Blackpool Better Start’s Conference – Sharing the Science of Early Childhood: Who Knows Best?

Hannah Connell, External Affairs Manager at the Centre for Early Childhood Development, tells us about Blackpool Better Start’s ninth annual conference, and the success it had in sharing the science of early childhood.

November saw the return of our ninth annual conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Sharing the Science of Early Childhood: Who Knows Best?’ The question of how we share the science of early childhood in a way that families can understand and get behind, was front and centre throughout the day’s agenda, with fascinating insights from a stellar line up of speakers.

Shaping us

Hannah Connell

The first keynote came from Christian Guy, Director of The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, who talked about the development of their national public awareness campaign: ‘Shaping Us.’

Christian revealed findings from their in-depth analysis that showed only one in three adults reported knowing just a little or nothing about how children develop in their early childhood.

The Royal Foundation’s research also found that parents tended to think in terms of physical and cognitive milestones in the early years, and that social and emotional development wasn’t at front of mind. He went on to say that Shaping Us is a long-term project, informing much of what The Princess and Centre will go on to do, as shifting society-wide understanding and attitudes is going to take time.

Christian finished by encouraging more partnership working to use our collective weight, influence, and expertise to mobilise system leaders and others right across society. He rallied the audience to get in touch with the Centre by saying: “Wherever you find yourself this morning – whether you feel battle ready or battle weary – I want to encourage you to dream big. And I want you to know that the Centre is here to play its part.”

Gut health and ultra-processed foods

Next on the agenda was Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London, who shared the latest science around gut health and ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

Tim explained how nearly 60% of our diet comes from ultra-processed foods, and how these foods are effectively starving our gut microbes of what they need to eat. This poor gut health has been a dominant factor in the rise of childhood obesity and food allergies. Tim also discussed how there is clear evidence that depression, anxiety, and ADHD are related to gut health, and therefore diet, and gave tips about how families could improve their gut health by eating 30 plants a week.

The Q&A session with Tim, which was chaired by Sir Peter Wanless, CEO of NSPCC, explored how families suffering the effects of the cost-of-living crisis could afford to change their diets to more fresh products. Tim cited frozen and tinned vegetables as a cost-effective and healthy alternative, as well as low salt and sugar baked beans.

The cost-of-living and family life

The final keynote came from Claire O’Meara, Interim Director of Advocacy at UNICEF UK who presented findings from their latest early years campaign. The national polling undertaken by UNICEF UK showed that 4 in 5 parents said the rise in the cost-of-living is having a negative impact on their family life.

Claire also talked about how 30% of parents are working more hours to meet these financial struggles. She described how this is having a direct impact on their ability to be a parent to their child by reducing the amount of time parents have to read with their children, to cook meals for them, and to play with them. These stark figures need to be considered when developing any messaging campaigns aimed at families, and Claire talked about how parents want their struggles to be acknowledged. A moving element of her presentation was when voice notes were played from parents who were asked to comment on the availability of services in their local area. Hearing the authentic voices of parents reporting a lack of services existed as a bitter reminder of the struggles many parents are facing in the UK today.

Blackpool Better Start film screening

The final session of the day started with the screening of a film from Blackpool Better Start about the co-production of a campaign with local families. This then led into a panel discussion panel exploring the challenges of connecting national campaigns and broad public health messages with local communities. The esteemed panel of Kate Stanley from Frameworks UK, Julian Pine from Liverpool University, Neil Jack from Blackpool Council, Clare Law from the Centre for Early Child Development, and Hannah Clark from the Lived Experience Team shared their thoughts on what makes a successful campaign, and what we can all do to support and enable greater connection between research and lived experience. Their knowledge of research, framing, communities, and the impact of multiple disadvantages was skilfully explored by Sir Peter Wanless, who really got under the skin of how we share the science, and addressed the question of who really knows best.

This year’s virtual conference attracted over 860 registrations from a national and international audience, and the feedback received to date has been fantastic.

Comments from delegates included:

“Maybe I was in the 20 odd percent who were battle weary when the conference started and at the moment, I'm in the Battle-Ready group.”
“Taking 5 hours out of a really busy week felt a luxury I couldn't afford for learning, however I'm so glad I did my head is spinning with ideas on how to apply to my areas of work.”
“I thought this was the best Blackpool Better Start Conference yet!”

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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Visit the A Better Start website to find out more.