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Case study

Family hubs, Stockton-on-Tees: early childhood services case example


17 May 2021

This case example is part of EIF’s work to understand different approaches local areas are taking to providing maternity and early years services through community venues such as family centres and hubs.

Stockton-on-Tees was one of 14 local areas that took part in EIF’s 2020 review of contemporary practice in early childhood provision. Find out more about our series of case examples.

Local context

Stockton-on-Tees is a borough of wide contrasts, made up of a mixture of busy town centres, urban residential areas and picturesque villages. Bordered by County Durham to the north and North Yorkshire to the south, the River Tees flows through the borough and sustains a variety of leisure, transport and industrial uses.

The borough is growing steadily, with a population that is now approaching 200,000 people living in the principal settlements of Billingham, Ingleby Barwick, Norton, Stockton, Thornaby and Yarm.

As a borough, Stockton-on-Tees has faced huge challenges over recent years with deep and sustained funding reductions. As a local authority they have adapted to funding reductions of over 30% (£60 million per year) over the last 10 years, with further significant savings to be found over the next few years. At the same time, the need for critical local services – particularly adult social care and children’s services – has continued to rise.

Family hubs, and Stockton-on-Tees’ early childhood services model

Early childhood services in Stockton-on-Tees are based around family hubs. This has been influenced by the description of family hubs from the Children’s Commissioner’s 2016 discussion paper. The family hubs are for all families and children aged 0–19 years, are based in the community, and host a range of services delivered by the local authority, health services and voluntary sector organisations.

The current vision was formed by senior leaders in 2017 with a clear idea to develop a community-based model that would operate within the overall plan for ‘early help’ and include whole-family support. The model was proposed to improve outcomes for children and young people and life chances for families in Stockton-on-Tees overall, by offering access to a range of appropriate, timely and accessible support.

The family hub model therefore aims to deliver a comprehensive range of services in a variety of venues to meet the needs of local families, as well as providing information, advice and support at the earliest opportunity.

The model also seeks to empower parents and communities to help themselves where possible. It recognises that there should be easy access to additional advice and support when needed, which is without ‘judgment or stigma’ and where parents and carers feel they are not being ‘placed on a list’. The ambition is for early help to be seen as the ‘norm’, just like seeing the health visitor or doctor.

The use of ward profiles to understand community-level need, linked with strong working relationships with partners and their community knowledge, has enabled hubs to develop a mix of services and programmes that are tailored to meet need.

Delivery of the model

There are currently four family hubs provided by the local authority, one in each of the most deprived areas of Stockton-on-Tees. The offer within each Hub differs and reflects community need. Some hubs include a café or library, and all offer childcare through creches on site. Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council have worked to ensure that there is consistency across hubs in delivering core services.

The model includes universal functions and services, which are available to all and where the focus is on preventing difficulties from emerging; secondary prevention, which places a greater emphasis on identifying vulnerable children, young people and families and ensuring that there are specific preventative programmes and actions in place to reduce risks; and a more targeted approach, with a strong emphasis on case management and the delivery of targeted, evidence-based practice.

There are an increasing number of services and programmes offered within family hubs, delivered by family hub staff or other organisations. Services include evidence-based parenting programmes from antenatal to teens, mindfulness and relaxation for children of all ages, sleep workshops, and youth groups. Drop-in sessions are provided by a number of different services and professionals, including health visitors and midwives.

Family hub staff also help parents to navigate the system and access the right support at the right time, so that they are empowered to meet the needs of their family.

The support available through the hubs is advertised using social media and presentations to schools, and referrals can come through any means, including self-referral.

Over the past year, in response to Covid-19, Stockton-on-Tees council have moved to delivering parenting programmes virtually, and increasing their use of social media. For those unable to access the digital offer, phone support has continued to be offered.

Initiation and design of the early childhood services model

An unsuccessful bid for the National Lottery’s ‘A Better Start’ programme started a culture change across the early years system, which included a three-year workforce development programme. Around the same time, 0–19 public health nursing services were being redesigned and recommissioned, with an emphasis on building a workforce that could flex and respond to individual and community need. As a result, the existing 12 children’s centres started to be converted into four family hubs.

The family hub model comprises a set of underpinning principles and ways of working, including:

  • Relational and reflective practice: The model of practice in Stockton-on-Tees includes relational working (interacting or communicating with others in a way that embodies core values such as respect, inclusiveness, honesty, compassion, cooperation and humility) and reflective practice (the ability to reflect on one's actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning). The aim is that both these approaches to practice are used by practitioners with families and also modelled by managers with practitioners.
  • Setting the right culture: For Stockton-on-Tees, this means creating a place in the family hubs where people want to work, where staff are given autonomy and have the confidence of managers to be able to balance and review risk. The ethos of the hubs is that they provide ‘what’s right for families’, and managers of the hubs have a genuine understanding of what families need. Staff work with and alongside families, listen to them as experts in their own circumstances, and start from where the family is at rather than imposing their views.

Use of evidence

Stockton-on-Tees combines a comprehensive mix of quantitative and qualitative data to understand need. As well as relevant strategies and needs assessments, they include interviews with local councillors, practitioners, and members of the community to create a fuller picture of need. The model then allows them to address community need, taking all issues into account.

There are a number evidence-based programmes delivered within family hubs, including the Solihull Approach, HENRY and Talking Teens. The council recognises the need to implement programmes with fidelity, and has commissioned evaluations of these. The first suite of reports is now available, which begins to look at impact, retention, attendance, and the demographics of those accessing the programmes.


  • Strong leadership: This is vital to lead and embed the vision, make service changes, and enable a culture that allows staff to be creative and learn without fear of being blamed for mistakes. Having a dedicated family hub lead means that there is someone who can continually help to share and maintain the vision. Those in the workforce who were enthusiastic about the vision at the start helped to bring onboard those who were more sceptical.
  • A focus on strengths: A positive, strengths-based attitude by leaders and managers towards staff and families has supported the adoption of the new model. Having a desire and plan to help staff grow and develop, alongside genuine interest in hub staff’s work and practice, helps to create a positive culture and mirrors the types of interactions staff should have with families.
  • Building on existing relationships: Delivering family hubs from within the local authority meant that many of the relationships required for co-delivery of services were already formed, and this enabled other services to be brought into the hub setting. The strength of the family hubs now is that services are delivered by a range of organisations, and it is often non-local authority providers who initially bring families to the hubs.

Barriers and challenges

  • Moving from 0–5 to 0–19: The family hub model supports whole-family working, but needs careful planning to ensure that 0–5 services are not reduced, staff skill sets are adapted, and physical space is adapted for children of different ages. Communication with communities is crucial, as many people still expect the family hub buildings to be for 0–5-year-olds only, and it takes time to develop the understanding of a 0–19 model.
  • Access: Access to some of the family hubs can be challenging due to their location, and the reduction from 12 children’s centres to four hubs means some areas no longer have a local centre. The complex public transport arrangements in Stockton-on-Tees mean that it can be difficult to travel to the hubs from certain parts of the borough, and some families are keen to use services that are close to home. However, there is a range of linked support provided in local communities as part of the early childhood services model; the challenge now is to ensure that families understand that this is part of the offer of support. 
  • Co-delivery by different organisations: The aim is to have interventions led by the most appropriate professionals and co-delivered with family hub staff. It takes time and capacity to build the relationships between services and to coordinate the delivery of different interventions in order to maximise the opportunities to engage with families while they are in the family hub. When services do start delivering within family hubs they realise the benefits, including a reduction in their own workload, and appreciate that ‘marrying’ family hub workers to their services helps in delivery and support.
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