Innovation and Evaluation: Keeping the end goal in mind

Clare Law, Director of the Centre for Early Child Development at Blackpool Better Start, explains how measuring impact can go hand-n-hand with innovation in early years support.

The 64 Million Dollar Question…“The A Better Start programme sounds great, but what difference is it making...?”

Clare Law

If I had a pound for every time I was asked this question I could probably, single-handedly continue the funding for the programme for another 10 years. However, I completely understand why, as the new Director of the Blackpool Centre for Early Child Development, the engine room of Blackpool Better Start, I should be able to provide a coherent answer.

My job is to lead the transformation of early years services in a town I’ve worked in since the early days of my social work career. Blackpool is a very special place, full of contradictions but most notably, full of brilliant communities that have a lot to learn from; it is this very opportunity that makes our approach to uncovering the impact of Better Start quite different.

A Better Start is a powerful, yet complex, combination of place-based community development approaches, universal provision, peer support, targeted services, workforce development and, ultimately, systems transformation. Therefore, if I could provide a quick answer to the aforementioned question it would probably mean we’re doing something wrong. However, we do need to demonstrate impact, and both creativity and patience are key.

The Next Phase of A Better Start

A Better Start is the biggest strategic investment from the National Lottery Community Fund with £215 million to spend across five areas in England on the transformation of maternal and early years services and approaches. It is a huge opportunity to make a difference to the lives of babies, children and families for generations to come. In Blackpool, the first six years of the programme have been spent working alongside families, curating a suite of world-leading approaches, programmes, services, early years spaces and growing a quality and knowledgeable workforce.

The next few years bring a different kind of challenge. There’s a need to consolidate what we’re doing already, ensuring quality, scaling-up and critically embedding these new ways of working within local services. We’ve been working on our sustainability plan since day one, however an ever-shifting landscape means that this requires constant revision.

We need to continue, and also improve upon, our co-creation methods and ensure lived experience is at the heart of all we do. In addition, we will respond to the ever-changing needs of our communities as they recover from the effects of a pandemic and as new members of the community, who have not previously been part of Better Start, begin their journey into parenthood.

However, perhaps our biggest challenge is to measure the impact of the programme and enable us to share learning both nationally and internationally.

Let’s innovate the way we evaluate

There are, however, significant challenges with measuring the impact of early intervention. Whilst the length of investment from The National Lottery Community Fund creates a great opportunity, too often funding has been allocated to short term projects and initiatives, with little focus or understanding on the strengths and limitations of research and evaluation.

Too many times, projects have their success measured against unlikely outputs and outcomes which have been set within unrealistic parameters. We therefore need to change the mindset of commissioners and policy makers who have come to only have this type of evidence to base decisions on.

We’ve seen only very recently the major health benefits of Sure Start for children living in the poorest areas, reducing health inequalities and resulting in significant financial savings. We need to continue to not only invest in early intervention, but also in longitudinal and multi-faceted research studies. Without this, there’s a real risk that we could miss key findings if we don’t continue in our endeavour to be innovative not just with programmes, but with evaluation as well.

A Better Start provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to do just that. Better Start is an investment in transformation, across all areas of the system but this must include the ways we measure that change. We must also challenge ourselves on our very definitions of ‘good’ outcomes and the value we place on different forms of evidence.

In answer to the earlier question, the difference is exactly this. Blackpool is now a place that is committed, long term, to transformation; just give us time to prove it.

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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