Opportunity areas suffer from lack of cross-government support, MPs warned

Opportunity areas are suffering from a lack of support from other governmental departments, board representatives have warned MPs.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions must be “proactively” involved in opportunity areas if they are to fulfil their purpose of improved social mobility, the education select committee heard this morning.

Chris Starkie, a member of the Norwich and Ipswich opportunity areas partnership boards, said the DfE had been unable to provide all the data his team needed to identify priorities for social mobility.

“The reality is the DfE didn’t have enough data really. They had the schools data, but wider social mobility data was not their speciality or their department, so we pulled a range of different data sets together.”

Board representatives from some of the 12 opportunity areas, which were first announced in 2016, were also grilled by the committee on what “outcomes” they have achieved since receiving £72 million in government funding.

Fiona McMillan, chair of the West Somerset opportunity area partnership board, said a “more active and proactive response” was needed from both the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions.

When committee chair Robert Halfon checked with other board members, they nodded in agreement with McMillan’s statement.

Such an isolated departmental approach seemed “quite strange”, said Halfon. “If these huge opportunity areas are going to be created and this enormous amount of money spent by the government, it seems strange there is no joined-up government and there is just one department involved”.

McMillan continued by saying her opportunity area is “seen as a DfE initiative as opposed to being seen as a whole government initiative”.

It comes after the flagship programme has already come under fire from the National Foundation for Educational Research for being “too led” by the DfE and needing more local engagement.

But the board members insisted local engagement had improved and said more “cross-departmental” engagement was needed instead.

Halfon also said he was worried the outcomes of the opportunity area work so far were not clear enough.

He said the funding seemed to have been used to far to “bring people together” rather than produce concrete results such as improved literacy in early years.

McMillan responded that the programme had enabled a “raft of creative thinking” between different people in the area, including as a “conduit” for academy trusts to talk to one another.

Meanwhile Starkie said secondary school headteachers in Norwich had not been meeting regularly until the opportunity area board had set it up, arguing the schools had been “cynical” about the board at first but now “can’t wait to get involved”.

Other members such as Graham Cowley from the Blackpool board said at first he couldn’t provide a “straight answer” on his board’s outcomes but said more schools were meeting Gatsby benchmarks for good careers advice in schools since the opportunity area programme.

Targets for the opportunity areas are set locally and agreed with DfE, according to the board members. The government’s own research into the opportunity areas programme has already warned the expectations of it “may be set too high” and its impact won’t be known until after 2020.

The opportunity areas at the committee hearing were Norwich, Ipswich, Derby, Blackpool, Oldham, Bradford and West Somerset.