with over 150 cross sector representatives in attendance.

The taskforce brought together our GM Digital ecosystem of industry, VCSC sector, public sector partners, local government, schools and health to identify and fund programmes, improve our evidence base and build a supportive community to work together to fix the digital divide. The taskforce will focus and shape an action plan to address the interrelated barriers to digital inclusion and the digital divide such as connectivity, accessibility, affordability, skills, motivation and confidence. The GM Tech Fund also challenged existing ways of working and Greater Manchester acknowledged that whilst central government support was on offer, that we needed to do more for our young people across the region. Using local knowledge and leveraging local relationships we were able to address the issue of digital exclusion quickly in a targeted way.

In addition, investment into the fund demonstrated our ethos of doing digital differently, with investment from Virgin Media Business came through their delivery of a local full fibre network for Greater Manchester following their commitment to support local people when they were successful in securing that contract earlier in the year. At the time of launch, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said “Our young people deserve every chance to fulfil their potential. Having the tools to continue their education and positively engage in their communities is integral to that during these challenging times.

“There are many young people in our city-region who have become digitally excluded in recent weeks, unable to complete schoolwork online or connect digitally with family and friends outside of their home. If we don’t intervene now our poorest students will fall further behind. Our Technology Fund will help to address this, but we sadly don’t have the resources to support every digitally excluded learner.’ We are now having conversations with more private sector corporations to understand how they can contribute to strategically addressing digital exclusion in Greater Manchester.