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‘The route to long-term change’: key lessons from new EIF research on local early years and maternity systems


28 Feb 2022

Aida Cable, chief executive of child development-focused charity Thrive at Five, picks out some key findings from EIF’s ‘valuable and practical’ report on supporting effective early childhood services. She spotlights key concerns around the use of data, operationalising strategy, fostering trust between local government and communities, and supporting change in services that is powered by parents and communities.

EIF’s latest report, Leading and delivering early childhood services, is timely, and an important treatise on how we move from rhetoric to action in the early years. The case for a concerted focus on early childhood development has been well made, and there has been a recent and welcome focus on this critical period in a child’s life, including through the work of the Duchess of Cambridge and the Royal Foundation. With the youngest in our society having experienced little other than lives defined by the pandemic, it is more important than ever that we act.

This new report is a valuable and practical commentary on what has been learnt from the application of EIF’s maternity and early years maturity matrix to understand local systems, and what needs to be done locally and nationally. It is a thought-provoking piece about how to overcome fragmentation and the silo working that inhibits the delivery of the right support at the right time to children and families. It is about the route to long-term, national systemic change, essentially through a collective impact approach. While the local work described in EIF’s study was led by local authorities, there are useful examples given of local practice involving working effectively with a range of local stakeholders, including health authorities, voluntary organisations and the wider community. There are also good illustrations of collaborators using common agendas, common datasets and common measurement frameworks. We know from experience in the US and Canada that this is a sound approach to systems change.

The report speaks powerfully about how poor use of data can impede planning, delivery and evaluation. This reflects the experiences of Thrive at Five, my own organisation, of local and health authorities that are ‘data rich and information poor’. It is essential that the public sector stops regarding data collection as an outcome. Proper use of data provides the lens that allows stakeholders to understand what is and isn’t working, to inform strategies, and to measure the impact of their work. As the integrated care system comes increasingly into play, there is a catalyst for improving data systems and their use. Rapid transformation would be aided by a sharing of learning and practice nationally in conjunction with work, again at a national level, to improve outcomes frameworks.

The report’s emphasis on leadership to drive strategic change is absolutely right. We need senior leaders with vision, and we need passionate frontline workers too. However, strategy needs to be operationalised, and that requires buy-in from staff at all levels of the public sector. It also relies on teams with the time and right skills to develop and deliver common strategies in collaboration with diverse groups of stakeholders. As the report concludes, investment in capacity for collective action is necessary, and a priority if we are to accelerate the pace of systems change.

There is a notable gap in the narrative around negative attitudes and behaviours, and how to overcome these potential barriers. It seems that the local authorities that the EIF worked with were broadly on board with the idea of change and collaborative working – and perhaps this is unsurprising, as they had all applied to be part of the EIF project. However, we know there are other local authority areas where constant cuts in funding, restructurings, and changes in leadership or strategy have generated disillusion and cynicism. Where this is the case, change requires a rebuilding of trust within and between the public sector and the community; and is likely to take longer. Indeed, immediate action might be led by organisations that sit outside local authorities, including nurseries, schools, and voluntary groups.

Perhaps the most striking finding in the report was the lack of examples of community-driven change. The evidence tells us that collective impact delivered ‘top down’ is less successful, and that communities need to be brought into strategy, co-design and delivery. Community engagement and involvement is an effective way to increase community-wide understanding of the importance of the early years, and to increase the confidence and skills needed to support parents and children. Scaling up and replicating parent-champion or parent-powered models (as part of wider systems change) is likely to be the most sustainable way to change outcomes in the early years for generations to come. If there is one thing to add to emphasise in EIF’s excellent report, it would be the need for better local and national support for this kind of community-driven change.