Innovating for a fairer start

By Tom Symons | 12 May 2021

With the launch of Nesta’s new 10-year strategy earlier this year, early years and education forms one of three focus areas – our ambition being to increase the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who reach a good level of development at age five. Putting our strategy into action, we have started by working as an innovation partner to three local authorities to improve school readiness levels – a new way of working for us which involves using innovation approaches in a more applied way to create social impact.

When developing our strategy, one of the challenges councils told us they faced was a lack of internal capacity to do the discovery work, solution building and evaluation which turns innovation into impact. As an innovation partner to councils or other delivery organisations in the early years, we provide a dedicated team to enable our partners to find new solutions which ultimately contribute to better child development outcomes. Our multidisciplinary team includes data scientists, designers, experimental researchers, alongside behavioural science and collective intelligence experts, using this expertise to help organisations working on the ground who have the local and contextual knowledge to make the partnerships a success.

Following an open call for expressions of interest late last year, we‘re delighted to be partnering with three councils – York, Stockport (combined with Greater Manchester Combined Authority) and Leeds – for trial discovery projects. Combining technical innovation skills with co-production approaches, we are working collaboratively on priority challenges identified by the local authorities. In Stockport, for example, we’re combining machine learning and user-journey mapping to generate insights about whether a different combination or presentation of universal services would mean parents were more likely to engage with them. In York, we’re linking data analysis with parental engagement to better understand the barriers impinging take up of the offer for two-year olds in the area. In Leeds we are combining data analysis and qualitative insights to better understand how we can support families with children’s speech, language and communication needs. This will inform some early prototyping of new approaches to engaging families.

The discovery projects will run until July, at which point we will decide with the three councils which of them will develop into three to five-year innovation partnerships. With a longer timeframe, the scope and potential impact of the innovation partnerships can be much greater; they will cover the full early years landscape and present a rare chance to bring the time and resources needed to radically transform local systems. Alongside the partnerships, we will also run a peer learning network for other councils who are interested in the learnings from the work and to support early adopters of any innovations which we find to be effective in improving child development.

We’ll be back in the summer to let you know how the discovery projects went, and you can find out more about the programme on the Nesta website.

Tom Symons is deputy director of the ‘A Fairer Start’ mission at Nesta


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