Concerns have been raised about the DfE’s £72 million opportunity areas programme, aimed at improving social mobility of schoolchildren in 12 disadvantaged areas of the country.
Concerns raised by Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, include that the programme may not provide value for money and whether or not it is spreading effective practice to other areas.
In a letter to education secretary Damian Hinds, he outlines the findings of an inquiry carried out by the committee stating that, while it welcomes the programme’s objective of improving social mobility, it remains “unconvinced” that opportunity areas are the best way of delivering on the aims.
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Mr Halfon writes: “We are not convinced that sufficient value for money is created simply by bringing stakeholders together. The £2 million spent on administration costs could be far better spent directly on the front line, and the additional structure creates confusion in the system.
“We were left with questions about how the effectiveness will be measured. We are unconvinced that we will be able to see improved outcomes for children and young people from early years through to improvement.
“We have also not heard in enough detail how the programme's second objective, to spread effective practice to other areas, will be achieved. This is of particular concern given the number of disadvantaged areas not receiving support from the programme.”
Opportunity areas were criticised by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) last year which interviewed 200 people involved with opportunity areas and uncovered frustration over the pace of progress and also that the programme was too heavily led by the DfE.
More recently, MPs claimed that opportunity area chairs had been micromanaged by the DfE in what evidence they presented when they appeared before the Commons Education Select Committee.
Mr Halfon’s letter also expressed concern over how opportunity areas were chosen and a lack of independence from government, as well as a “lack of joined-up working across government”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Whilst we are looking now in detail at the points raised in the Committee’s letter and will respond in due course, we have confidence in our £72million Opportunity Areas programme. It targets extra support at some of the poorest areas of the country and are already seeing early signs of progress.
“At the heart of social mobility is making sure that every child has access to a world-class education, regardless of their background or where they live. Standards in our schools across the country are rising and the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers has narrowed since 2011."