Education and business leaders in the region has stressed that the success of the so-called Opportunity Areas in Bradford Doncaster and the North Yorkshire coast, where children's reading, writing and maths scores have risen above the national average, is only a “starting point” and a long-term funding plan and “more ambition” is needed.
Introduced in 2017, the Government’s created Opportunity Areas are 12 social mobility “coldspots” that have so far received £90m to cover the period up to August this year.
During the initial three years, when £72m was spent nationally, children’s reading, writing and maths scores at primary school level increased in the three Yorkshire Opportunity Areas by 12 per cent above the national average - with Bradford seeing the biggest improvements - 16 per cent.
However, a leading education charity has called for more major investment and the increase of Opportunity Areas in the North to tackle the generations of inequalities that are holding back the region’s communities.
Ahead of a funding announcement on the future of Opportunity Areas which is expected in May, the Leeds-based education charity, SHINE, has called for a 10-year plan and the increase of devolved powers.
Fiona Spellman, the chief executive for SHINE, told The Yorkshire Post: “There have been some early signs of promise emerging from these areas but there is much work still to do and lessons to be learned. This was never going to be a quick-fix solution.
“We are not talking about a one or a two-year plan. If real change is to be achieved, the Government needs to commit to at least a 10-year programme.”
Ms Spellman, a former maths teacher, also questioned the geographical size of the current Opportunity Areas which could inhibit effective coordinated working.
She said: “We would encourage the introduction of more Opportunity Areas in the North, ideally focused on smaller areas, where there is the most need.
“This would present meaningful opportunities to bring together local partners in relationships of trust and mutual understanding.”
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a lobbying group representing northern businesses, said the Government’s plans needed to significantly increase funding across the region to “affect real change” for disadvantaged children and create more opportunities for young people.
Sarah Mulholland, the head of policy at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: "Children in deprived communities face a complex and interlinked set of barriers to their education.
“Tackling the education disadvantage gap means addressing those issues which take place beyond the school gate through a tailored, locally-led approach that is better equipped to deal with specific place-based challenges.
"We need to grow the list of Opportunity Areas, as well as increasing the funding they receive from across the Government, putting locally-elected civic leaders back in the driving seat to affect real change for disadvantaged children and transform their life chances."
The former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield warned that Yorkshire’s education system risks being left in turmoil for years to come in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic unless the Government commits to its pledge to level up the nation.
In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post in February, Ms Longfield, who stepped down from her role last month, outlined the devastating impact which the Covid-19 crisis has had on education, as many children have been in classrooms for only a matter of weeks in the past year due to repeated lockdowns.
Figures have revealed that as many as 60 per cent of pupils receiving free school meals in London’s local education authority areas are achieving the top six grades in their GCSE examinations.
By contrast, that figure for pupils’ attainment for their GCSE exams in local education authority areas in Yorkshire and the Humber slumps to between just 35 and 45 per cent.
The Department for Education stressed that the Government is committed to ensuring that regional disparities across the country are tackled to give all young people the greatest opportunities in future careers.
A spokeswoman said: “The Opportunity Areas are already making a difference to the lives of young people in some of the most disadvantaged places in England.
“We are committed to making sure this progress continues into the future and this impact is felt more widely through rollout of successful projects, sharing expertise and resources, publishing insight guides and hosting webinars to share best practice and continuing our work with colleagues across government to level up in left behind places.”
Yorkshire Opportunity Areas
The largest beneficiary in Yorkshire from last year’s funding was Bradford with £1.7m, while Doncaster received £1.4m and the smallest amount £1.2m was allocated to the North Yorkshire Coast.
The Opportunity Area covering the coast in North Yorkshire has seen a teacher recruitment campaign attract more than 185 vacancies across 43 schools, bringing 38 teachers and support professionals from outside the area.
Sir Martin Narey, the head of the North Yorkshire Coast opportunity area, said: "The investment we’ve made to date has made a real difference.
"The disadvantage gap between this area and the rest of England, and on a number of measures, has been reduced.
"And I’m very hopeful that we’ll get funding next year too which will allow us to complete more of the work."
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