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Three ways councils can make the most of early years data

In our digital age, data is critical to help local authorities assess gaps in early years provision, identify issues that need urgent attention and work out which families would benefit from extra support.

But speaking to early years teams across 27 local authorities for the Mapping Early Years Practice Project, it was clear that despite a great willingness to use data to support their work, they were under huge financial strains and faced challenges in both accessing and analysing it.

Whilst financial support is certainly crucial for councils to tackle these challenges, it’s important to also look at specific barriers - and think about how LAs can be supported to make most of the early years data. Below we look at three such barriers and three changes that could support councils to better use data.

1) Prioritise data sharing

The local authorities in our study highlighted the lack of cohesion and integration between the computer systems used in early years teams within LAs, early years settings and providers (such as maintained nursery schools, and private, voluntary and independent providers of childcare and education), and the NHS. This is compounded by another big challenge - a lack of permissions and consent to share data.

These challenges have all hindered collaboration, both within local authorities and across agencies, impairing their ability to rapidly identify children in need and provide integrated and holistic support for families.

A key change would be prioritising the interoperability of computer systems.

One way the government could support this is by introducing a unique child identifier from birth. Another is for councils to use data linking algorithms that can merge data without a unique identifier.

Crucial to these are local authority strategic decision makers, information officers, IT specialists and procurement officers prioritising, backing and advocating for data compatibility, interoperable systems and the aligning of consent and privacy policies.

This would enable services to plan and coordinate holistic support for children and families, rather than vital information being lost as families move between services.

2) Support local authorities to develop a clear data strategy

Having data is essential, but it’s not sufficient. Analysing and utilising the data is what makes the difference.

Here councils reported a further challenge: a lack of dedicated time for staff to quality check, synthesise, and analysise the data. A further barrier was a lack of training among child services staff, both in data analysis and the effective use of the results.

We know that tackling these challenges requires money. However, a lack of resources is common, and one way to support LAs is to help them develop a clear data strategy.

This includes helping LAs to think about how to develop early years data teams, how to protect staff time for data analysis, and how to train staff on using data to make informed, data-driven decisions.

As an example, Social Finance has worked on designing a data science apprenticeship tailored to children’s services. If a similar apprenticeship model could be designed for the Early Years, it could increase LAs' data analysis capacities and support their strategy development.

3) Cultivate partnerships and data culture

In addition to the more visible challenges discussed above, local authorities also reported hidden ones, including a lack of partnerships and a lack of a data culture.

Although some LAs benefited from effective partnerships with other services and the NHS, this was not the case for everyone. Establishing partnerships and getting to know each other not only takes time and effort, but also requires all partners to understand the importance of collaborating.

Closely related to this are people’s attitudes to data.

No matter who’s putting data into the system, it’s important that they understand this is not just a record system for individual children, but also an incredibly valuable dataset, a tool which can not just improve and track outcomes for a particular family, but also drive the effectiveness of child services as a whole across the local authority area.

It is therefore critical to support LAs to cultivate a positive data culture and establish effective partnerships with other services. This will help to break down barriers to effective data use and sharing in early years settings and enable LAs to use data to improve early years provisions throughout England.

You can learn more about our findings in our latest report: Opportunities and challenges for local authorities in using early years data

Author

Zhen Rao

Zhen Rao

Zhen Rao

Senior Researcher, fairer start mission

Zhen works as senior researcher for Nesta’s a fairer start mission.

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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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Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Louise works as part of a multi-disciplinary innovation team focused on narrowing the outcome gap for disadvantaged children.

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