Many of you have been long-term partners with us here at the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), sharing our learning journey on how to use evidence to improve the effectiveness of maternity and early years services. We’ve worked with inspirational early intervention leaders up and down the country, from Luton to Lancashire (EIF’s 20 original ‘Pioneering Places’), Cornwall to Cumbria (28 Early Years Peer Challenges), Barking & Dagenham to Dudley (Early Years Transformation Academy cohort of five local areas), and Stockton-on-Tees to Sutton (leaders of children’s centres and hubs in 14 local areas).
You have regularly described the improvement challenges to us, including how:
- Using evidence is hard. There’s no lack of ambition to use evidence to improve effectiveness, but there’s often a lack of evidence to answer the questions that you’re interested in, which are commonly about systems and practice. Where evidence is available, it isn’t always accessible and functionally useful to local leaders and commissioners.
- Generating local evidence is hard too. Local areas commonly describe a lack of confidence and expertise in planning evaluation, as well as a limited local culture or framework for evaluation. Local areas who are more confident in their assessment of impact are often those who have partnered with academic institutions or research organisations to evaluate local programmes. However, these tend to be the exception rather than the norm.
- The conditions for success have been eroded. Current statute and guidance for early childhood services often feels outdated, leaving local leaders with difficult choices. This has consequences for local system planning too, with few local areas now having an explicit, current and system-wide maternity and early years strategy. That’s despite this consistently being identified by local stakeholders as one of the most important ingredients to mobilise stakeholders and drive local change.
- Local early childhood services were already under pressure before March 2020, with reductions in resources cutting deep into children’s centres and other local early intervention services. This development now appears to be accelerating as a consequence of the pandemic. The key question is how do we move forward?
One of EIF’s most important tools over the past seven years has been our early intervention self-assessment, the Maturity Matrix. Every local authority area has used one or more versions to shine a light on their local arrangements, uncovering different insights, generating discussion and building consensus about improvements.
This is the kind of tool needed now, and so we’re publishing a new Early Years Maturity Matrix this autumn. The new Matrix will feel familiar, but with some important adaptations, based on feedback from local areas, particularly to make it shorter and simpler to use.
It also strengthens the focus across all four developmental domains, showing how early language development is interconnected with physical, social and emotional, behavioural and wider cognitive development. The Matrix will be freely available on the EIF website for any area to use. We’re also inviting local authorities to work with us on using the Matrix to set a new local baseline this winter.
This will help directors of children’s services and their partners understand how much difference the pandemic, lockdowns, service and funding pressures have made to local arrangements for early childhood services, and to set a realistic course into 2021. The Matrix works best when a range of people with different experiences and perspectives contribute to build a fuller picture of the local system, but each area can adapt the planning process to fit their needs.
We are offering a new, light-touch validation process and EIF summary report to complement your local maternity and early years planning. We’ll make this available to any local area that uses the Matrix between 16 November and the end of January 2021. You can register for this enhanced version now via this link and EIF will also set out common themes from across the local areas using the Matrix to identify a national baseline on the maturity of early childhood services.
Given the effect of the pandemic on our smallest citizens, if we are to level up life chances in different parts of the country we need to focus on early childhood.
Ben Lewing is assistant director, policy and practice at the Early Intervention Foundation