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Learning from innovation: evaluating the Early Years Transformation Academy

Jane Lewis, director at the Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI) and lead for the independent evaluation of EIF's Early Years Transformation Academy (EYTA), sets out the need to evaluate even very new approaches, and the challenges that lie ahead.

As Jane explains, supporting local areas to use evidence to inform effective early intervention through systems change is important, but often challenging. EIF believes it is of critical importance that we practise what we preach in terms of embedding evaluation, even for new approaches such as the Early Years Transformation Academy. That is why we have commissioned independent evaluators to provide external rigour in helping to assess whether the academy did what it set out to do, and to gather views on its implementation and perceived value by participants. We see it as crucial to embed evaluation from the outset, even when programmes or services are brand new or being piloted for the first time. We also believe it's essential that findings – in terms of both the challenges and the successes – from new and innovative approaches like the academy are learned from and applied to improve future work.

– Max Stanford, head of early childhood education & care, EIF

We at the Centre for Evidence and Implementation are delighted to be carrying out this early evaluation of the Early Years Transformation Academy, with Ivana La Valle from the University of East London.

EIF is an evidence intermediary, one of the UK’s What Works Centres, and champions the use of effective early intervention to improve the lives of children and young people. The Early Years Transformation Academy (EYTA) is one of a growing number of innovative approaches which aim to accelerate the take-up of evidence through whole local systems change. It involves working closely with a group of systems leaders, commissioners and service leaders through key elements of designing and planning for local transformation. The EYTA is delivered by EIF and three partner agencies: the Staff College (leadership development experts), Born in Bradford (one of the largest cohort studies in the world), and Better Start Bradford (funded by the National Lottery Community Fund for 10 years to test and deliver innovative approaches to improve the local early years system).

We’re carrying out research with senior leaders and managers in the five participating local areas: Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster; Barking & Dagenham; Dudley; Sandwell and Norfolk. We will be exploring their experiences of the programme, the early changes it’s catalysed, and the enablers and barriers they encountered. We’ll be co-constructing a refined theory of change with the local areas and academy partners, and working to understand whether and how the EYTA helps to develop the capacity and conditions for local systems change.

We’re also drawing out wider learning in this complex area of practice. Local systems change approaches are ambitious, visionary and challenging. The aspiration is that by bringing together the reach, resources and relationships across the system, in a shared vision rooted in the use of evidence, local areas will achieve changes well beyond what can be achieved by individual programmes or services. These approaches involve disrupting the conditions that hold a social problem in place, thinking and behaving systemically, and staying on course together through changes in political, strategic and funding contexts. So they pose a challenge to conventional ways of thinking, leading and providing service.

The challenge and the potential are what makes research in this area so important. We’ll be using evidence-informed frameworks for planning, implementing or evaluating systems level initiatives to bring rigour to the evaluation, and applying wider concepts and learning from implementation science. Together with the EIF, their partners and the local areas, we hope to be able to illuminate and interpret the academy’s work in ways that support taking forward this innovative area of practice.