Changing the way we think about children’s services

Blog by Alison Clare, Programme Director

It can be difficult to move away from long-held beliefs or ways of doing things. It’s often much easier to keep doing the same thing again and again, but we all know the easiest approach isn’t always the best. Looking with a critical eye at what actually works is the most effective way to improve things.

That’s what we’re doing at A Better Start Southend. The 10-year research and development programme, which aims to transform services for children up to the age of four, is part of a wider Big Lottery Fund project being run across five sites in Blackpool, Bradford, Nottingham and Lambeth as well as Southend

Each area is taking a slightly different approach based on local challenges but, in the context of reduced funding for public services, we’re all working towards the same goal: finding ways to shape services that really improve the lives of the youngest children and that will last

It’s an exciting opportunity to take a fundamental look at how we deliver support that benefits local families. We have the chance to rethink things, turn services on their head and tweak, evaluate and refine them to make them the best they can be.

Everything we learn will help build a national and international picture of what works, which will be used as the basis for developing a new approach.

So what might this look like? Evidence shows that prevention works: dealing with social problems before they become too difficult to reverse reduces the need for costly intervention later on. Not only does it make financial sense, it’s better for the child, their family and wider society too.

Take the involvement of dads for example: a father’s low interest in his son’s education reduces the boy’s chances of escaping poverty by 25 per cent[1]. Pre-schoolers whose dads read and talk to them a lot behave and concentrate better at nursery, and do better in maths as well[2]. When a child has the support of a loving engaged father they are happier and more stable in other areas of their lives.  That’s why we’ve been supporting FRED in Southend.

But to achieve the best for children, the conversation we have about services and the way they are commissioned has to change. We want to deliver support alongside families, not just present things to them, so we’re asking parents about the issues they are facing, how we can with them and how they can get involved at all levels of the programme.

And it’s not just parents. Everyone from midwives and health visitors to crèche staff and volunteers has a role to play to help make the shift from intervention to prevention, so that we’re reinforcing positive change in all aspects of a child’s life. Working in collaboration is important and it’s how we’ll deliver the system-wide change that’s needed. I’m really looking forward to finding out what the next few years will show us about how to make it work.


[1] Blanden (2006)

[2] Baker (2013)