Neighbourhood Alliance, Sunderland (Improving Futures)

The Neighbourhood Alliance project, part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Improving Futures programme, brings together local services to deliver intensive and tailored support to families with complex needs through referrals from schools. It included more than 130 organisations, who then responded to the needs of the children and their families. The project was led by the Foundation of Light, the official charity of Sunderland Football Club. The project started in 2012 with funding through 2016. The project was awarded additional funding in 2013 to operate through 2017.


Part of our Early intervention into action series of case studies on innovation and evaluation

Sunderland’s story

The Neighbourhood Alliance model includes many components:

  • Neighbourhood Friend: each family has a Neighbourhood Friend, who is trained to become a supportive advocate for the family. The family works with the Neighbourhood Friend to access different services, remove barriers to engagement and discuss progress. The families’ involvement in the project is monitored using the Neighbourhood Pathway, which shows relationships between the family, and the Neighbourhood Friend, and the Family Star, a monitoring tool that tracks families’ progress out of poverty.
  • Neighbourhood Menu: each area had locally specific options to support families from across a large number of mainly voluntary sector agencies. This allowed for really tailored support – and quickly.
  • Counselling: the project found a much higher demand for counselling than they had anticipated. By having a number of councillors from multiple agencies the Neighbourhood Friend was able to leverage in this support quickly (eg within 24 hrs).
  • Flexible support based on need: families are supported to access the most appropriate support using existing services and new services can be commissioned on a case-by-case basis. Specific interventions the project offers include: breakfast clubs, counselling support, homework clubs and Read and Write Army, a literacy club for children and parents.
  • Family-led provision: families complete a ‘pen portrait’ that focuses on the families’ perspective on their needs and expectations from agencies.
  • Governance and partnership working: a project board oversees the project at a strategic level. A working group, made up of representatives from the relevant partners meets regularly to discuss the progress of the project and plan interventions for individual cases.
  • Information sharing: The Neighbourhood Alliance project established Information Space, an online case management system that puts families in control of ‘who sees what’. It proved powerful for families and for the organisations that they worked with.

What worked well?

  • The focus on building links between existing organisations was particularly effective and has created links that will persist beyond the life of the project.
  • The Neighbourhood Friend and Neighbourhood Menu meant that families really got what they needed. It was particularly impactful that the menu was extensive, with lots and lots of organisations who had not worked together now coming together around the project. The new relationships and partnerships between organisations are now spreading outside of the specific Neighbourhood Alliance project.
  • The leadership by the Foundation of Light catalysed involvement as a key player in the city – and helped families feel comfortable, as it was the football club rather than some existing service that was supporting them.
  • Pen portraits were an effective way to gather information from families at referral. It gave the families control over their information and ensured that the action plan addressed only the areas that the families wanted.
  • Once implemented, the online Information Space was effective in supporting the delivery of appropriate support to families, as well as sharing information securely between agencies.
  • Generally, working with schools is very effective as schools know the families and children. However (as below) there are some challenges when schools don’t naturally understand the nature of the project.

What was hard or challenging – and how was this overcome?

A number of key challenges were identified:

  • The level of counselling support required was a major drain on funding and so a new model of counselling was developed including schools providing some additional funding.
  • Securing sustainability when funding ceases and all other services, particularly schools, are having their funding reduced is of particular concern. The project is applying for Reaching Communities fund and working with schools and other statutory services to fund some of the key components of the programme, particularly the breakfast clubs and the counselling.
  • Getting some schools to engage was challenging; the head teacher or someone on the senior leadership team had to be the key contact –anyone less senior did not have the time or the authority to get things moving.
  • There was some disconnection that occurred as children moved from primary to secondary school. The project has secured additional funding to introduce the project formally into secondary schools.
  • Using the Information Space was more complicated than anticipated, particularly ensuring schools contributed their elements to this. Eventually the project had someone working on this full-time. The role began with a focus on roll-out and training and morphed into primarily work to gather data and feedback from schools.

What are the key lessons?

A number of lessons have been identified:

  • There are significant gaps in provision in the local area – particularly for families that are finding things difficult but do not rise to the level of social care or other tier 3 or 4 interventions.
  • Having a diverse list of organisations on the neighbourhood menu is critical; it ensures quick access to what families need and it leads to much greater collaboration between organisations within and beyond the project. But it takes time to build the relationships that are required for this diversity, particularly as a ‘football club’ who are sometimes viewed as wanting to own and run the show.
  • The head teacher or someone very senior in the school is the best person to engage with. Anyone lower down the chain does not have the capacity nor the decision-making authority to effectively engage with the project.
  • Schools are convinced by visible results.

