Place-based policy – lessons from a rural Opportunity Area


5th December 2022

Place-based policy and the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda

‘This [the UK’s] centralised [policymaking] approach has had several negative consequences for past efforts to level up. It under-utilises local knowledge, fails to cultivate local leadership and has often meant anchor institutions in local government have lacked powers, capacity and capability. These shortcomings have gone hand-in hand with the lack of a clear role for business and civil society in helping to shape and deliver policy locally’ (HM Government 2022, p112)

The quote above wouldn’t feel out of place in a think tank opinion piece but is, in fact, lifted from the government’s very own Levelling Up White Paper. In a chapter detailing 100 years of local growth policy, the authors acknowledge that the UK’s governance model is remarkably centralised. This admission is interesting given the centralising arc that has defined much English education policy in recent decades. Whether it be the decline of LAs through the 1988 Education Reform Act or the recent commitment to accelerated MAT-isation, some critics have begun to mourn the death of the ‘local’ in education policy-making. However, this may be a little premature.

Gove’s reappointment as Minister for Levelling Up and the emphasis on place-based coordination in the SEND Review and Children’s Social Care Review suggest that the local could be a key part of government strategy. Another notable example of this re-engagement with place is Education Investment Areas (EIAs). The policy earmarks 55 areas with comparatively poor educational outcomes for additional support. This builds on the Opportunity Areas scheme, where 12 low social mobility areas were earmarked for funding and strategic government support. This blog offers some reflections on a recent progress report we have written for West Somerset Opportunity Area (WSOA), in anticipation of West Somerset becoming a Priority Education Investment Area (PEIA) as part of the EIA scheme.

West Somerset Opportunity Area

As the precursor to EIAs, Opportunity Areas (OAs) have been a key place-based policy under the Conservative government. We are therefore delighted to share a report for West Somerset Opportunity Area (WSOA). Over the last year, we’ve been working with WSOA to help understand the progress made in the first four years of delivery.

WSOA mobilised a range of local stakeholders around a set of shared goals, focusing on four key priority areas:

  1. Every children has a great start in life
  2. Educational excellence in the classroom
  3. Transition to adulthood
  4. Skills for employment and business

These priorities, all of which had a series of performance indicators, required strong coordination from stakeholders and institutions within and outside the schools sector. This was one of the key selling points of the Opportunity Area programme, where bespoke Delivery Plans aimed to respond to local needs and draw on local resource. We heard from those working in educational settings spanning Early Years right the way to the area’s only post-16 college. In addition, we learnt of WSOA-funded initiatives that went beyond the classroom, such as Jobs Hubs and a programme helping families increase physical activity. While Covid had understandably hindered progress, it also underlined the value of having local stakeholders from a range of institutions, working towards shared goals.

As the Education Investment Areas scheme gets underway, here are four key insights for policymakers to consider:

  1. Engage local stakeholders: Local stakeholders valued being able to come together to discuss local issues and draw on local insight, while benefiting from some strategic support from civil servants. Policymakers should give local people agency, ensuring stakeholder buy-in, with an approach that is bottom-up, rather than top-down.
  2. Overcome local challenges, build on local assets: The rural West Somerset context presented a great number of opportunities (e.g. access to sport, other outdoor activities) but also numerous challenges (e.g. transport difficulties, narrow range of post-16/18 options). Policymakers should recognise that this sort on-the-ground knowledge can help decision-makers identify and address local delivery challenges.
  3. Balance urgency with capacity: Some settings initially felt overwhelmed by the number of initiatives being offered through WSOA, with school workforce challenges creating capacity constraints. WSOA responded by setting up an operational group of practitioners and ensuring the Year 4 strategy focused on embedding existing interventions. This helped ensure work was well-implemented and sustainable, while also easing pressure on settings. Place-based initiatives should ensure a pace of change that is ambitious but manageable.
  4. Build on previous place-based work: With WSOA’s funding coming to a close, there was an appetite to understand more about the PEIA scheme and ensure that the momentum gained through the OA would not be lost. In some cases, settings were funding various interventions themselves, after seeing their value.  In others, future funding – and therefore the future of certain interventions – was less certain. Policymakers should consider how EIAs and other initiatives can build on previous place-based work.

Read our report for West Somerset Opportunity Area here