In the first of an occasional blog series, we look at what the pandemic has taught us about the future of social mobility work.
Few organisations can claim to have been fully ready for the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the country over the last 15 months. At Altitude, until very recently, our meeting room still had a Coronavirus risk assessment flipchart on the wall that envisaged disruption lasting only until the summer holidays.
As we now know, the impact of the pandemic is not yet over, even as restrictions begin to ease and life begins to return to some sort of normal. The past year has had a devastating impact on young people, and disproportionately so for the young people we aim to work with. Whilst the shift to online lessons during school closures was welcome, it relied on a rollout of devices and connectivity to households that lacked them, primarily those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage.
Like many youth-focused organisations, Altitude Foundation experienced a drop off in engagement from our cohort. Although we were able to pivot quickly to a remote offering, a combination of factors limited interaction with our participants: access barriers, like not having a suitable device; not being able to translate some in-person activities to a digital platform; “Zoom fatigue” limiting the desire to attend more online events; and possibly even the negative impacts on mental health caused by lockdown.
Schools play a critical role in helping the Foundation to identify and engage with our target cohort: socioeconomically disadvantaged young people with a passion for digital and tech. With the closure of schools to all but the most vulnerable pupils, we found another barrier to engaging with some of our harder-to-reach participants.
Our experience during lockdown was not without positives. We have been able to trial new modes of delivery in the online space, learning more about how to engage with young people in live, participatory sessions and on our online community. We have forged new links with other organisations facing similar challenges to our own. And we have found new ways to engage with and get the most out of our fantastic, who we are enormously grateful for.
So what have we learned from our experiences, and how will that impact our programme delivery in the future?
Firstly, our decision at the outset of launching our programme, to choose delivery modes that did not require specific or limited technology options was the right one. We continue to believe that young people should be able to engage in our programming activities using any device, because many will not have easy access to a laptop. However, we recognise that device agnosticism alone will not overcome engagement barriers.
Secondly, online delivery can and does work, and we will continue to use that model where it can usefully replace in-person activity. For example, we now deliver some of our Code Cooperatives simultaneously to eight separate schools at the same time, with participants joining us from their computer classrooms whilst we run the sessions remotely. This minimises travel, maximises the impact we can have in a given time slot, and facilitates a greater number of young people to take part.
Thirdly, we believe our core mission- to enable young people with untapped potential to pursue their passion for technology, get their first job, and inspire young people to do the same- is more critical now than ever. The pandemic has shown how powerful digital solutions can be in many different contexts. There is no doubt that many of the challenges posed by lockdown would have been harder without the internet to keep us busy and entertained.
That means more young people need to develop vital digital skills that can propel them to exciting careers in a range of fields. These skills will be increasingly important, as digital solutions grow to encompass more and more of our daily and working lives. It will also be vital as the digital economy grows, which will be a critical part of our overall economic recovery.
However, we cannot go back to business as usual if we are going to face the societal and economic challenges of the next decade. We need to unlock the potential of all young people, and we need to work collectively, across education, industry, government, and the charitable sector, if we are to do so.
That is why we support the Sutton Trust’s recent recommendation that all disadvantaged pupils should have an ongoing entitlement to access to digital learning. It is why we continue to build employer partnerships, working with the likes of Scott Logic, Newcastle Building Society, Turnitin and the NHS Business Services Authority to facilitate a shared ambition to grow the digital workforce of the future.
It has been a difficult year, but at Altitude, we are resolved to step up to the challenges and opportunities of the coming year with a renewed sense of purpose.