The government has been accused of “resorting to a political gimmick” after announcing £24 million in funding will be diverted to the north east of England.
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, unveiled the “opportunity north east” programme on Monday.
The scheme will divert £12 million from existing Department for Education budgets for school improvement in the region. Another £12 million will come from the government’s teacher development premium to improve early career training for new teachers.
It’s a real shame they have instead resorted to a political gimmick, rather than continuing to back the evidence
The announcement was meant to counteract criticism that the government’s opportunity areas scheme, which splits £72 million in social mobility funding across 12 areas, did not extend into the north east, despite the region having some of the worst outcomes nationally.
But the move has been criticised, both for betraying the original principles of the opportunity areas policy and for its apparent focus on Conservative-voting areas of the north east.
Of the four areas picked out for a “particular focus”, two elect the north east’s only Conservative MPs.
The 12 original opportunity areas were chosen because they sit in social mobility “cold spots”.
Ben Gadsby, policy manager at Impetus-PEF, a charity focused on helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, questioned why extra cash wasn’t instead going to other areas identified as being in the greatest need.
“This approach calls into question the purpose of opportunity areas,” he told Schools Week.
“These areas were picked based on a detailed methodology developed by the Social Mobility Commission. The government should be focusing spending like this on more of the cold spots they identified like Carlisle, Mansfield, and Great Yarmouth.
“It’s a real shame they have instead resorted to a political gimmick, rather than continuing to back the evidence.”
Hinds made the announcement on Monday at a school in Gateshead. However, according to the town’s MP Ian Mearns, it’s not clear how his area will benefit, as the focus of the scheme will be on Redcar & Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Northumberland.
He added: “It’s not an opportunity area so it can’t tap into the other packages of funding that other opportunity areas can for specific schemes. I think the other thing about it is £24 million for 12 local authority areas, involving something like 3,000 schools, so it’s a drop in the ocean.
“£24 million of extra funding is always going to be welcomed from a regional perspective, but it pales in comparison to the cuts to the education services grant and real-terms reductions in school funding.”
Mearns also accused the government of political manoeuvres as two of the four areas targeted with funding – Redcar & Cleveland and Northumberland – contain the only Conservative-voting constituencies in the region. Only three of the 29 consistencies in the north east have Conservative MPs.
The two other areas in focus under the scheme are Hartlepool and Middlesborough.
Addressing a roundtable at Cardinal Hume Catholic Secondary School on Monday, Hinds said that talent and potential are evenly spread, “but opportunities sometimes aren’t”.
“There are today too many education measures on which the north east is listed ninth in the list of nine English regions. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Hinds pointed to stark figures which show that in 2018, the north east had the lowest proportion of young people in good or outstanding secondary schools and the lowest rate of entry to and attainment of the EBacc performance measure.
The region also has the lowest proportion of pupils achieving at least two A-levels and the highest proportion of young people who don’t continue their education or get job after their GCSEs.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Opportunity north east is a £24 million investment that will create opportunities and raise aspirations for young people across the entire region.
“The four areas that have been identified were chosen as those most in need based on a range of factors including progression to further education, rates of exclusion and the number of good or outstanding schools in each area.”
What the government will do
- Invest £12 million to improve the transition from primary to secondary school, drive up standards and improve outcomes for pupils post-16.
- Work with secondary schools and colleges to “encourage young people to consider university, degree apprenticeships and other high-quality technical education options”.
- Partner with local businesses to “improve job prospects for young people across the region”.
- Invest a further £12 million to boost early career training for new teachers and improve the quality of teaching.
- Work with Teach First to increase the number of teachers recruited in the region from 60 last year to 80. The organisation will work with 10 schools to help develop specialist careers leaders.