Education committee 'unconvinced' by £72m opportunity areas programme

The parliamentary education committee has questioned the effectiveness of the government’s social mobility “opportunity areas” programme, highlighting concerns over its independence, value for money and a lack of joined-up working.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the committee, has written to Damian Hinds, the education secretary, following a number of hearings looking at the policy.

We remain unconvinced that opportunity areas are he best way to meet that aim

Opportunity areas are 12 social mobility “cold spots” across the country, receive extra government funding and support to improve educational outcomes and job opportunities. The policy was first announced by Justine Greening, Hinds’s predecessor, at the Conservative Party conference in 2016.

In his letter, Halfon told Hinds that while the committee applauds the aim of the Department for Education to improve social mobility, they “remain unconvinced that opportunity areas are he best way to meet that aim”.

In recent months, the committee has taken evidence from those involved in the opportunity areas and others who have watched the policy evolve from the outside.

Halfon today raised concerns over the independence of the 12 opportunity area boards, after hearing evidence that those involved had been briefed by the DfE on what to say before appearing in front of the committee.

In another instance, written submissions to the committee came in the form of a departmental template, with “steers” from officials left in. Some answers were “exactly the same across opportunity areas”, Halfon said.

It is not the first time the independence of the scheme has been questioned. Last year, an independent analysis of the programme found the boards seemed “too led” by the DfE.

MPs also have concerns about a lack of joined-up working in government. Halfon said the opportunity areas only receive input from the DfE, despite an overlap with work programmes by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for Work and Pensions.

It comes after the leaders of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership warned that the government was hampering, not helping school improvement in the north of England, and warned the opportunity areas lacked the support they needed from the DfE.

The committee also questioned the value for money of the £72 million scheme, with Halfon adding that £2 million spent on administration costs “could be far better spent directly on the front line. An additional structure also “creates confusion in the system”.

There are also questions over the evaluation of the programme, which is “relatively short” – lasting only three years.

“We are unconvinced that we will be able to see improved outcomes for children and young people from early years through to improvement,” said Halfon.

“We have also not heard in enough detail how the programme’s second objective, to spread effective practice to other areas, will be achieved. This is of particular concern given the number of disadvantaged areas not receiving support from the opportunity areas programme.”