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Class is in: Launching the Early Years Transformation Academy


30 Apr 2019

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne reflects on the significance of the Early Years Transformation Academy, "generating and sharing important learning on what works to deliver positive change for families".

Today I was delighted to attend and speak at the launch of the Early Years Transformation Academy. This is a flagship initiative for us, and one that has been long in the development – which makes today, as the official starting point, hugely significant. It was fantastic to hear more about how the Academy will work in practice from friends and colleagues, including the Staff College, Born in Bradford and Better Start Bradford, all of whom we are very pleased to be partnering with on the design and delivery of the Academy.

Why the Academy is so important to EIF

EIF is an independent What Works centre, a badge which brings with it a certain obsessiveness about ‘what the evidence says’. The early years has been a key theme for us over the past six years, and we have generated a range of new insights into how evidence could and should influence local practice.  

We are just embarking on year two of our new five-year strategy, which seeks to shift up a gear on using the evidence to influence policy and practice, because evidence is only useful when it has a practical impact on people’s lives.

One of the many things we’ve learned over the past few years is that applying evidence to whole systems is hard. The best evidence is for individual interventions, yet none of these are sufficient by themselves to help vulnerable families, who need a wider system of support: the ‘modern day village’ that Ben Lewing mentioned in his recent blog.

There is still a lot of experimentation to do to identify the most effective systems and practices to help vulnerable families. There is no simple formula, and it often feels like we are trying to relearn ‘forgotten truths’ that have been lost to the passage of time or in the shuffle of repeated policy shifts.

We know that this experimentation itself needs intensive support, and an openness to learning about the things that don’t work as well as those that do. This is a more systematic approach to building the UK evidence base, sharing the learning journey on a local level to influence national policy.

To achieve this, EIF is focusing on building strong local practice partnerships and a greater understanding of impact. These have guided our thinking around the design of the Early Years Transformation Academy, through the most intensive work we are doing with local places as a What Works centre.

How the Academy fits with the current public services context for children and families

As EIF argued in our landmark report, Realising the potential of early intervention, people and places across the UK are putting in the hard work to provide early intervention, but often missing out on some of the rewards that it can bring for families. The report talks about “changing the rules of the game” to tackle five systemic barriers that are holding back early intervention, including the way that public services are funded, how policy decisions are made, how children’s policy is coordinated, and how evidence is used and developed.

As you all know, this is a genuinely challenging period for those working in children and family services. Nevertheless, in time, the nation’s focus will return to the big questions of domestic policy. And there is already cross-party consensus that early intervention matters, particularly in the earliest moments of children’s lives, as a series of select committee reports over the past 12 months have shown.

The shape of the spending review is yet to be revealed, but it is clear that the government is in the market for good ideas about how to support vulnerable children. Central government sees its role as providing the conditions for local leadership and innovation, and gathering local learning, which can then be scaled up with national investment. EIF will be working with government departments over the next few months to support a coherent response to early intervention through the spending review.

But, crucially, we know that the Academy is already in government’s thinking. The government response in February to the science and technology select committee’s report on evidence-based early years intervention specifically name-checked the Academy as a way of generating and sharing important learning on what works to deliver positive change for families. We think it’s going to provide a vital testing ground, both for approaches to early intervention at a local system level, and for a way of working as a local partnership, using the evidence to guide strategy and shape plans.

How we see the Academy partnership working

The Academy will be built on a new, essential and exciting partnership between EIF, the partners I mentioned earlier, and the local places who are taking part –the ‘fantastic five’. These areas all came through a brief but highly competitive process to reach this point, and were selected because they have strong strategic sponsorship and committed multi-disciplinary system leaders, a clear vision, and a willingness to experiment.

As Ben notes in his blog announcing our partner places, we originally intended to select participating areas from a single region, to build on existing networks. In the end, however, we adapted our approach and nominated five places that are all ready to go, and clear and ambitious about what they want to achieve.

We see the Academy as a partnership between EIF and these five places, not least as they share and help us to understand how we can address the questions and challenges they face. We welcome our local partners from these five areas to the wider EIF family.

  • Dudley: strongly focused on workforce culture and community voice, building relationships and mutual understanding, and bringing a child focus to local work on an important integrated community provider service.
  • Barking and Dagenham: building a network of workforce champions to lead and influence change, strongly focused on co-production with communities and peer support, and skilled in the use of behavioural science insight and data to support policy.
  • Norfolk: tackling the challenges that a rural county brings to early intervention by building collective responsibility to innovate and pursue solutions with a more ‘blended’ early childhood workforce, and using the learning from the Norwich Opportunity Area on early speech and language.
  • Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea: seeking to improve the way that vulnerable families are identified at a local level, and harnessing both technology and the local community infrastructure. This builds on a track record of innovation that has included Troubled Families earned autonomy status and early adoption of the national Maternity Transformation Programme.
  • Sandwell: seeking to mobilise a single workforce with shared values, language, goals and understanding of the local system, binding in the innovation of the Black Country partnership Early Outcomes Fund project work on parental conflict and their Children’s Trust.

We are grateful to all of the people and places who responded to our initial call for Academy participants, and especially to those who invested the time and energy in making full applications. We know there is a wider audience out there who are keen to share the Academy learning journey, and who look to these five places as innovators, which is why we will be publishing selected tools and resources to the EYTA Hub for free public access.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is CEO at What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care.