Analysis lays bare challenges facing new Opportunity Areas

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Opportunity Area? Scarborough is one of the six Opportunity Areas identified by the government

A new study has identified huge progress gaps for both poor and rich pupils in the first six Opportunity Areas – with a lack of leadership support shown to be a key problem. Pete Henshaw reports

Persistently disadvantaged children in the government’s six new “Opportunity Areas” make more than 20 months’ less progress between key stages 2 and 4 when compared with wealthier peers nationally, a new analysis has shown.

Furthermore, non-disadvantaged students in these six areas make an average of 4.7 months’ less progress when compared to similar pupils nationally.

The findings come from an analysis that has been carried out by the Education Policy Institute and new leadership development charity Ambition School Leadership.

The so-called “Opportunity Areas” were unveiled by education secretary Justine Greening earlier this year and are areas identified by the government’s Social Mobility Commission as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility.

The Department for Education (DfE) has pledged investment of £60 million in the Opportunity Areas and the first six are Somerset, Norwich, Blackpool, Scarborough, Derby and Oldham, with more set to be named in the coming months.

The policy has been developed after the DfE, in March 2016, evaluated each local authority and grouped them into categories numbered 1 to 6. Areas rated 5 or 6 are those where children are making the least progress and have the poorest access to high-performing schools and are from where the Opportunity Areas are to be identified.

The new analysis – entitled Progress in Priority Areas – also shows similar large gaps across all the Area 5 and 6 local authorities. For example, the gap between the progress made by disadvantaged pupils in Areas 5 and 6 and non-disadvantaged pupils nationally (from key stage 2 to 4) is 14.9 months – twice as large as the 7.2-month gap in Areas 1 and 2. This gap in the six Opportunity Areas is even larger, at 18.4 months.

However, it is for “persistently disadvantaged” students where the gap is largest. Persistently disadvantaged students are those who were on free school meals for at least 80 per cent of the period (key stage 2 to 4) and this gap in Area 5 and 6 local authorities is 17.9 months’ progress – rising to 20.1 months in the six Opportunity Areas.

The report states: “These analyses support the DfE’s focus on Areas 5 and 6 and, within them, Opportunity Areas. These are the areas where disadvantaged children experience the largest progress gaps and where persistently disadvantaged children make the worst progress of all. In Opportunity Areas these progress gaps have grown dramatically over the past five years. Action is needed to stop this decline.”

The analysis links the poor progress being made by disadvantaged students in these areas to problems with leadership support and development. For example, the research highlights how schools in Areas 5 and 6 have the poorest provision of leadership support through initiatives such as National Leaders of Education and Teaching School Alliances. At the same time, schools in Areas 5 and 6 are more likely to see a decline in their Ofsted ratings for leadership and management.
The analysis shows that 16 per cent of schools in Areas 5 and 6 that were rated “good” or “outstanding” for leadership and management in 2010 had declined to “inadequate” or “requires improvement” by March 2016. This compares to seven per cent of schools in Areas 1 and 2.
A second report, published alongside the analysis and entitled Ambitious For Every Child, states: “In Areas 5 and 6, schools that were rated good or outstanding for leadership and management by Ofsted in 2010 were more likely to drop to requires improvement or inadequate by 2016 than in Areas 1 and 2. The quality of leadership was also less likely to improve from the lower ratings up to good or outstanding.”
The report concludes: “The progress gap for disadvantaged pupils is growing. This is evident across all areas, but is most marked in Opportunity Areas where the gap has grown steadily every year since 2010. Persistently disadvantaged pupils are furthest behind. Too many of the poorest children are not feeling the effects of interventions, and more needs to be done to break down barriers to progress.
It adds: “Schools in Areas 5 and 6 are less likely to improve their Ofsted leadership and management rating – yet we know schools need good leadership in order to improve.”
The two reports were published by Ambition School Leadership on Tuesday (November 22) to mark its launch. The new charity has been formed from the merger of leadership development charities Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders.
Future Leaders worked to develop and support leaders working in schools in challenging circumstances while Teaching Leaders did the same for middle leaders. James Toop, CEO of the new organisation, said that they would now be “working harder” to reach schools in the Opportunity Areas.
In his foreword to the Ambitious For Every Child report, he adds: “In the 21 century it is not acceptable that family background and geography have such an effect on a child’s educational outcomes. Together, we have a renewed drive to fulfil our mission to build a network of exceptional school leaders at all levels to transform the lives of the children who need it most.”

• To download the two reports and to find out more about Ambition School Leadership, visit


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