Helping councils defuse the early years ticking time bomb

By Tom Symons | 16 November 2020

Despite last week’s encouraging news on the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine, we are set to live with the social consequences of the pandemic for at least a decade. Within the early years sector, there are indications these consequences will be particularly acute. For a sector already heavily constrained following 10 years of austerity, these are worrying signs.

Ofsted has reported children regressing in basic skills and learning such as potty-training and reading following the national lockdown. It is likely this will have disproportionately affected children from poorer backgrounds, who have had less access to books and outdoor space during lockdown than children growing up in wealthier families. Similarly, uptake of home learning during lockdown showed gaps between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. There is a serious risk that recent progress towards closing the educational disadvantage gap will not just stall, but will be reversed. Even more worryingly, many children are facing increased danger at home, with the number of babies in England that have suffered serious injury through abuse or neglect during the pandemic up by a fifth on the same period last year.

Stepping back further, pressures are mounting on local public services. Reduced local government incomes, fears of further austerity and growing demand for services create a perfect storm. In such circumstances, it is the long-term thinking and space for systemic, upstream change which become the first thing to fall away as reactive pressures dictate where resources are directed.

Nesta’s Innovation Partnerships are designed to tackle these challenges head on. They will see Nesta form deep, long-term commitments to work with a small number of local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, focused on a shared objective of supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds to thrive. Nesta’s core offer through an Innovation Partnership is expertise in a range of methods - data science, design, experimental research, behavioural science - which can be combined with evidence about ‘what works’, professional expertise, lived experience, and co-production. This combination can help us identify opportunities for innovation, develop new solutions, prototype, test and implement these before subjecting them to rigorous evaluation.

The intention of our Innovation Partnerships is to ground new solutions in the context of the local area. We know there are no one-size-fits all responses. However, the research we undertook to inform the development of this programme suggested there may be some areas of challenge which are common across local authorities. The specifics of the solution would likely be context dependent, but there are many areas with potential promise:

  • Making more of evidence-based  interventions - in particular working to help them fit better into distinct local contexts, and to work better in combination with one another
  • Making better use of data to understand which families need which forms of support, making sure they receive it, and evaluating the impact of this support
  • Building the connective tissue between services and strengthening systems leadership so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Alongside the small number of deep partnerships, we will be running a peer-learning network of councils interested in adopting and adapting new approaches.  Our intention is to scale what works more widely. To support this via the peer-learning network, we will invest in process evaluation alongside formal outcomes measurement to understand the impact of changes to services on the outcomes of children and families. We also know that the scale of the problem is too big to tackle alone, and we hope our work will add to and complement the work of others such as the EIF, EEF, Dartington, Sutton Trust Coram and many more to help improve the life chances of young children.

The precipice is growing ever steeper and higher but positive impact is possible. If there were silver bullets they would have been discovered long ago. But through dedicated support and time, creativity combined with rigour, and collaboration with others - together we can begin to turn the tide. We hope our Innovation Partnerships can provide this for councils at this difficult time - and, more importantly, their very young citizens. Local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales can express an interest in becoming an innovation partner at, applications are open between 3 November and 23 December. We hope you’ll join us on this journey.

Tom Symons is head of government innovation research at Nesta

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