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Into the dragon's den: testing the plans of our Early Years Transformation Academy areas


6 Feb 2020

Octavia Holland, implementation adviser at EIF, reflects on progress since April 2019 for the Early Years Transformation Academy and the five local areas working to improve their maternity and early years outcomes.

The fourth and most recent design workshop in our year-long Early Years Transformation Academy (EYTA) invited the five participating areas to present the culmination of their work to a panel of ‘dragons’ and received detailed feedback on their plans from this group of eminent maternity and early years experts. From the outset of the programme, we know the mention of this ‘Dragon’s Den’ has made participants feel ‘slightly terrified’, despite our reassurances that the focus of the day would be on development rather than receiving a dressing down. EYTA teams wanted to celebrate their progress to date but also to be honest about what was needed next.

The EYTA is a 12-month guided learning programme, run by EIF in partnership with the Staff College, Born in Bradford and Better Start Bradford, involving teams from five areas. As a new and innovative approach, we were clear from the outset that we would all learn together as we went. Indeed, we sought local partners who were at the right point of their own developmental journey and could co-produce the EYTA programme with us. The academy has combined one- and two-day design workshops, online learning and local activities to create an opportunity for teams drawn from maternity, public health and early years to go back to basics and work out what they want to achieve.

As you would expect from an EIF programme, a key emphasis has been placed on evidence and evaluation, alongside streams of learning about partnerships and adaptive leadership. Each team has worked on a local outcomes framework and population needs assessment, as well as mapping the services being delivered across their locality according to their intended reach, actual reach and a range of other characteristics, including evaluation methods.

As these strands have come together, each team has been working out what this means for their local provision and how they could change services to improve their maternity and early years outcomes. The big underlying question throughout the programme has been: what is going to change as a result?

So, in the final workshop of the year, the five areas presented their plans for change. Our panel of dragons were leaders in the fields of speech, language and communication, early years, public health, evidence and family nursing – an impressive cast with wide experience to draw on.

Each area submitted a written proposal in advance and gave a short presentation to the dragons on the day. These presentations brought into sharp focus the different stages each area had reached. Some were very clear what should happen now, setting out, for example, practical changes to how the Healthy Child Programme is delivered locally. Others were more focused on further work to better understand their community needs. Some set out revised governance arrangements; others talked about the gap in contact between 12 months and two years.

After each presentation the dragons asked sharp questions: how SEND diagnoses were identified in the under-5s; what teams understood about cohorts within their population; how success would be measured, and how things would be different if they visited in five years. During the afternoon, this feedback was explored more fully: our dragons were able to probe more deeply into the issues each area is facing and share more detailed reflections. For some, this involved taking a step back and considering if it was too early to be clear about new programmes, or if the approach taken was too top-down. For others, the dragons wanted to explore data-sharing and challenged the areas to consider how issues could be resolved.

Reflecting on the day, one of the dragons, National Children’s Bureau director Annamarie Hassall MBE, said: ‘What stood out most of all from the presentations was the absolute honesty about the need for change. For each area to acknowledge that statutory services were not delivering the outcomes that were needed, that took a huge amount of trust on the part of the participating areas, to trust EIF and the process.’

One of the participants, Dudley public health manager Sally Cornfield, said: ‘There was quite a bit of apprehension in the lead-up to the event, but presenting together really pushed us to deepen our partnership working and the involvement of the whole team. The process has actually led to us taking a huge step forward.’

Now, as we enter the final phase of the EYTA programme for the 2019/20 cohort, the focus now turns to evaluation and graduation, and developing delivery plans to sustain momentum after the programme ends in March.