Education committee chair 'unconvinced' opportunity areas improve social mobility

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Robert Halfon MP has raised concerns over the effectiveness of the DfE's Opportunity Area programme in improving children's outcomes.

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Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Commitee and MP for Harlow

In a letter to the education secretary Damian Hinds, he says that while the Education Select Committee applauds the Department for Education’s (DfE) aim to improve social mobility through education, it remains ‘unconvinced’ that opportunity areas are the best way to meet that aim.

It follows an inquiry into the Opportunity Area programme by the Education Select Committee in which it heard from stakeholders from a range of the 12 areas, as well as the children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi.

The aim of the Government’s Opportunity Area programme is to tackle social mobility and improve opportunities for young people across 12 areas identified as social mobility ‘coldspots’.

In his letter to the education secretary, Mr Halfon says the committee is ‘disappointed that many areas in need of support receive nothing though the Opportunity Areas programme, including areas which are social mobility 'cold spots'.

He goes on to argue that the £2m spent on administration costs for the programme could be ‘far better spent directly on the front line’.

Mr Halfon also says how surprised the committee was at the extent to which the DfE guided input into their inquiry despite the Opportunity Areas being independent.

‘Participants in our roundtable told our committee that they had been briefed as to what to say by the Department. Written submissions from opportunity areas came in a departmental template with “steers” from the Department left in and some answers exactly the same across the opportunity areas.

‘The director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Henri Murison, told us that in Greater Manchester, there is lots of collaborative work, but the opportunity area is “basically in a corner somewhere and is not embedded in any of that work”. He added that “it looked like it was the DfE’s mates that were brought in there with no real understanding of what the needs of that community were”.'

Mr Halfon also outlines concerns about a lack of working across Government and how the effectiveness of the programme will be measured.

He concludes by saying while the committee is completely behind the Department’s target to improve, support disadvantaged areas, it ‘has to question whether the Opportunity Areas programme in the best way in which to do it’.

A review of the programme last year by the National Foundation for Education Research, on behalf of the DfE, also highlighted concerns among people involved in the first 12 opportunity areas that the work was being 'too heavily led' by the department.

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'At the heart of social mobility is making sure that every child has access to a world-class education, regardless of their background or where they live. Standards in our schools across the country are rising and the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers has narrowed since 2011.

'Whilst we are looking now in detail at the points raised in the Committee’s letter and will respond in due course, we have confidence in our £72 million Opportunity Areas programme. It targets extra support at some of the poorest areas of the country and we are already seeing early signs of progress.'

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