Opportunity areas to heavily led by DfE

According to an independent report by NFER – commissioned by the DfE – opportunity areas are a positive step but concerns are raised over their sustainability

The NFER report is an independent evaluation of the opportunity areas (OA) programme, which is part of the government’s strategy to increase social mobility by targeting £72m in 12 areas identified as being social mobility ‘cold spots’. A three-year programme it aims to improve entrenched and widespread social, economic and cultural challenges facing children and young people in these areas across England.

NFER interviewed DfE local delivery teams and local stakeholders across the 12 areas between January 2017 and June 2018; the responses highlighted concerns among those involved in the schemes that the work was being ‘too heavily led by the DfE’ and noted frustration at the pace of progress.

The key findings highlighted included;

  • Local stakeholders, working alongside DfE teams, were passionate and committed to increasing their local young people’s social mobility and were keen to maintain the initial progress made in improving their outcomes. Partnership boards were committed to ensuring the programme has a ‘lasting legacy’ within local areas.
  • The programme helped to foster and promote collaboration in a number of ways, including closer working with DfE and by engaging with a cross-sector of local stakeholders from early years, schools, businesses, charities and others.
  • Within each OA, initial processes and systems helped to define clear areas of need and how these will be addressed (see OA delivery plans).
  • Stakeholders were keen to measure short-term changes but recognised that improving social mobility would take longer than the three years of funding.
  • Our evidence suggested several areas for improvement to the programme, including further enhancing engagement with communities, families and young people; considering extending the duration of the programme; and promoting greater sharing of learning, information and resources between OAs.
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The report also shared some suggestions for improvement, which included;

  • extending the timeline of the programme to reflect the concerns identified by interviewees and ensure the programme has a realistic prospect of achieving cultural change.
  • Delivery plans and priorities, or local work plans, should continue to be reviewed and updated as appropriate in line with progress. Updates should consider: the inclusion of innovative interventions and ensuring that programme activity is delivering for changing local needs. Where data is presented to stakeholders, it
    should be done so in an accessible, manageable and coherent way to maximise stakeholder engagement quickly and comprehensively.
  • DfE teams should continue to be mindful of schools’ capacity and should develop a strategic and coherent strategy for accessing national partners and programmes’ services for the OA. DfE should consider developing shared resources across the OAs, e.g. streamlined project bidding processes.
  • DfE should support sharing learning and information between OAs so they can learn about what works, in what contexts and why, to the greatest extent possible.

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