Today England rugby star Maro Itoje throws his weight behind the ‘digital divide’ campaign; his aim to guarantee laptops for all disadvantaged children in the UK.
Here he talks to Frances Hardy about why he is passionately committed to equal education for all:
Having been born into a family that prized education as the key that unlocks a child’s potential, England Rugby star Maro Itoje counts himself incredibly lucky.
‘My younger sister Isabel, older brother Jeremy and I were all privileged to go to good schools.
‘For our Nigerian-born parents Efe and Florence, education was paramount, and like me they believe a good schooling should not only be available to those with deep pockets,’ he says.
Today England rugby star Maro Itoje throws his weight behind the ‘digital divide’ campaign; his aim to guarantee laptops for all disadvantaged children in the UK
From St George’s School, Harpenden, a state school where he was a boarder, he won a sporting scholarship to Harrow, one of our top public schools. There every pupil had access to a computer in their room.
‘My parents expected a great deal from me academically,’ says Itoje, who, even at 26, is tipped to be a future England captain.
His father, a former special needs teacher, gave up teaching 20 odd years ago and now runs his own businesses. His mum manages a property portfolio.
‘Their mantra was: school work comes first – and had I not studied hard to finish my degree I might not be playing rugby today.’
During the pandemic it is his fervent belief that all children should have access to a good education while schools are closed. But for the moment his focus is on those who have the least.
‘During successive lockdowns millions of pupils in the UK – around 87 per cent of children – have been learning from home,’ he says.
‘Yet the poorest among them, already doing so with one hand tied behind their backs, are further hampered by what has come to be known as the digital divide.
Maro Itoje back in his school days at Harrow
‘Put simply, the fortunate have laptops, computers and access to educational data. The disadvantaged do not.
‘Yet today laptops are as vital a tool for kids learning from home as text books used to be; proficiency with a keyboard has usurped writing as an essential skill.
‘But the poorest among us do not have computers at home. And without access to them during the pandemic, the attainment gap – the disparity in academic performance between the most privileged and the least – will widen to become a chasm. Some have predicted it will grow during the current crisis by as much as 75 per cent.’
Last year, it was estimated that 1.78million children in the UK did not have access to devices for learning at home.
This digital divide poses a profound threat to their futures; which is why Itoje has thrown his weight behind the issue and used his platform and voice to shine a light on it.
‘Unless we do this, the adverse effect on the most disadvantaged children will last a lifetime,’ he says.
‘Damning statistics show that children receiving free school meals did, on average, just one hour of schooling a day in the last lockdown.
‘Conversely data shows that children in the highest-income fifth of families in the country, with access to technology, spend 5.8 hours a day on educational activities. What’s more, their schools are more likely to support their study.
‘This cannot be equitable or fair. It has worrying ramifications for the life chances of the poor.
‘And unless we act swiftly, the gap between the haves and have nots will continue to widen.’
While he welcomes the Government’s pledge to supply 1.3million devices, he points out that it has distributed only around 800,000.
‘We need, not only to roll out this programme quickly, but for all of us to step up to the plate and do what we can to help.
‘We should be encouraging the donation of new and used devices that are less than five years old, as well as mobilising tech and phone companies to donate and discount data and WiFi.
‘I am personally spearheading an initiative by my club, Saracens Foundation Digital Drive (a hub for donations and cleaning) as well as mobilising my personal social media network for donations.
‘The poorest families, who do not have laptops, often have pay-as-you-go mobile phone contracts.
‘They prove prohibitively expensive when you’re downloading data. It can cost up to £37 a day to join in with the lessons from the major online educational providers with such contracts. The broadband providers have a role to play here.
The rugby star benefited from his parents’ passionate belief in the value of education. Pictured: Mum Florence with Maro (in white) and elder brother Jeremy
‘I challenge them to consider helping by providing discounts for disadvantaged families perhaps in the form of vouchers.
‘All this is vital because we live in a digital-savvy world where those without technology skills will fall farther and farther behind their more privileged peers. So we must not allow the pandemic to worsen their chances further.
‘We must bridge the digital divide. We must strive for every child to have an equal education because it is the one gift that stays with them for life and opens up their world.’
The rugby star benefited from his parents’ passionate belief in the value of education.
‘For my mum and dad, the expectation that I would get the best education and achieve a good degree was the bare minimum,’ he says.
‘I had to study and play rugby at the same time. There was no concession, no sense that because I was good at sport I could let it take precedence.’
Having achieved three As at A-level he went on to gain a 2:1 in his politics degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
‘Mum and dad said, “Why didn’t you get A*s and a first?” The bar was always pushed higher and higher,’ he laughs.
‘And while a lot of parents pressure their children to succeed in sport, my Nigerian-born mum and dad had no background in rugby – it is not part of the country’s culture – and they simply wanted me to enjoy the game.
‘They didn’t mind one way or the other if I played. Study was always vital and if I’d lagged behind, rugby would have been a casualty.
‘Now, of course, they’re very proud of me. I think they watch more rugby than I do! And they’ve followed me across the globe, from New Zealand to Japan, supporting me.’
So on many levels he counts himself richly blessed: to have parents who cared about his schooling and who instilled in him a relentless work ethic; to have had a superlative education.
‘We often hear that you judge a society on how it treats its vulnerable,’ he says. ‘And the pandemic has sharpened our need to help disadvantaged children with their education.’