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Planning early childhood services in Carmarthenshire: EIF speaks to Noeline Thomas and Caryl Alban


13 Apr 2022

Carmarthenshire was one of the 10 local areas in Wales that used EIF’s maturity matrix last year to support their work on creating joined-up local maternity and early years support for families. Noeline Thomas, early years and prevention service manager, and Caryl Alban, early years integration and play officer, told EIF about their local strategy and what worked for them.

From strategic to operational: working on local strategy

Noeline: The opportunity to be involved in the Pathfinder has been so important to us – that’s the Early Years Integration Transformation Programme, which is now spread across Wales. It’s different to the earlier Flying Start service which was very prescriptive. It was clear what was wanted and you were delivering an operational service. With the Pathfinder, there is a lot more exploration, and thinking though what was needed locally.

Caryl: It gave you confidence in having time to think about things and work things out, rather than trying to rush straight in and have all the answers. It helped us to think about things differently and reflect and plan. Then we got a pot of money which forced us into quick and immediate decisions! Everything got a bit rushed, even though the early work did give us a foundation.

Noeline: You can see the difference between strategic and operational thinking. Initially, we were going to just be working on the strategic, then of course it was very nice to have the money but it probably came a bit soon and we had to jump into operational mode. It was good though because we could focus on a pilot in a small area [Cwm Gwendraeth] and something real. The operational work actually kept us fired up and stopped the strategic work from drifting off.

Caryl: The operational work helped us in working with partners in health. We were able to give them a concrete example of what we were talking about. We could marry up what our strategic vision was with what we were testing on the ground in Cwm Gwendraeth. It made it more real than just words on paper, and we were able to draw on what we were learning so that our strategy and action plans for our early years work look quite different now.

Noeline: Also, life is always changing. In the pilot area that we selected, two surgeries were being brought together to create a health and wellbeing centre, and because of the way that we were working together it resulted in an early years centre being part of the new building. It hasn’t been built yet, but it’s about taking local opportunities as they arise. The major thing is relationships with key people, that enable change and actions to take place. You might think that’s not how it should be, but that’s what the reality is. The more positive relationships you can build, the easier and more significant the changes that you can bring about.

Using the EIF Maturity Matrix

Noeline: The matrix was really positive for us from the beginning. We had already decided that we needed a strategy that set out where we were going, covering the pilot and our wider work. The matrix was really helpful to our thinking on what elements we needed to consider. It came at the right time for us because we were just at the beginning of developing the strategy.

Caryl: The process for how we completed it as well, by bringing all our key partners together, and the task and finish groups we created to populate it, that created conversations with our key partners then and it gave them a sense of involvement. It wasn’t just us developing the strategy from nothing. The people who were involved in populating the matrix could clearly see the links between that work and what we have in our strategy, but also what we have in our operational plans as well. It allowed us to involve people in something quite specific.

Noeline: It was a task to do, not easy, particularly with Covid, but we probably wouldn’t have been able to bring together people in that way without it.

Caryl: If we had had more time we would have broken the matrix up. It’s quite a lengthy document and we rushed it a bit. We could have put a bit more thought into bringing different people in to focus on different sections.

Noeline: We would never get to the end! It always throws up lots of issues and conversations, so sometimes we started in the middle so that we had enough time for the later sections.

Caryl: My advice for other local areas using the matrix would definitely be to start at different points when you revisit it. The end was the weakness for us; it helps to pick sections and deal with them in a different way. We emphasised our data work as a result of using the matrix.

Noeline: Yes, in terms of data, we have struggled with getting something that we feel happy with. I don’t think there is much help for us, you almost feel as though you are alone with this. Service data is really difficult to get. For me this is the element that we have struggled with the most, feeling that you should know where you are, as though it is easy to establish a clear baseline, whenit is not. It feels like you are not getting to the starting line. Because of this, we rely more on qualitative information, but we are very interested in different types of evidence to show change in communities. It’s a struggle in terms of how you measure change, there’s a whole world of struggle with that! Especially when you are looking at the influence that your work has in a community

Caryl: If I was to give anyone advice on using the matrix, the process is definitely beneficial – the discussions that it throws out and the way it can get people on board to think in the same way, it shapes conversations and brings about actions that you probably wouldn’t have thought of alone. But it is hard work as well!

Noeline: The insights in the EIF report are really useful in terms of the different segments of the maturity matrix. In terms of conditions for success at national level, if some of the work on baselines and an up-to-date outcomes framework could be done at a national level that would really help – someone to help us with this, and do what they consider is a good position statement on a baseline. We’re still working on our strategy, nearly there, but we do have an operational plan with clear activities for this year. We still need to work on shared vision, spreading what we have in the Cwm Gwendraeth pilot across the county.