The government’s £72 million opportunity areas programme is helping to reduce the "gap" created by disadvantaged pupils falling behind during school closures, the Westminster Education Forum has heard.
Its policy conference this afternoon (held online) looked at the work of the DfE's 12 opportunity areas (OAs) which have been set up across England to improve social mobility of pupils.
Dr Tim Coulson, chair of the Norwich OA, said there was a "growing gap" while children were at home, but that the OA was set to provide tutoring for pupils in key transition periods such as those in Years 5 and 6 and in Years 10 and 12.
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He said: “There’s a difference between having a parent able to give dedicated time to support your learning at home, and those families in crisis with anxieties and little access to devices and the internet, and we believe many months of learning will be lost, and we’re seeing the gap grow.
“We’re particularly concerned about two groups of children: those who should be transitioning to their next stage of education in primary going on to secondary school, and children who would have been doing their GCSEs and getting ready to go on to sixth form or college. There’s a lack of all the normal support that would have gone into supporting them make that transition.
“We’re also particularly concerned for those children who are coming up to those important milestones in their educational lives – Year 5s before they go into their final assessment in Year 6, and students in Years 10 and 12 coming up to their GCSEs and A levels. And we’re really looking in the OA as to how we can support those transitions and support catch-up learning, particularly through tutoring, which we believe, through the evidence we’ve looked at, is the most promising approach.”
Concerns were raised last year that the programme may not be providing value for money, and questions were asked as to whether or not OAs were spreading effective practice to other areas.
But chair of the Bradford OA, Anne-Marie Canning MBE, along with Dr Coulson, told the forum meeting this afternoon that there was a need to back an extension into a fourth year for the programme to build on achievements of the program so far.
She said: “Pandemics exacerbate and compound inequalities across society and that is what Covid-19 will do, but the OA has a really key role in rebuilding of opportunity and educational strength across the city once we are able to come out of the other side and resume activities.”
She said that many OAs had paused activities due to the pandemic, including in Bradford where around 50 per cent of activities had been paused.
But she said: “We have switched to emergency response so, for example, instead of meals on wheels we now have ‘lessons on wheels’ running in some communities, and that’s the advantage of being close to the community – it allows you to do the things that are most needed at that moment.”