Supporting young families in Wales: lessons from EIF's report on system maturity
EIF’s latest report provides new data on the ‘maturity’ of early childhood services systems across 20 local areas in England and Wales. Dan Bristow, director of policy and practice at the Wales Centre for Public Policy, looks at whether Wales’s distinct policy landscape is reflected in the findings, and what this means as Welsh local partnerships craft their long-term strategies.
In a world where we are all inundated with interesting reports to read, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Leading and delivering early childhood services not only held my attention from start to finish, but also encouraged me to search out more information on some of the case studies that it highlights.
Perhaps I am biased: at the Wales Centre for Public Policy, we have started to look at how local systems support children and families, having focused for a while now on the rates of children in care in Wales. So, you might expect me to be an enthusiastic reader of this report. Even so, this rich and timely assessment of the early years and maternity systems across Wales and England is to be welcomed, especially considering the pressures that families and the services trying to support them are facing.
In Wales, as in the rest of the UK, Covid has served to highlight and exacerbate longstanding challenges in society. And it has demonstrated how little resilience and spare capacity there was (and is) in the systems of support for the most vulnerable. In this context, it is vitally important that there is a focus on how best to support families – or as the EIF report puts it: ‘the task of bringing local services and communities together to ensure that families can get the right intervention at the right time from people with the right level of expertise’.
So, what picture emerges from this assessment of system ‘maturity’ in 20 local areas across England and Wales?
What struck me was that in Wales the policy environment should mean that local systems score ‘higher’ on the maturity matrix than their English counterparts. The Welsh government has (among other things) produced an early years outcomes framework, developed a framework for sharing information across agencies, produced guidance on effective, evidence-based interventions and effective measurement tools, and developed a workforce strategy for health and social care.
And yet this report suggests that, apart from a greater use of evidence-based interventions, Welsh local authorities and their partners operate in systems that are no more ‘mature’ than their English equivalents.
Why is this? This research didn’t set out to answer this question, but the findings point to some possible explanations: lack of awareness (eg of the outcomes framework); hesitancy or risk-aversion (eg in the case of information sharing); or a lack of capacity, particularly in relation to data analysis and in tying the operational to the strategic (with operational leaders driving the transformation agenda).
From our own work at WCPP, I would add the complexity of regional partnership working to this list of potential factors. Responsibility for supporting children and families is shared across a plethora of ‘strategic partnerships’, which undermines transparency and accountability, and means that time and resource has to be allocated to navigating this confused landscape.
What does all this mean for Wales?
Local government and health boards are currently working with their partners to assess local population wellbeing needs, which will then inform the development of long-term plans. And this is being done against a backdrop of an indicative three-year budget from the Welsh government that will provide an increase in funding for support to children and families.
All of which means that there is a window of opportunity for stakeholders to draw on the messages and the examples presented in this report to inform the development of what is required; namely: ‘a coordinated, resourced, and long-term response, taking action at national and local levels’.
EIFs report has the potential to act as a catalyst for change. But this will require a sustained investment of time, attention, and resource from national and local leaders.