Opportunity Areas Process Evaluation

The National Centre for Social Research was commissioned by the DfE to complete an independent national place-based process evaluation.
  • Authors:
    Berenice Scandone
    Jonah Bury
    Emily Kohli
    Hannah Woodbridge
    Helena Takala
    Yvonne Robinson
    Mansor Rezaian
  • Publishing date:
    26 May 2022

About the study

The National Centre for Social Research was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) to complete an independent national place-based process evaluation exploring years 1-4 of the Opportunity Areas (OA) programme. 

The Department for Education’s (DfE) Opportunity Areas (OA) programme provides targeted support with the aim of improving the life chances of young people in 12 areas across England which face entrenched challenges. It adopts a place-based approach, where a local area is allocated funding and decision-making autonomy to deliver projects which meet its specific needs. This is done in partnership with national and local stakeholders and delivery partners. Each of the 12 OAs was ‘twinned’ with other parts of the country facing similar challenges to help improve young people’s education and employment outcomes.

The National Centre for Social Research was commissioned by the DfE to complete an independent national place-based process evaluation exploring Years 1-4 of the programme. The report is based on findings from 162 qualitative in-depth interviews and 27 focus groups with strategic and local stakeholders, project leads and beneficiaries across all OAs. Data collection took place between November 2020 and September 2021 and focused on Year 1-4 delivery, coronavirus (COVID-19) responses, twinning, perceived progress and sustainability.

Aims of the study

This qualitative process evaluation of the OA programme aimed to:

  • explore how the OA programme was delivered across OAs in Years 1 to 4, including what worked well and less well.
  • understand the benefits and challenges of taking this place-based approach to programme implementation.
  • examine how COVID-19 has affected delivery and how project beneficiaries have been supported throughout the pandemic.
  • understand the perceived outcomes of the programme and the key factors affecting them.
  • explore the twinned area approach including its successes and challenges.
  • explore methods of sustainability and legacy, and how these have been implemented.


  • Across OAs, the programme facilitated the adoption of innovative approaches and consistent practices among professionals and education settings.
  • Each OA had a partnership board, which is an advisory body whose members offer expertise and knowledge relevant to the local Opportunity Area. They were considered a success as they promoted collective decision-making and saw high levels of engagement.
  • Cultural shifts were identified as a key benefit of the programme, reflected in increased and embedded collaboration between education settings and cross-sector working. A key faciliator to this was the perceived neutrality of the OA delivery teams among local organisations, which made it possible to successfully bring different actors together.
  • Engagement with local stakeholders was considered key to a place-based approach. This was characterised by listening to local voices in shaping priorities and involving local organisations to design and deliver bespoke programmes.
  • Project beneficiaries’ engagement in the OA offer was especially high when projects were considered relevant to their needs. This happened when projects plugged an existing gap in the support available and were accessible. Evidence of previous impact also encouraged professional beneficiaries’ engagement as it increased their confidence in the projects. 
  • Some COVID-19 project adaptations were particularly successful, for example OAs saw higher take-up of online professional training and career events. Online delivery removed transport barriers to beneficiary engagement in rural OAs. In contrast, it was not possible to deliver practical activities and those that required building rapport were considered less effective online. Digital divides meant not everyone benefitted in the same way from online support.
  • The evaluation asked strategic and local stakeholders and project leads and beneficiaries about the outcomes they perceived the OA programme and OA-funded projects to have achieved. Strategic stakeholders across OAs believed that progress had been made towards achieving particular priorities set out in the OA delivery plan. They explained that the expected progress had not been made across all priorities, also due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 also hampered the collection of quantitative national and project evaluation data, which made measuring and demonstrating the impact of programme activities more difficult.
  • Strategic stakeholders and professional beneficiaries across OAs emphasised the value of maintaining the networks and collaborations created at different levels. There were concerns that without OA funding it would be difficult to sustain activities more reliant on funding, while those that had been sufficiently embedded were perceived to be more likely to continue.