A Better Start - the legacy of the programme

Tom McCulloch, Head of Funding Strategic Programmes (A Better Start), at The National Lottery Community Fund, looks ahead to the next five years of the programme and considers ideas for sustaining it beyond the term of its funding.

Tom McCulloch

As part of taking up my role, it’s been valuable to look back and understand the early ambitions of the A Better Start programme and as we pass the halfway point, to reflect on where we are now. It was therefore a pleasure recently, to join an event facilitated by the National Children’s Bureau called ‘leveraging the success of A Better Start’ – where we considered the long-term legacy of the programme.

The meeting brought together local partners, including public health representatives, local authority leaders and commissioners, from within the five A Better Start partnerships. The aim was to reflect on what has been achieved over the first half of the programme, and their plans to sustain A Better Start beyond the duration of its funding. I want to share what I learnt during that event.

Alongside their direct impact on the lives of children and families, the A Better Start partnerships all restated their commitment, made at the outset of the programme, to influence and transform how services and support arrangements work across their local areas in ways that last beyond the Lottery’s 10-year funding.

We all agreed that the involvement of parents and community volunteers has been vital in helping to shape their local priorities and decisions, leading to much greater insight into what works and what does not.

As one commissioner noted, “What has really changed though is the approach to designing and delivering reviews and new commissions. What A Better Start has helped embed, is a refreshed approach to engaging people in understanding what they want and need from the services in their community, and then bringing them along on the journey right through the commissioning cycle – not just consultation, but genuine co-production”. This way of working is at the heart of what we do, and we encourage all our partners to take on such an approach, improving the wider system in which the partnerships work.

During the meeting, we acknowledged that sustainability and legacy may come in different forms and this session was a chance to share what we have learned collectively so far. This included successful community led commissioning through approaches such as ‘Street to Scale’, and the ‘Resilience, Ideas and Innovation Fund’. These are practical examples of grass roots grant-making that enable the community to identify ideas that they think would help local families, as well as supporting test and learn on a small scale to influence future practice.

The A Better Start partnerships and their partners are all committed to ensuring that a robust evidence base emerges from the programme to inform future practice. Plans for sharing data at a local level were outlined and local evaluations in each partnership are considering their impact, which will be complemented by the Fund’s national evaluation of A Better Start.

But all agreed that they should not wait for final evaluations and that action is needed now on emerging findings to avoid missed opportunities. Now is the time to model their sustainability and legacy strategies and this involves actively reviewing what has worked, what they need to do more of, and what they may need to stop, and what resources, staffing and structures are required to do it.

The importance of investing in workforce development was recognised by all. This includes innovative practice becoming embedded within the workforce of local organisations, to improve outcomes for families. This has been made possible by A Better Start delivering a variety of high-quality learning, training and professional development opportunities for those working with pregnant women and families with children aged 0-4 years.

Other areas to build on include:

  • Ensuring transformational change - aligning learning to commissioning cycles in a challenging external environment.
  • Continuing to work with local health services and others to explore what support is offered and when, to families and how to incorporate A Better Start’s key messages.
  • Developing services that have more “touch points” with families, to deliver the information and support that we know are impactful, and that families and practitioners want.

To support this work, as the funder we will continue to be flexible and support changes based on evidence of what works. We will also work with others to inform both national and local early years policy and practice.

During the meeting, the question was posed: “Can we make the UK more child focused as part of a post Covid-19 and A Better Start legacy?” In answer, the partnerships committed to reinvigorating the ‘spirit’ that first secured A Better Start investment and caught the imagination of stakeholders and members of the community. This is a source of optimism. A Better Start has “the feel of a ‘movement’, as one partner described it on the day, and I am excited to be part of that drive to put children and families first.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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