About the evaluation

The Sunderland Neighbourhood Alliance evaluation is part of a wider national assessment of the projects funded as part of the Improving Futures programme. Both the local and national level evaluations combine quantitative and qualitative methodologies capturing family level outcomes as well as the views and experiences of staff stakeholders and families.

The Neighbourhood Alliance evaluation is based on:

  • a desk review of various documents, including business plans, application forms, locally collected evidence on outcomes achieved, and mid-year and annual monitoring reports
  • analysis of project monitoring data inputted by project staff and collected through the Improving Futures Monitoring Information System (IFMIS)
  • a qualitative case study visit, during which researchers interviewed staff, stakeholders and families
  • an in-depth interview with the project coordinator.

What were the conditions of the evaluation?

As part of the Improving Futures programme, the Big Lottery Fund engaged Ecorys UK, Ipsos MORI, the University of Nottingham and Family Lives to evaluate the programme at a national and local level from October 11. The evaluation is funded over five years, to assess programme effectiveness and impact, alongside continuous dissemination. There is a national evaluation that sits alongside this local evaluation and can be found at www.improvingfutures.org/

A ‘mixed methods’ approach has been adopted:

  • Programme-level monitoring data collection: a secure online monitoring system, the Improving Futures Monitoring Information System (IFMIS), is accessed directly by project workers to create and maintain a profile for each family (and individual child and adult family members) using a standardised set of risk factors and strengths.
  • Project-level monitoring data collection: collection of bespoke data at an individual project level, drawing upon core assessment data and other administrative sources.
  • Longitudinal survey of families: a panel survey of Improving Futures beneficiaries (adults), exploring satisfaction with referral and support received, and ‘distance travelled’ during and beyond their involvement.
  • Stakeholder survey: a quantitative survey of key local stakeholders to: explore levels of visibility and awareness of Improving Futures; understand the synergies with other programmes; and gain a further perspective on the impact achieved at a local level.
  • Case study research: a rolling programme of case study to all Improving Futures projects. The visits include qualitative interviews with project staff, partners and families, and supplementary data collection. All case study visits have now taken place.
  • Cost-benefit analysis: a programme-level assessment of the costs and benefits of the programme will be undertaken, including estimates of the projected savings as a result of positive outcomes achieved and negative outcomes avoided, plus in-depth work within a subset of projects.
  • Participatory Action Research: a Family Panel comprising of beneficiaries will meet at key points during the evaluation to inform the research tool design, analysis, and recommendations.
  • Learning activities: a programme of internal learning activities has been designed to facilitate the exchange of good practice between the 26 projects, through events, social media and a bespoke website. The evaluation consortium has also overseen a programme of learning activities for projects to exchange good practice within the programme, and to learn from and share best practice with other stakeholders. A learning seminar was held with the projects in July 2015.
  • Action research cycle: The evaluation included a discrete strand of research to gather evidence for the three good practice themes featured in this report. The evaluation consortium adopted the principles of action research, so that the themes for year three were explored through an ongoing process of evidence-gathering and testing with different stakeholders. This included drawing upon the Family Panels, learning seminar, case study research, literature reviews and interviews with stakeholders, including policymakers, academics and think tanks.

What resources did the evaluation require?

The local evaluation required a full-time person to gather and input data, to a cost of about £90,000.

What changes or outcomes were observed?

Evaluation data shown that the programme is associated with an improvement in strengths and a decrease in risks between entering and leaving the programme. These include:

  • improvements in children’s self-esteem and wellbeing, including self-reported peer friendship at school
  • improvement in school behaviour, attendance and attainment
  • improved family situations, including accessing appropriate benefit entitlements.

What is hard or challenging about conducting an evaluation?

  • Schools were not good at completing their elements of the Information Space or the more formal evaluation. In the end, the project employed someone full-time who provided this role.
  • The team could have been a bit more robust in demanding feedback from the schools.

What was useful about the evaluation?

The evaluation is useful to input into further funding applications and as evidence of where commissioners may want to invest in mainstreaming the services. However, it is not the most powerful form of insight and input for schools and other frontline services, which tend to be more convinced by seeing change in families.