The recent Education Select Committee report again highlighted what we’ve known for some time – that white working-class children often fare badly in our education system. But the real issue is not about a divisive culture-war debate on labels such as “white privilege” and instead about solutions to ensure our education system works in all parts of the country, for all children.
As education secretary, I introduced an approach called Opportunity Areas that is already making a real difference in these very communities, in places like Scarborough, Doncaster, Blackpool and Oldham. Former Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, backs their massive expansion to help 100 new communities – and the initiative has cross-party support.
Essentially, Opportunity Areas are a “whole community” place-based approach to improving education. They work by bringing together the right partners to work on a common mission – improving local education. They don’t just mobilise the local education ecosystem – early years, schools, colleges and universities – but also the wider community, including community groups, the local authority, local public services and local businesses.
Crucially, they also include Department for Education officials as part of teams on the ground. As a result, Opportunity Areas mean there is one team with one set of priorities for improving education and one plan to deliver them. Everyone is pulling in the same direction. From Whitehall down, it’s about stopping silo-working between departments and between national and local governments and, instead, taking collective responsibility for driving better results in communities.
Each Opportunity Area has its own set of four to five key education priorities. For some, it has been around teacher development and recruitment, in others it’s been more of a focus on early years progress. Elsewhere, the focus is on raising aspirations and stopping the loss of momentum on learning as children transition from primary to secondary school.
I made the chair of each Opportunity Area board someone who was both independent yet also deeply connected to the local area. For example, in the North Yorkshire Coast Opportunity Area, the chair was Sir Martin Narey. He has a wealth of expertise from his time running the Prison Service and children’s charity Barnardo’s but had originally grown up in Scarborough and was passionate about seeing improvement in the local region.
The 12 Opportunity Areas were set up in very different places. Some were urban areas, like Oldham and Stoke, others very rural, for example in Fenland and East Cambridgeshire and West Somerset. Meanwhile, a third group were coastal communities facing different problems again, such as Blackpool and the North York Coast Opportunity Areas.
Three to four years on, the Opportunity Areas have had a real impact on the ground.
In the Bradford Opportunity Area, pre-Covid-19, literacy and numeracy improvements were 18 per cent higher than the national average. For Doncaster and North York Coast Opportunity areas, the rate of improvement has been 12 per cent above the national average. In the North York Coast Opportunity Area, a focus on an intractable problem of vacant teaching roles saw the recent academic year begin, for the first time, with a full slate of teaching staff in all schools. In part it’s because Opportunity Areas became places of innovation, trying new things to get results and that helped attract great teachers to get involved.
Elsewhere, the Bradford Opportunity Area team quickly involved the local NHS in its work and identified that poor eyesight due to lack of access to opticians could be a key issue for learning – the Bradford “Glasses for Classes” project was started, which helped hundreds of local children. It has now been rolled out nationwide.
During the Covid-19 school shutdown, far from hindering their work, Opportunity Areas teams were ready-made structures able to switch from “peacetime” work to a “wartime” footing. In Stoke Opportunity Area, vulnerable families most likely to find homeschooling hard were not only given tailored lesson plans with all the equipment children required, but that was combined with family food and nutrition support those families also needed.
Fundamentally, Opportunity Areas have worked because they allow local areas to work together and tailor education interventions for what works locally, rather than having the usual blunderbuss of a one-size-fits-all approach from Whitehall.
People want delivery on levelling up and education is at the core of any levelling-up plan. Having more Opportunity Areas is a crucial and obvious next step to drive levelling up across the country in places where education outcomes need to be improved.
We may need to wait till the autumn for an announcement on fresh Opportunity Areas when the “levelling up” White Paper is launched, but it won’t come a moment too soon for the many communities up and down the country, for whom they could provide a transformational benefit.
Justine Greening was education secretary between 2016-2018, and is co-founder of the Social Mobility Pledge