The government’s flagship scheme to improve social mobility in 12 "cold spots" in England risked overloading schools, a Department for Education official has revealed.
The disclosure came as new education secretary Damian Hinds signalled his commitment to his predecessor Justine Greening’s Opportunity Area programme by approving the delivery plans for six of the areas.
The scheme, which targets £72 million at 12 areas, aims to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children. It was first announced by Ms Greening in 2016.
Speaking this morning at a Westminster Education Forum seminar on improving social mobility in England, Sarah Lewis, deputy director, Opportunity Areas, at the DfE, said challenges facing the programme included “capacity, including the risk of overloading the system”.
She said: “There has been a particular issue among schools. Schools’ job is to teach children – they are busy teaching children – and we are then coming in and saying, ‘Actually, can you do this as well? And can you do this as well? And, by the way, we have got a great CPD programme.'
“All of it is good, but there’s a sense that we are having to be really careful – more careful than we thought we were going to have to be – about making sure that we don’t overload schools.”
'All systems go' on social mobility
Asked what effect last week’s change of secretary of state would have on the Opportunity Area programme, she said it was “all systems go”, and noted that Mr Hinds’ first school visit was to a primary in the Fenland and East Cambridgeshire Opportunity Area.
Ms Lewis revealed that one of Mr Hinds' first actions as education secretary had been to approve the delivery plans for the second tranche of six Opportunity Areas, which were due to be published shortly.
The plans for the first set of Opportunity Areas were published in October 2017.
Speaking at the same event, Rosamund McNeil, assistant general secretary of the NUT section of the National Education Union, supported the Opportunity Area programme, but warned it could not overcome wider issues facing schools.
She told the seminar that the government also had to “fully fund schools”, and be “realistic” about problems with teacher recruitment and retention, which she said would “fatally undermine our ability to deliver on these essential goals for young people”.