In March this year, A Better Start Southend began an exciting new chapter in its progress, with the transfer of all formative research and evaluation activities of the Partnership to the University of Essex’s Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, at the School of Health and Social Care.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic Partners took the decision to focus the research the University of Essex was undertaking on the impact of the virus and subsequent government measures on children and families in Southend. The first phase of this research – which was published in April – saw practitioners who had been working with families throughout the pandemic engaging in virtual focus groups to pass on insight into the challenges that families are facing, including those unique to A Better Start Southend communities. These findings were published in a preliminary report, which covered areas such as local and community responses, challenges, difficulties and benefits experienced by families and how we could help.

The 2nd phase of research has now been published. The purpose was to build on the findings from Phase 1, and data was collected via a range of different methods, including an online survey, interviews and focus groups.  As the team moved through the research with parents, practitioners and leaders in local organisations, it became apparent that family experiences have been mixed. Many have experienced significant challenges throughout the pandemic, including access to food and a deterioration in mental health, which were made harder by not being able to spend time with supportive friends and family. Some families also experienced the stress of working from home with their children, and increasing worries about their education, development and socialisation.

Many of these challenges are to be expected, and local parents and ABSS Parent Champions have reported that worries have been eased by accessing support from various local family organisations and initiatives. However, families that took part have also been grateful for the benefits that the pandemic has brought for them. These have included: finding new ways to connect with loved ones and enjoy time together, increased ‘family time’ and less distractions, strengthened community support and beneficial shifts in social roles within the family.

Practitioners and leaders working in health, education and social care reported that alongside some of the challenges they have faced – including difficulties in reaching the most vulnerable families, and the wellbeing and safety of staff – they also experienced some benefits which could transform the service long-term. Organisations have been able to adapt quickly, and have incorporated virtual service delivery, so that families can continue to be supported. Families have also been more engaged with a service, and have been accessing the support in new ways. Organisations also reported effective working relationships, as individuals, services and communities have come together and worked more effectively.

Vasilios Ioakimidis, Professor at Essex University and Principal Investigator in the university’s ABSS research team, said, “This research has uncovered some of the profound challenges faced by young children and their families during the pandemic. Our findings also highlight that the experience of families has not been ‘one-dimensional’. Alongside the many challenges, families and communities have also been able to identify important sources of resilience, development and solidarity.  This report gives details of these challenges and opportunities, alongside recommendations on how organisations could respond in the current extraordinary context. ”

Lauren O’Connell, Senior Research Officer on the project commented – “This research has highlighted areas in which families, practitioners and services have shown enormous strength and adaptability, as well as areas in which families would benefit from support as we move through the pandemic. On a personal note, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know parents and practitioners during this time and undertaking this research. We are enormously grateful to the families, practitioners and professionals who kindly gave up their time to participate and spoke candidly with us about their experiences”

Jeff Banks, Director of A Better Start Southend says: “The results of the University’s research are helping build a solid picture of the impact of the pandemic on children and families and this is already flowing through into the services ABSS and partners offer. We are proud that we have been able to respond quickly, supporting our existing service delivery partners in maintaining their offers to parents and children, and mobilising additional support to local voluntary sector organisations. Moving forwards, we are keen to look at how we respond to the longer term impacts in terms of mental health and wellbeing and the experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, among other key areas. We are grateful to the University of Essex and ABSS Partners for their support for this research, which will really bring focus to our responses over the coming months”.

The research is now being shared with partners and parents, to explore next steps together, and how this might be used to benefit local families.

For more information about our partnership with the University of Essex’s Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, contact abetterstart@eyalliance.org.uk.

 

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