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Getting serious about planning early childhood services


19 Nov 2020

EIF assistant director Ben Lewing introduces EIF’s new report on children’s centres and family hubs, and sets out how we are developing future support for local leaders and commissioners.

‘This review is quite different to a ‘what works’ evidence review, in that it starts with seeking to understand contemporary local practice, and then explores how far existing evidence can guide future development. It is not advice for government on policy, nor is it a definitive answer to all the questions which people ask about children’s centres. It is a review to understand rather than prove, and it uses the experience of local experts in delivering children’s centres and hubs to do so.’ – Planning early childhood services in 2020

EIF was asked by the Department for Education to create practical guidance and resources on the transformation of children’s centres, building on the experience of local councils. The goal was to better support local authorities in strategic decision-making around the use of children’s centres in early intervention.

The most striking thing about our new report, which sets out the conclusions of this work, is the enormous variety of local experiences. Stakeholders in 14 different local areas – from Bath to Blackpool, Middlesbrough to Merton – shared their learning with us about the challenges and opportunities in designing and delivering today’s approaches to children’s centres and family hubs. Each local area has created diverse and dynamic arrangements which respond to the local context, resources and priorities. 

This local experimentation is a consequence of the loosening of statutory requirements, with an expectation that every local authority will make locally bespoke and evidence-based choices about the most effective way to deliver early childhood services. 

In practice, this is challenging. There’s a lack of national data on the characteristics and effectiveness of current approaches to children’s centres and hubs to guide local choices. There’s no common language to describe these different approaches, nor a consistent set of metrics for assessing their impact. Local capacity for system planning and review is under real pressure from a combination of increased service demand, reduced resources, and now additional challenges that have arisen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

We knew going into this review that the available research evidence would leave unanswered questions, particularly as local delivery has evolved significantly since the last national evaluation. As the report suggests, there are specific questions for future national research to answer, such as what impact taking a wider family approach has on early child outcomes; how a reduction in open-access sites and universal support affects the ability to reach and build trusted relationships with vulnerable parents; how important community and parent involvement is to the effectiveness of local delivery; and how early childhood services should respond to effectively meet the needs of population groups at risk of societal inequalities. 

If we’re serious about locally bespoke and evidence-based choices, then we need to provide local leaders and commissioners with the tools they need, including contemporary evidence which speaks to current challenges, support for local planning and transformation, consistent ways of measuring progress, and a method for sharing experimentation and learning.

This is the key point of our report: given where we are now, what kind of practical guidance and resources are needed to support local leaders and commissioners to take forward the planning of early childhood services?  

We’ve launched a new online hub to provide a one-stop shop to find tools, information and support for local areas who want to use evidence to improve outcomes for children and their families in maternity and the early years. This includes details of a new intervention system mapping tool, an enhanced support programme offer to local areas in 2021, and much more.

We’ve also published a new maturity matrix self-assessment tool to provide a common metric for understanding local system development. This has the potential to create a 2020 baseline against which to assess progress across early years services in the wake of Covid-19. We will publish a report on national system maturity based on local areas using the new maturity matrix over the winter.

In light of the challenges, practical support for the local planning of early childhood services, including children’s centres and hubs, is even more urgently required now than when this work was first commissioned.

About the author

Ben Lewing

Ben is assistant director, policy & practice, at EIF.