£18m funding boost for Opportunity Area programme

The DfE programme aimed at improving social mobility in deprived areas will be extended for 12 months

opportunity areas

The Opportunity Area programme will receive an extra £18 million investment from the Department for Education, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced.

The programme, aimed at improving social mobility in some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, will now run for an additional year.

The DfE had initially invested a total of £72 million in the 12 Opportunity Areas (OAs) over three years, from 2017 to 2020, in a bid to boost improvements in educational outcomes, employment readiness and teacher recruitment.

The new funding will enable the programme to run until August 2021.

Mr Williamson said: “I grew up in Scarborough, now part of the North Yorkshire Coast Opportunity Area, and having returned recently for a visit I’ve seen for myself the progress being made and the difference it is making to young people living there.

“It’s not just about what happens now in these 12 areas but the impact these projects will have on future generations and paving the way for them to overcome obstacles to success,” Mr Williamson added.  


Background: Concerns over DfE's £72m social mobility programme

Exclusive: Huge spending disparities in flagship DfE social mobility programme

Read: Opportunity areas are 'too heavily led' by the DfE


The programme is supporting a range of projects across literacy, maths, attendance, teacher training and recruitment, post-16 options and careers advice since its launch in 2017.

Ministers have claimed it has had impact in a range of areas, from early education to employment.

But the programme’s management by the DfE, its effectiveness and ‘value for money’ have also attracted criticism.

Most recently, an inquiry by the Commons Education Select Committee raised concerns about the programme’s value for money, and how its effectiveness had been measured.

In a letter to Mr Williamson, the committee’s chair Robert Halfon MP said the committee was “unconvinced” the programme would be the best way to deliver on the objective of improving social mobility and complained it was unclear how the programme would spread effective practice to other disadvantaged areas.

Earlier this year, a Tes investigation found huge disparities in how the fund was being used by each area, with figures revealing a £1.2 million difference between the amount spent by the highest- and lowest-spending opportunity areas.

And a review of the programme carried out by National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for the DfE last year revealed concerns that decisions were being too heavily dominated by the DfE.

Gathering interviews from over 200 stakeholders the review also found there were concerns that the work would not be sustainable - although many stakeholders felt the opportunity areas would create a lasting legacy.

The programme operates in 12 areas: Blackpool, Derby, Norwich, Oldham, North Yorkshire Coast, West Somerset, Bradford, Doncaster, Fenland and East Cambridgeshire, Hastings, Ipswich and Stoke-on-Trent.

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