'Opportunity areas' are hampered by lack of time, claims ex-schools minister

Senior civil servant adds that social mobility programme will need to show results to be allowed to continue beyond its initial three years

Martin George

Have Opportunity Areas been too dominated by DfE?

A flagship programme to boost social mobility risks being undermined by the short time it has been given to make a difference, a former schools minister has warned.

The three-year, £72 million opportunity area scheme, unveiled by Justine Greening in 2016 and continued by her successor Damian Hinds, focuses on 12 social mobility ‘cold spots’ in England.

However, David Laws, who was Lib Dem schools minister in the coalition government and now leads the Education Policy Institute (EPI), described himself as “sceptical” about the programme.

Speaking at the Academies Show, he said: “I’m worried about the potential short period of time that opportunity areas could last for, and whether you can make an impact in that period of time.”

He added that while the scheme is “not a bad way of piloting school improvement”, it risked “designing solutions that only work for bits of the country”.

His concerns echoed those expressed by Natalie Perera, who was head of school funding reform at the DfE under the coalition government, and is now executive director and head of research at the EPI.

She told the previous week’s International Festival of Learning in Suffolk that she worried about their ability to tackle problems such as improving the early years workforce, teacher recruitment and retention and post-16 education.

'Big, intractable national problems'

She said: “There’s a real dilemma here about how much local interventions can actually crack big, intractable national problems."

She added: “I really worry about the timing, because of the scale of the challenges we are facing here and the fact that they are not new problems. The whole time I have been working in education these have been issues.”

Emran Mian, director of strategy and social mobility at the DfE, told the festival that work on teacher professional development in opportunity areas could help improve retention.

However, he said that efforts to increase teacher recruitment in an opportunity area could simply lead to teachers moving from nearby areas, “so in that sense you are not solving a system problem”.

Addressing the question of sustainability of the opportunity area programme, he pointed to next year’s government departmental spending review.

He said: “It feels to me we are not even in the argument unless we have got some well set up programmes that have got some record of success. If we have got that, we can potentially run an argument about sustainability. If we don’t we are not even at the table.

“We have got a lot to do. We have got a three-year end point. We have got to try to get as much done as we can by then and then we might be able to have a sensible discussion about sustainability.”

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Martin George

Martin George

Martin George is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @geomr

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