Workforce Innovation in early years services

Laura Anderson, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the National Children’s Bureau, considers an A Better Start report that draws together evidence and practice contributing to an early years workforce for the future.

Current challenges in the early years sector

Laura Anderson

A skilled, well-supported, and well-resourced workforce is the foundation of outstanding early years services. The latest A Better Start Insight Report highlights the ways in which the delivery of high-quality services, including a range of support for families as well as flexible and accessible provision for pregnant people, babies, and young children, relies on delivery by well-qualified, valued, and experienced workers.

The wide-ranging workforce around babies and young children are leaders in both identifying what families need, and in delivering early intervention and support to ensure the best possible care.

The sector has endured an incredibly challenging time, facing significant NHS workforce shortages, funding cuts, and exceedingly high turnover rates which signify high work demands and a lack of support. The workforce is increasingly under strain, resulting in a recruitment and retention crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic created increased demand, further straining an already destabilised system.

The current challenges faced by midwives, health visitors, early years educators, parent and infant mental health workers, speech, language and communication therapists, peer support workers and family support workers greatly impact on a variety of early years development measures. By age five, some children already show gaps in their social and behavioural, nutritional, and speech and language attainment, based on factors such as socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, and their special educational needs. Research shows that the key to bridging these gaps is a workforce that has the capacity and ability to give children the support they need in supportive environments in their first 1,001 days.

The Government recently announced that they will be expanding the childcare entitlement scheme to 30 hours per week by September 2025, all the way through from 9 months to 3 years. It has been estimated that only 20% of providers who currently offer places to two-year-olds plan to deliver additional places under the expanded entitlement, due to the pressure they already face. This policy could have detrimental implications for workers who are already over-stretched, and further investment in quality provision is needed to meet the requirements of the expansion.

Reimagining how we treat, upskill, and organise the wider early years workforce can have far-reaching implications on health outcomes for children. In addition, investing in the sector now can save the public purse from more costly, long-term, complicated interventions for children later in their development. Supporting the early years workforce could drastically improve the lives of future generations as well as save the taxpayers considerable amounts of money.

Supporting the early years workforce should be a central consideration in giving babies and young children the best start in life. There is work to be done at the local, regional, and national levels, and we urge policymakers to consider this when determining future government strategies. This includes ensuring that the Start for Life system works to develop a modern skilled workforce to meet the changing needs of families.

Work across the five partnerships

The report includes case studies in workforce innovation from across the areas in which A Better Start works, including:

  • Better Start Bradford - workforce development has always been a key priority for Better Start Bradford. Recently, they have been further enhancing their offer by proactively developing and delivering a training programme to midwifery and nursing students to shine a spotlight on prevention within early years and the importance of the first 1,001 days. This encourages the emerging workforce to embed this into all areas of their practice as they pursue their careers.
  • Lambeth Early Action Partnership - The workforce development strategy aims to upskill the local early years workforce and embed a shared vision and common framework for working with families. The early years workforce in Lambeth is vast and includes practitioners such as health visitors, midwives, GPs, speech and language therapists, children’s centre practitioners, childcare providers, early help and social care practitioners, housing officers and the wider voluntary and community sector (VCS). There are significant differences in the learning needs of different practitioners in relation to early childhood development, and in their capacity to attend training events. LEAP has provided a blended capacity-building offer, tailored to a range of needs.
  • A Better Start Southend (ABSS) - “workforce thinking” has been influenced by local parent champions and what has been learnt from them over time. ABSS’s partners and commissioned projects offer learning opportunities to parents to increase their confidence and knowledge, which leads to parents developing aspirations for their future. They can then be supported by the ABSS Partnership.
  • Small Steps Big Changes (SSBC) - Family Mentors (FMs) are a paid peer workforce of local parents and grandparents. The service was developed in 2015 following conversations with families living in SSBC funded wards in Nottingham. To inform the design of the Family Mentor programme, SSBC consulted with over 1000 parents. Parents said the existing statutory service offer was well liked, but they felt there was ‘not enough of it’ and that they were not treated as equal partners or that their family’s individual circumstances were not always understood. Parents asked for additional personal support, in a ‘language’ they understood, by people who understood them. A need for a peer-led workforce was identified to work alongside parents as equals, supporting and guiding them to parent without judgement.

Recommendations based on learning

A Better Start (ABS) partnerships have, and continue to, contribute to a skilled and knowledgeable early years workforce of the future. The report includes the following recommendations as key levers in early years workforce systems change:

  1. Providing a high-quality accessible training offer across the local area to the full range of early years professionals

Workers do not feel that the amount of training they receive is adequate for them to do their job well and to advance in their field. Workforce training and Continued Professional Development (CPD), trauma-informed practice training, and understanding the training needs at the local level can help provide high-quality and relevant training to professionals and communities.

  1. Co-production with parents at the centre

Centralising the voices of families, babies, and young children is at the heart of the ABS planning and delivery processes. ABS has shown that local health, public services, and the voluntary and community sector can work together with parents to improve outcomes for children. Parent champion programmes recruit and train parents to work within local communities, recognising parents as the experts in their own lives. This enables greater engagement by parents from marginalised groups, of information-sharing between services, and can have a positive impact on parents’ confidence.

  1. Investment in the NHS early years’ workforce, to enable every expectant parent to receive continuity of midwifery care, and every baby and young child to receive the full Healthy Child Programme

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan was published in July 2023 with plans to combat staff shortages for midwives and health visitors over the coming years. However, urgent action is needed to increase staff recruitment, training, and retention. The lack of staff presents significant challenges for effectively safeguarding babies and young children from harm, as key opportunities for identifying their needs are missed.

  1. A long-term early years workforce governmental strategy that supports skilled and passionate practitioners and provides accessible routes into the profession with improving children’s outcomes at the centre

Urgent attention is needed to combat the recruitment and retention crisis in the sector. Training schemes for new practitioners, incentivisation for graduates, and large-scale recruitment campaigns for educated young people will help attract and retain a quality workforce.

Read more about this work in our latest Programme Insight

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.