Data-informed decision making in the early years

Claire Dorris, Principal Research Officer at the National Children’s Bureau, considers the importance of data in shaping support for families.

Claire Dorris

Data-informed decision is about making use of all available evidence, whether from research or official statistics, expert or professional knowledge, or feedback directly from service users, to shape what services look like, and how they are delivered. This is high on the agenda across policy and practice, particularly for those working with children and families, and embedded in the work of A Better Start.

This evidence might tell us:

  • What services users need: what are the current issues faced by local communities, what might be the causes, and how might they be addressed?
  • What works: How have services successfully addressed these issues before, perhaps in other areas or countries? Which programmes, interventions or approaches worked best to do this?
  • What difference are we making: Once a service is up and running, how do we know if it is having an impact on service users? And if it isn’t, what can be done differently?

Evidence of need, of ‘what works’, and of impact all come together to ensure that services are doing what they should be doing, for the people who need them, and ultimately, improving outcomes. There remains some way to go to ensure that the right data is collected, with the aim to be useful and informative, and that systems and structures are in place to make best use of this, however the strong commitment to make this happen is obvious.

While each A Better Start partnership has taken a slightly different approach to evidence-informed decision making, there is a clear commitment to rigorous data collection and evidence use to support planning. A variety of evidence is embedded throughout, at programme, partnership and service level, and while there have been challenges along the way, there have also been many opportunities for learning as partnerships have developed their approaches. Here are some common lessons from across the ABS programme which may better support others to use data to inform practice.

  • It is important that everyone is on the same page. The development of a common outcomes framework brings organisations together under a common desire to achieve positive outcomes for children and families, and keeps all eyes on the main goal, while allowing local creativity to determine what suits best in each local context.
  • Evidence comes from a variety of sources, and each has a key role to play. The voices of parents, practitioners and community members are clear across the work of the ABS partnerships, and the data provided compliments service-level and population data to provide a much more complete picture.
  • Working in partnership makes the best use of all available evidence, particularly when delivering a place-based partnership service. The efforts required to establish data-sharing agreements with partner organisations are worth pursuing in terms of the benefits for service delivery evident across the partnerships.
  • Data has a key role to play in determining the sustainability of services. Drawing together data from available sources to tell the story of a service truly supports decision-making on service growth and expansion, however also provides a strong rationale where difficult decisions need to be made on the closing of a service.
  • Data-informed decision-making takes time, resources and commitment to do it properly and effectively. However, the benefit is clear, with a real difference to be made for children, families and communities when services are based on need, and data is used to continuously understand and improve services.

You can read more about how A Better Start partnerships are using data and evidence to inform service development and delivery in our latest Programme Insight: Data-informed Decision-Making - Insights from the National Lottery Community Fund’s A Better Start Programme

The case studies in this report provide strong examples of how the design and delivery of services has been radically changed to meet changing needs of local families.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is the 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. A Better Start 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 designing and delivering an ambitious programme of shared learning and development support for A Better Start, working within, across and beyond the five partnership areas. The programme is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund using funds raised by National Lottery players.

Our aim is to amplify the impact of A Better Start by:

  • Embedding a culture of learning within and between the partnerships.
  • Harnessing the best available evidence about what works in improving outcomes for children.
  • Sharing 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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