Blackpool Better Start: Tackling Poverty, Changing Childhoods

Rachel Kent-Horwood reports on how Blackpool Better Start is leading work to tackle the effects of poverty and improve early outcomes.

Rachel Kent-Horwood

Blackpool Better Start held its annual conference titled ‘Tackling Poverty, Changing Childhoods’ on Thursday 13th
October 2022. This whole-day event shone a bright light on the fantastic work being done in Blackpool as part of the 10-year lottery funded A Better Start (ABS) programme.

The sessions contained thought provoking content, from the opening remarks provided by Dame Andrea Leadsom MP to the guest speakers Carey Oppenheim, Nuffield Foundation, and Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England.

We heard from experts in areas of early child development about the effects of poverty on young children’s development. Kim Roberts, Chief Executive of HENRY presented an insightful talk on young children’s diet and nutrition, Abi Miranda, Head of Early Years Prevention at the Anna Freud Centre presented key information relating to the social and emotional development of young children, and Kirsten Asmussen Head of What Works, Child Development at the Early Intervention Foundation presented on speech and language in the early years.

The guest speaker sessions concluded with Kate Stanley and Tamsyn Hyatt from FrameWorks UK who presented a fascinating session about re-framing poverty to reduce stigma, this was definitely a highlight for me.

During the day attendees heard about the work already going on to support families living in poverty in Blackpool, including an insightful video created with parents titled ‘Just about Managing’. The video and presentations shown illustrated the challenges faced by families living in poverty and the ways in which poverty could be tackled at a local and national level.

The key messages coming though over the course of the day were about meeting families where they’re at, supporting parents’ social and emotional wellbeing, and co-producing services with local families (this is a key part of the work being done within ABS programmes). Investment should of course be made a priority; this key message was maintained throughout all the presentations, often by referencing Bronfenbrenner’s systems theory to illustrate the systemic factors that affect children and families.

The workforces that are serving families are struggling to provide vital services and suffering under the weight of the current economic and financial crisis. Throughout the event, it was made clear that to tackle poverty, and alleviate the suffering of affected children and families, the workforce requires better training opportunities and for their expertise to be recognised, developed, and targeted so that specialist help can reach the most vulnerable and at risk-groups. We heard how services really need to be working together cohesively and working from an informed perspective to nurture parents and help them create the environment in which they can provide the best care for their children.

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, expressed that ‘Family’ needs to be a high priority on the political agenda if we are to tackle the issues of poverty faced by children in the UK. The messaging was very clear that it is not as simple as telling parents to get a better job and take better care of their children’s needs; issues of poverty run deep within communities and social mobility is not so straightforward for those affected.

Young children’s social and emotional development relies heavily on relational aspects of family life which can impact on the healthy lifestyle choices made within the home. However, parents are suffering from stress and poor mental health under the strain of their financial issues; they are doing the best they can with the resources they have and want the best for their children. Judgements being made about their ‘life choices’ belittles the crippling issues they face day to day. We heard from parents directly on this who described the judgmental attitude they may face when they do try to seek help, and the detrimental effect this can have on their self-esteem.

Kate Stanley and Tamsyn Hyatt from FrameWorks UK demonstrated perfectly how societal attitudes to those living in poverty can affect the level of help provided. Poverty is not a choice. It is a ‘trap’ that families get ‘locked into’, rather than something that just happens based on the life choices individuals have made. Through re-framing poverty, we can collectively reduce the stigma attached to those living in financial crisis. We can challenge the idea that this is just an acceptable part of life that affects some people (the talking about poverty toolkit is available as a further resource).

For there to be any real improvements made that will ‘change childhoods’ in a positive way, empathy is needed for parents and for those living with the very real effects of poverty day to day. Welcoming, holistic support services that seek the views and experiences of those affected are a vital tool if real, meaningful change is going to happen.

Resources from the event will be available on the Blackpool Better Start website

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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