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Cutting off social mobility plan would be 'terrible', minister says

Minister tells MPs he will urge Treasury to extend Opportunity Areas beyond three years

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi says it would be 'terrible' to end Opportunity Areas programme

A government minister has said “it would be terrible” if a programme to promote social mobility were cut off and has told MPs he will urge the Treasury to expand it.

Nadhim Zahawi said he wanted to extend the £72 million opportunity areas programme beyond the three years it is funded for and said there were no plans to scrap it.

However the children and families minister failed to give a yes/no answer about whether opportunity areas would remain in place.

Quick read: Opportunity areas too led by DfE

Background: The 12 areas chosen for funding

Warning: Programme could overload schools

Commons Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon put the question to him at a hearing today.

Mr Zahawi said that he would “do my utmost, strain every sinew" in making the case for the programme to carry on.

"It was a three-year programme but I think we could do with a more ambitious outlook,” he added.

The government invested £72 million in 12 opportunity areas to promote social mobility in places where there were concerns about the progress made by young people from deprived backgrounds.

The programme was introduced by former education secretary Justine Greening and is due to come to an end in 2020-21.

Mr Halfon raised the possibility that the programme could be scrapped but Mr Zahawi said that he would actually be making the case to extend it beyond three years.

Lucy Powell MP had asked whether the opportunity areas programme’s three-year timeframe meant there was a short-term culture about proving its value.

She said successful place-based initiatives would look at a 10-year programme to deliver change.

Mr Zahawi replied: “I think three years creates a healthy tension. In terms of having to get on and deliver your plan.

“But I would absolutely agree with you that when something like this is really working, which I passionately believe it is already, and it will continue to show progress. Surely to God it would be a terrible thing to do to cut it when it is just beginning to take off.

"And I hopefully can convince my colleagues in the Treasury that this is something worth investing in.”

The Department for Education was also accused of attempting to micromanage the evidence local leaders of the programme gave to Parliament

MPs claimed that opportunity areas chairs had been told what to say by the DfE when they appeared before the education select committee earlier this month.

However the department said nothing had been imposed on opportunity areas members giving evidence.

Mr Zahawi was also questioned about the value of the opportunity areas programme today.

The 12 areas have each developed their own local plan in partnership with the DfE.

The minister told the select committee that the programme was a good way of bringing people together such as local councils, businesses and the local enterprise partnership. 

However Mr Halfon said: “Are these basically giant quangos bringing together usuals suspects, costing enormous amount of money meaning there is not as much to go around to other areas of deprivation and when we are not yet clear whether these quangos are successful?"

He also asked if the £70 million going to the programme boards would not have been better spent going to existing services – such as local councils or mayors.

Mr Zahawi said that 90 per cent of the programme’s funding was spent on frontline services and that £45 million of the £72 million had already been spent or committed.

He added: “When I came to this job, I think like many of you here I was mildly sceptical as to how these projects work that are place-based.

"But when I looked at the detail of the opportunity areas and when I actually went out and attended meetings they held in Doncaster, Bradford and elsewhere I would say to you this is the best infrastructure that I have seen in the 30 years I have been in and around politics."

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