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There are varying definitions of digital skills, however, they can broadly be considered as the ability to use computers and other digital technologies to carry out activities and achieve outcomes including communicating, managing information and accessing services.

The Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index is an annual study of UK digital skills, which includes a measurement of skills against the Government’s Essential Digital Skills framework. The 2020 Consumer Digital Index surveyed 4233 people and found that 22% did not have ‘essential digital skills for life’, and 16% could not carry out a full set of the ‘foundation’ digital tasks that underpin the framework (such as the ability to use a web browser or connect a device to a WiFi network).

The UK Government has launched several recent initiatives to improve digital skills in the UK. In 2017, DCMS set up the Digital Skills Partnership aiming to bring together public, private and charity sector organisations to improve digital skills in the UK. This includes work in local areas through the local digital skills partnerships, established in seven UK regions.

In 2020 the Government launched new digital skills qualifications, which adults lacking basic digital skills can undertake for free. In addition, since April 2021 it is offering adults without any A level qualifications or equivalent to undertake a fully funded ‘level 3’ qualification (equivalent to A level qualifications) from a choice of courses, including some digital-related.

The Government has committed to updating its 2017 digital strategy, which it plans to publish in 2021. It has said that building a skilled digital workforce will be a key area of the strategy.

Key Points

  • Certain groups are less likely to have digital skills than others. The main factor correlated with digital skill level is age: the 2020 Consumer Digital Index found that 46% of people aged 65+ had essential digital skills for life, compared with 96% of people in the 15-24 age group. Other factors linked to digital skill level include socioeconomic status, location, education level and whether a person has a disability.
  • There may be a number of barriers to obtaining digital skills, including: a lack of motivation or perceived need for them; a lack of trust in digital technologies and the internet (for example, fear of fraud or identity theft); a lack of support with learning digital skills; and lack of access to the required devices and internet connectivity.
  • Concerns about the digital skills gap have been particularly acute during the COVID-19 pandemic as people have been more reliant on digital skills for work, accessing education and services, and socialising. The 2020 Consumer Digital Index found that 78% of respondents agreed that the pandemic had increased the need for digital skills.
  • Digital skills are associated with a number of positive outcomes for both individuals and the wider economy. The impacts of digital skills on outcomes include benefits for employment, earnings, personal finance, access to government support services, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.
  • Over the last decade, the UK Government has increasingly been encouraging people to access its services online. However, the people most likely to require Government support services are often from groups with lower levels of digital skills. This has led to concerns that pressure to use online services could lead to people not claiming benefits that they are entitled to.
  • Approaches to improving digital skills in the UK include education for young people in schools and programmes that take place outside of the education system aimed at upskilling and reskilling adults.
  • Digital skills are taught specifically within computing lessons, although aspects of digital skills feature in other parts of the curriculum. Some research has found that teachers are concerned that the computing curriculum is overly focussed on computer science and that there is a lack of basic digital skills development. Further challenges include a shortage of qualified teachers and a low uptake of computing qualifications.
  • Various organisations run initiatives aimed at digitally upskilling adults. FutureDotNow, a coalition of organisations working to boost the UK’s digital skills, maintains a directory of UK digital skills programmes. Examples include BT’s Skills for Tomorrow programme and Good Things Foundation’s Learn My Way.
  • Devices and internet connectivity are important for learning and improving digital skills. Several technology loan schemes have been set up by local groups and charities across the UK in recent years, often targeting people vulnerable to digital exclusion.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Professor Ellen Helsper, London School of Economics*
  • Professor Rebecca Eynon, Oxford Internet Institute and University of Oxford*
  • Professor Simeon Yates, University of Liverpool*
  • Dr Peter Kemp, Kings College London*
  • Dr Grant Blank, Oxford Internet Institute and University of Oxford*
  • Dr Alice Mathers, Good Things Foundation*
  • Tom McGrath, Good Things Foundation*
  • Joanna Boosey, Lloyds Banking Group*
  • Faye van Flute, Lloyds Banking Group*
  • Adam Collins, Lloyds Banking Group
  • Nimmi Patel, techUK*
  • Roxanne Morison, CBI*
  • Edward Richardson, CBI*
  • Kerry Harrison, Lancashire LDSP*
  • David Pincott, FutureDotNow*
  • Sally West, Age UK*
  • Wendy Bryant, Ofcom*
  • Jenny Haskey, Citizens Online*
  • Gary Coyle, Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport*
  • James Cooper, Department for Education*
  • Magdalena Fahiye, Department for Education*
  • Samina Kiddier, Department for Education*
  • Hannah Cornick, BT*
  • David Frank, Microsoft*
  • Chris Winter, The Digitally Left Behind Team*
  • Dr Maurice Perks, The Digitally Left Behind Team*
  • Bradley Kieser, SMS-Speedway
  • Members of the POST Board*

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.


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