Diversity by design: why we must design children's services with inclusion in mind

Demographic data is like a window into the lives of others; interrogating this information can help us understand how different people experience the world.

But when designing public services – like children’s programs and policies – demographics have traditionally been something of an afterthought.

This needs to change.

Our family’s income, the neighbourhood we grow up in, our physical abilities, our gender and our ethnic heritage all change the way we and our children experience the world.

And if we don’t acknowledge this when designing services, we risk designing for a uniform group of people who don’t actually exist. Ultimately, if we want to meet the needs of real people, then we have to start with a solid understanding of who we’re trying to serve.

What demographic data can tell us

We know that demographics play an important role in early years outcomes.

Every year, schools across England assess 5-year-olds’ development in areas like language and communication, social skills, literacy and numeracy.

Around 71% of children meet expected levels of development, but if we delve deeper into the data around ethnicity, household income level and gender, a more complex picture emerges.

For instance, boys consistently have poorer outcomes than girls, children eligible for Free School Meals are less likely to meet targets, and Irish Traveller and Gypsy Roma children consistently achieve lower levels of development. One of the biggest gaps between children on Free School Meals and those from wealthier backgrounds is among White British children, highlighting large income inequalities.

These variations – linked as they are to ethnicity, household income and gender – highlight how strongly the circumstances of our birth can influence our outcomes, even at such a young age.

They also underline the importance of intersectionality – the reality that we all have multiple, overlapping identities which may disadvantage or privilege us in society and influence our lived experience of the world.

But as well as telling us more about the outcomes of different groups, demographic data can also help us understand who is and is not accessing support services, like free childcare or child development checks.

Because of missing information or data spread across different public service departments, data is not often used in this way. But we need to change that, because the different experiences, outcomes and engagement rates highlighted by demographic data are a sign that the current system is not working for everyone.

So what’s the alternative? Designing with diversity and inclusion in mind.

Designing for diversity and inclusion

Data can tell us so much, but it has its limits.

While demographic data can provide a broad overview, we must be cautious of generalisations and stereotypes.

Data can suggest patterns, but it does not help explain why these patterns exist, or the stories and realities of the people behind the numbers.

That’s why it’s so important to pair data analysis with on-the-ground work. When making decisions about the services we design, we need to listen to those with lived experience and knowledge of specific contexts and communities.

This qualitative understanding of people’s diverse experiences and the challenges they face, their motivations, values and strengths, can add to what the data tells us and help us design services which respond to the needs of real people.

So what might it look like in practice to have early years services designed with diversity and inclusion in mind?

It might mean deploying advocates from underserved communities to try and encourage more people from that background to access early years services. Or it could mean bringing in translators to a parenting class, or ensuring classes are taught in an accessible building with a wheelchair ramp.

There are some great examples of designing for diversity and inclusion in the early years space. The Hackney Play Bus takes play opportunities to the doorsteps of families in the local community, while Save the Children’s Travelling Ahead initiative focuses on supporting children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds.

At Nesta, our fairer start mission seeks to narrow the outcome gap between children growing up in disadvantage and the national average. To achieve this, we have to prioritise equity, diversity and inclusion.

Through our fairer start local programme, we built a data dashboard to help City of York Council’s Healthy Child Service better understand demographic and geographical patterns of family engagement with their services.

We also ran a workshop with the service delivery team covering some of the key considerations outlined above, like intersectionality, avoiding generalisations and validating data insights with local knowledge.

Ultimately, the data is clear: children’s educational outcomes and access to support is shaped by their background.

This is inequality in action – and it’s already impacting the next generation.

Services and systems evidently aren’t working for everyone. But through smarter use of demographic data, combined with on-the-ground insights, we can do better.

And it’s worth the effort – because when we design early years services with diversity and inclusion in mind, we help to ensure fairer outcomes for all children, no matter their background.


Rachel Wilcock

Rachel Wilcock

Rachel Wilcock

Senior Data Science Lead, Data Analytics Practice

Rachel is senior data science lead in the fairer start mission and the data analytics practice.

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Hessy Elliott

Hessy Elliott

Hessy Elliott

Senior Analyst, A Fairer Start

Hessy was a senior analyst in the fairer start mission.

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Davina Majeethia

Davina Majeethia

Davina Majeethia

Head of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI)

Davina is the head of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI).

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Adeola Otubusen

Adeola Otubusen

Adeola Otubusen

Junior Data Scientist, Data Analytics Practice

Adeola is a Junior Data Scientist in the Innovation Mapping team.

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