Making change happen in the early years

In 2020, the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) published a review of children’s centres and family hubs. 

This highlighted the need to support local system planning, and gave a stark message about “an increasing diversity of local approaches and experimentation, but without a common language to describe these different approaches or a consistent set of metrics for assessing their impact”. 

This was the trigger for work in 20 local areas on early childhood services, which is described in our new report, ‘Leading and delivering early childhood services: 10 insights from 20 places across England and Wales’. 

At the heart of this report are more than 50 illustrations of local practice and innovation in the delivery of support for families with babies and small children. 

These include Islington’s Bright Start programme, which is seeing real improvements in collaboration between early years and maternity services as a result of a clear vision and a good understanding of different family and community needs. 

“EIF has set out the steps to create the conditions for success”

Devon’s Best Start in Life Programme has strong leadership at every level, including for data analysis and evaluation, making sure that families’ experience of services informs local decisions. 

In Calderdale and Kirklees, the councils have been working closely with maternity services, the University of Huddersfield, and the Maternity Voices Partnership to understand and tackle health inequalities across the maternity pathway.

Each local area that took part in this work used a consistent self-assessment metric – EIF’s maturity matrix, which is an early intervention system planning tool. 

As Gail Barker, Health Visitor Professional Lead at Devon County Council, describes: “Often, it feels as if there is a gap between high-level programmes and the actual experiences of those receiving a service … this self-assessment gave us a chance to reflect, and to consider how well the whole system works together to influence children and young people’s outcomes.”

The report is also a frank assessment of the challenges facing local areas as they seek to renew maternity and early years services in the context of a global pandemic and a decade of constrained investment. 

It identifies four key features at the heart of effective local multi-agency planning for maternity and early years systems, which should be embedded in local arrangements and which draw on the experience of the 20 local areas. These are:

  • a good understanding of where you are starting from 
  • clear and inclusive partnership structures and processes
  • common approaches that support coordinated working
  • common approaches for learning and for measuring improvement.

EIF has set out the steps that need to be taken at a national and government level to create the conditions for local success. These include having an explicit focus on the key functions and roles that drive local system planning, and providing national leadership on population needs assessment, workforce planning, information sharing, and measuring outcomes. 

The report also calls on government to give maternity and the early years a high profile in national policy making, and to mobilise the What Works Network and other academic partners to support this work.

There is no lack of ambition when it comes to early childhood services in Wales and England. Yet, if we are to realise the potential of early intervention in this crucial stage of child development, then it requires a coordinated, resourced, and long-term response, taking action at national and local levels.


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