How to make Opportunity Areas work: invest in local people

Opportunity areas are a welcome commitment to social mobility. They demonstrate a legitimate concern that all parts of the country should have a high quality education system.

They target resources, support and attention and are no doubt inspired by the success of the London Challenge – which has been surprisingly difficult to transfer to other parts of the country. How can we ensure that opportunity areas learn the right lessons?

There are many explanations for the challenge’s success, but an important feature was that it was “by London, for London”. For opportunity areas to truly work they must adopt the same principle: home-grown solutions to their particular circumstances.

I note this because there has been a tendency in government policy to adopt the “export model”, parachuting leaders and staff into a school or an area to bring in new practices. Although this may be a necessary short-term fix, it has not generally proved sustainable. This is particularly true at a regional level where teachers have been understandably reluctant to move long distances, as demonstrated by the failure of the National Teaching Service.

People have rightly said that even in a school dubbed as “failing” there are still examples of good and excellent practice. This is even more true of a whole area or region. There will be great leaders, great teaching, great collaboration and great initiatives in every part of the country. They need nurturing and spreading. Even better, these local successes are shown to work in the particular context of the area.

Read more: Toby’s opinion

One thing is sure, what may work in a large urban secondary school, for example, has no guarantee of working in small rural primary schools. The UN development teams used to call this philosophy “positive dissonance” – don’t fly the experts in with their solution to a local problem; find where some of the locals have already solved the problem and spread that more widely.

So, for opportunity areas to take off, a few guiding principles are key:

•    Each area will face different challenges, begin by understanding them and craft a customised set of solutions.

•    By all means bring in stimulus and ideas from outside, but focus most of your efforts on nurturing local solutions and people. If you haven’t got enough teachers, for example, think about how you can develop talented teaching assistants before you spend thousands on relocation packages.

•    Focus on developing people. We don’t need more structural changes; the secret to social mobility is no secret at all: great teaching for the pupils who need it most.

•  One of the difficulties with local solutions and leadership is where the right to act as a system leader has been artificially restricted by the use of accreditations and badges. We need to ensure that solidly good schools can participate as well as the outstanding. There are recent changes to this effect for national leaders of education and teaching schools which can be built on.

•    The initiatives deployed in the area need to add up to be larger than the sum of their parts rather than compete with each other for money and, more importantly, attention. A local team of leaders should form a steering group to manage this process.

•    The London Challenge took time to flourish. The opportunity areas should be a long-term project, with long-term goals. The measures of success should reflect this. This will require cross-party support, locally and nationally. Local politicians must have a stake in the project, so that momentum is maintained when the attention of Westminster moves on.

As Toby’s list shows, a long parade of initiatives focusing on local improvement has had mixed results. We have focused too often on titles and structures and new governance arrangements at the expense of real change in the classroom. We also have not given projects a chance to thrive before moving on to the next big idea. If opportunity areas become a long-term commitment to supporting local leaders and teachers in tackling their own
distinctive challenges, then perhaps they might just stick.

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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