Opportunity areas 'too led' by DfE and lack local engagement, report warns

Opportunity area boards seem “too led” by the government and local stakeholders need more influence over deciding on the programmes, a report has warned.

An independent analysis of the government’s opportunity areas, which is its flagship social mobility programme for 12 of the most deprived areas of the country, has found some local representatives have struggled to get involved partly because of time commitments.

Each of the partnership boards are meant to come up with specific plans on how to prevent the area from being a ‘social mobility cold spot’, including lots of initiatives targeted at schools. They work hand in hand with a DfE ‘local delivery team’.

Each area will receive £6 million in funding by 2020 to boost things like the supply of good teachers, literacy and numeracy teaching and school improvement.

But several stakeholders in the areas said “sometimes the partnership board felt too led by the Department for Education”, especially at the start of the programme, the National Foundation for Educational Research found.

There is a need to “enhance local engagement, input and influence over the programme”, said researchers.

Stakeholders said they face logistical challenges such as the time commitment involved in helping to implement the programmes, and also the practical problem of how to roll out the programme while it’s still being defined.

The first six opportunity areas – Blackpool, Derby, north Yorkshire coast, Norwich, Oldham and west Somerset – were announced in 2016 and the second six – Bradford, Doncaster, Fenland and east Cambridgeshire, Hastings, Ipswich and Stoke-on-Trent – were announced last year.

Each board has a chair and is meant to spearhead specific focuses for schools in that area. For instance, priorities for Derby are maths teaching and school improvement support, while in Oldham schools will receive more training on phonics and mental health.

Those involved in the programmes also want their impact to be measured over a longer timeframe.

Rather than just measuring progress in the short-term, interviewees said progress should be measured over five- to 15-years.

That call has already been hinted at by Tim Coulson, chair of the Norwich opportunity area, who said work in opportunity areas should continue beyond 2020, even if government funding runs out.

He said the work of the board is “more than a three year project.”

The DfE should set up common frameworks across the areas, and collect data at a national level, interviewees said according to the report. The opportunity areas should then get insight from that data at a local level.

However stakeholders were also pleased that they had continued to make progress in terms of identifying areas of need and raising awareness about social mobility locally.

The report also found the programme is “starting to develop a lasting legacy” of positive collaboration.

Education secretary Damian Hinds announced last week the government will divert £24 million of funding for school improvement and teacher training to the north east, following increasing criticism that none of the opportunity areas are located in the region.

Children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi said he’s seen the “passion and commitment of those involved” during his visits to the areas.

“This is just the beginning, and a chance to reflect on what we are doing to foster ambition in young people in these areas.

“Focusing on projects where we can make the greatest difference, our opportunity areas will help raise the aspirations and opportunities for children and young people.”