Justine Greening has indicated that more opportunity areas will be added to the 12 already on the list “over time”, in particular agreeing with criticism that none are present in the north-east.
In an interview before an audience at a Teach First conference today, Greening said that she “hoped” more areas would be given funding to tackle entrenched inequality between pupils.
Her words came after her interviewer, a headteacher from the north-east, challenged the education secretary as to why there were no plans for opportunity areas in her region, which faces significant disadvantages.
This question brought cheers and applause from the audience.
Greening responded that she was “as passionate as [the audience] are about the north-east,” and went on to say she was especially concerned about social mobility in that region.
“When I talked about ’tilting’ the policies [in the Department for Education], a lot of them are focussed in the north-east.”
For instance, the new tuition fee loan forgiveness scheme for certain trainees will run in Middlesbrough, a particularly deprived area in the north-east, she said.
However, none of the current opportunity areas which access extra funding from the DfE cover the north-east.
Greening countered the interviewer’s challenge by saying the opportunity areas had been chosen through looking at “cold spots” as identified by the Social Mobility Commission and “marrying” these with policy priorities for the DfE.
The opportunity areas were intended to cover various types of geographical areas, including rural and coastal regions, she said.
But added she “hoped” the north-east would be added to this list.
“You’re right,” she said to the interviewer who said the north-east needed to be counted as an opportunity area.
Greening’s speech, which stated that social mobility was now “centre stage” for the DfE, also said in a somewhat rambling speech that qualified teacher status must be strengthened.
The government must help “lift teaching as a career” and “shout” about the fact it is “is one of most rewarding careers anyone can go in to,” she said.
But to convince graduates, the DfE “need to improve existing offer for teachers”, particularly through improving QTS so trainees feel they are moving into the “next stage in development”, rather than being abandoned, when they start in their new schools.
All these policies – Greening mentioned the £10 million earmarked for new national professional qualifications (NPQs) – are what the education secretary called “phase two” of the government’s education programme.
Whereas the first phase of widespread academisation were “the reforms that really started the race to the stop”, this second phase is focussed on reducing regional disparities in educational outcomes, she said.
“If the task before was inner city comprehensives and London; actually, now, it’s about regional disparities,” she said.