'Focusing funding on the "opportunity areas" is unfair: the initiative ignores the North East'

Justine Greening's 'opportunity areas' initiative barely touches the schools most in need – Damian Hinds needs to focus on improving social mobility in the North East, writes the one local educationist

Mike Parker

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Justine Greening’s first platform speaking engagement after the Conservative Party Conference following her appointment as education secretary in 2016 was at the Schools NorthEast annual summit in Newcastle. While her speech was light on detail, many of the 500 headteachers in the audience were struck by an apparently genuine desire to effect meaningful social change.

While we have been openly critical of the methodology that has excluded the North East from the Department for Education’s flagship opportunity areas initiative, her willingness to roll up her sleeves and do something about social mobility was clear and her rejection of grammar schools was strongly welcomed by school leaders in this region. It also says something for her integrity and commitment to education that she wasn’t prepared to be shunted into another department just to hold onto a position of power.

The new secretary of state, Damian Hinds, appears to share his predecessor’s concern for problems of social mobility and her passion for using education to tackle them.

In 2014 he wrote: “Our children’s prospects are significantly more predictable from their parents’ social class than in most competitor nations. Today’s forty-somethings have been less socially mobile than those born a decade earlier. The gap between the privately educated elite and the rest yawns pretty much as wide as ever. It is not that parents’ social class dictates their children’s social class. Rather, parents’ social class has a massive effect on their children’s educational attainment and it is that which predicts their eventual place in society. The link is an indirect one, and it can be broken through what is achieved at school and if/where you go to university.”

His appointment leaves a raft of initiatives currently in motion up in the air. Whether or not he will continue with Justine Greening’s version of the social mobility agenda, largely built around the 12 "opportunity areas", remains to be seen. Ms Greening’s formative years as a comprehensive school pupil in Rotherham and subsequent ascension to the upper echelons of the Conservative Party gave her a blunt lesson in the spatial disparities of wealth and opportunity that persist in this country and clearly informed her policies.

Opportunity areas concern

One concern, excellently articulated by the Education Policy Institute, is that focusing the lion’s share of effort in and around opportunity areas ignores the swathes of the country, particularly the north, where improvement should be prioritised.

The problem with opportunity areas being the only game in town is that they are magnets not only for direct funding but also all the other initiatives ongoing. This includes allocations from the first round of the £140 million Strategic Schools Improvement Fund, focusing heavily on places in and around opportunity areas; the careers strategy, including a £2 million trial of careers activities in primary schools in opportunity areas and the Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision green paper making a commitment to developing practice in building resilience – again, only in the opportunity areas.

The DfE has started to rectify that with pilot projects, such as the student loan amnesty to attract new teachers to challenging areas including Middlesbrough and Northumberland. Schools NorthEast is also supporting the DfE with initiatives to create a free national teacher vacancy service to cut school recruitment costs and on projects to attract talent to challenging schools.

Social mobility agenda

So, what comes next for the social mobility agenda in a post-Greening education landscape?

The unwelcome spectre of grammar school expansion appears to loom once more – an unnecessary distraction that cuts across all the positive messages of social mobility when you factor in the evidence on the impact for pupils in schools neighbouring selective schools.

Number 10 will also hope to implement the Conservative manifesto commitment to scrapping the rules requiring new faith schools to admit at least 50 per cent of their pupils from other faiths. The government is very keen for more Roman Catholic schools to open, but the Church has been reluctant to do so while the cap remains in place, because turning away Catholic pupils would violate Canon Law. Mr Hinds has previously argued passionately for the lifting of the cap and so would presumably be amenable to this. Whether or not the parliamentary arithmetic and political realities allow for it – I do not imagine the Democratic Unionist Party is wildly enthusiastic about encouraging the expansion of Catholic schools – is another matter.

We will expect to see in the near future the commitment of the new secretary of state to the social mobility agenda and how much of the recently launched Social Mobility Action Plan he intends to keep.

For our part, we will be inviting him to visit the North East to meet with Schools NorthEast and regional school leaders and discuss how we can work together to ensure the region benefits from the social mobility agenda. We don’t seek to use deprivation as an excuse – we just want to ensure the North East can benefit from the government’s initiatives. Currently, because of the focus on opportunity areas and the lack of one in the region, they are barely touching us.

Mike Parker is the director of Schools NorthEast 

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