The role of parent champions in A Better Start Southend

Deborah Auty, Strategic Development and Communications Lead at A Better Start Southend (ABSS), considers how co-production with parents is helping the programme meet its aims.

We want Southend to be known as the best place in this country to bring up a child and be a parent.

Deborah Auty

Our aim is to create a community that welcomes every baby and ensures they have the best start in life. By using new ways of thinking and working – co-production included – we are solving some of the problems that have affected local children and families for years. Our Parent Champions are key to this co-production.

Southend Association of Voluntary Services (SAVS) train and manage the network of ABSS Parent Champions. Currently, we have 43 parents taking part in the programme (67 have been trained since the beginning). Parent Champions are passionate about the programme and dedicated to its outcomes.

Increased engagement with services: ABSS has seen a positive increase in the number of parents engaging with and talking about it, and Parent Champions have been key to this as they reach out to families around them. Many Parent Champions started their own journey with ABSS by attending a group or activity which helped them and wanted to share this experience with others. Parent Champions also co-designed Pip, our cuddly mascot, and he is a huge success in engaging young children when we are running community engagement events.

New skills for Parent Champions: Working directly with volunteers is inspiring as each Parent Champion has their own unique background, story and personal achievements. SAVS have adapted The Parent Champion Training to an online, three week e-learning course accompanied by virtual support sessions. Parents tell us that the new skills and experiences are giving them the confidence to take up new opportunities outside of A Better Start.

Fostering community ownership of services: Parent Champions lead an engagement fund to run community engagement events and activities to bring new parents into the programme and ensure they are representing all parents. As one Parent Champion said: “without engagement with the people you are trying to reach, you will never truly understand what connections can be made and the benefits of it.”

Many of our services begin life as ideas at parent forums. These include Umbilical Chords, a music project hosted by Southend YMCA for children and families, and Microgreens, which will provide starter kits for new parents who want to grow and harvest vegetables at home.

Driving the strategic direction for A Better Start Southend: Parents’ involvement in governance has also been incredibly positive. ABSS has always included parent champions as equal members on its key committees, indeed, no governance meeting is considered quorate unless at least two parents are attending. Using the power, creativity and lived experience of parents and communities in our work, we have gone deeper than co-production and advocacy to seeing parents as partners in setting the strategic direction and governance of all aspects of our organisation and work.

Key learning for systems change: Partnering parents, with lived experience, with the learned experience of practitioners makes for better services. But true co-production takes time, and this can be challenging when seeking to deliver a new service at speed. By having the parent voice on our decision-making committees, we are kept accountable for delivering on our promise that services are developed following the principles of co-production. They also provide a forum in which senior public health officials can hear first-hand about the challenges that people and communities are facing.

In February, the Southend Health and Wellbeing Board heard from Parent Champions about their role in developing new services through co-production. Many of those present at the meeting were inspired to consider the co-production and parent champion model as one that should be adopted as part of an integrated approach to service commissioning. Indeed, A Better Start Southend co-funds a co-production champion with Southend Borough Council.

As one member of the Board remarked, ‘We need to provide more welcoming situations to harness the power and testimony of the community. We've got a way to go, but we're moving in the right direction.’

Helping people to use their power to create their own future may turn out to be our programme’s most important legacy.

For more information email:

Deborah Auty is Strategic Development and Communications Lead at A Better Start Southend.

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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