How Opportunity Areas raise school standards; we just need more – Justine Greening

EDUCATION matters – it certainly did to me.

One of Justine Greening's proudest moments as Education Secretary was returning to Oakwood School in Rotherham where she studied.

The teachers at Herringthorpe Primary School, Oakwood Comprehensive School, as it then was, and Thomas Rotherham College in Rotherham transformed my life for the better.

I knew that education was the key to being able to make the most of my potential and I have never lost that 
sense of how important it is for all of us.

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Yet we live in no ordinary times. One of the most damaging impacts of Covid-19 has been the schools shutdown and how much it has disrupted the education of millions of children and young people around the country.

Jusitne Greening, the then Education Secretary, was pictured with headteacher David Naisbitt during her return to Oakwood School.

Even today, we see that disruption continuing as schools struggle to stay open as new coronavirus cases emerge.

It’s bad for them and it’s bad for the rest of us.

We’ll need all of those young people with their talent and potential fully developed if we’re to be successful as a country in the future.

So ambitious steps on levelling up Britain have never been more important.

Jusitne Greening during an interview with The Yorkshire Post at Oakwood School.

We know the issues for education. The Autumn Budget now needs to deliver solutions.

It is one of our local Yorkshire MPs, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is the holder of the nation’s purse strings and who will deliver that Autumn Budget.

He must be only too aware of the education challenges on his own doorstep.

But he can now make a transformative difference to the lives of young people if he is prepared to take the right decisions.

That’s why he should support The Yorkshire Post’s fantastic campaign for a new wave of Opportunity Areas across Yorkshire and the rest of the Northern Powerhouse.

They could make a real difference at the very time that they are most badly needed.

I set 12 Opportunity Areas up whilst I was Secretary of State for Education to bring the Department for Education and local schools together, working with a wider community and businesses, all with the aim of improving education for local 

Opportunity Areas work because they recognised the fact that different communities already faced different challenges on education, even before the Covid-19 schools shutdown which we know has affected our least privileged children the worst.

The challenges for schools in Rotherham, where I grew up, aren’t the same as for schools in Halifax, or for schools in Leeds or Selby.

A Whitehall one-size-fits-all approach can only ever get us so far on raising education outcomes. In the end, we also need a more bespoke approach for individual communities.

They are intended to be longer-term efforts, but it’s hugely rewarding to see what Yorkshire’s Opportunity Areas in Bradford, Doncaster and the North Yorkshire coast are already achieving after just three years.

As The Yorkshire Post reported recently, the progress in education results for Opportunity Areas is striking – improvements for reading, writing and literacy are above the national average, with the North Yorkshire coast and Doncaster’s rate of improvement 12 per cent above the national average, and Bradford’s rate of improvement 16 per cent above the national average.

These are real results with real impact. In Scarborough a concerted focus on teacher recruitment has meant this year’s September term has filled all its teacher vacancies for the first time in years.

In Bradford, a “Glasses for Classes” push saw several hundred children get their eye tests up to date and the right glasses prescription that quickly helped progress their learning.

In calling for a new wave of Opportunity Areas across Yorkshire to be announced at the Autumn Budget, The Yorkshire Post has rightly identified that there’s never been a more important time to get schools, communities and businesses working together to help our children and young people who’ve had their school time disrupted through this terrible virus.

We need a national effort to combat coronavirus and we need a national effort to get this country’s education system back on track.

It will work best if it is driven forward at a local level by those who care most about their local communities.

There’s no time to waste. Ministers can quickly drive forward their levelling up agenda by scaling up what we know already works and rolling out Opportunity Areas to other communities that they can help the most.

We’ve seen Mr Sunak launch lots of Treasury programmes since Covid-19 hit Britain – the furlough scheme alone cost £14bn a month.

They have all had an objective of supporting jobs and our economy in the short term. But a levelling up Government must look ahead to the long term too.

Investing in education is about how we support jobs, careers and the economy of the future. We shouldn’t short-change that either.

Of course, there are other steps needed across our education system more widely, but Opportunity Areas are a crucial element of a levelling up plan for our schools that is now more than ever desperately needed.

The Yorkshire Post campaign for more Opportunity Areas across the region to boost education outcomes is a transformational one that we should all get behind. It has my full support.

And, at Autumn Budget, it must get the Chancellor’s too.

Justine Greening was Education Secretary from 2016-18. She is founder of the Social Mobility Pledge and this week called for at least 100 Opportunity Areas to be unveiled in the forthcoming Budget – see for more details.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson