Collaborating and rethinking fragmented data systems is a vital step in improving outcomes for children, say Rachel Wilcock, Hessy Elliott & Tom Symons
Data has a central role to play when it comes to improving early childhood outcomes. It offers huge potential to enhance our understanding of the kinds of support that children and families need and how to transform local services. And it is essential for building evidence for how best to tackle inequalities by tracking the impact of programmes and interventions. So, if we know how important data is, why is using it in early years environments so challenging?
There are many brilliant examples of early years professionals doing innovative things with data and using pioneering techniques to tackle specific complex problems.
The Lambeth Early Action Partnership (LEAP) is one organisation that’s leading the way on data integration. It has created a platform that builds a holistic picture of the families in Lambeth and tackles the challenge of siloed reporting systems, which were preventing a full understanding of who services were reaching and the impact they were having. LEAP pulled together various pieces of information to create pseudonymised unique identifiers, which allowed records to be securely matched across different services’ data systems and identify relationships to other individuals and family members. This gave a fuller picture of families’ engagement and outcomes, which helped LEAP better understand its reach and impact.
A Better Start Bradford provides a range of local services for families. Born in Bradford cohort studies have been set up to evaluate the impact of interventions. The team in Bradford have worked on developing data analysis and evaluation methods to try and understand how different combinations of interventions and families’ different pathways to support might affect outcomes.
The Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF brings together academics, the private sector and the public sector to deliver collaborative data projects to improve children’s outcomes, underpinned by a Responsible Innovation Framework which provides guidance on safe and ethical data practices.
Nesta is working directly with local authorities to provide insights and showcase a wealth of data that could help inform decisions. For example, by collaborating with Flintshire County Council and analysing its Flying Start data alongside deprivation-level data and travel-time analysis, it was possible to identify which deprived areas are currently underserved by services, which will inform future decisions on support provision in Flintshire.
These examples demonstrate the possibilities and potential impact for early years data to be harnessed to transform services and support for families. But often there are challenges to using data in this way, and localities and data professionals in the early years sector struggle to reap the benefits that data can offer.
One major challenge is the way the ecosystem of early years services is set up. Throughout a child’s journey from pregnancy to age five, a family will likely engage with multiple – if not dozens – of services, organisations and activities. These services will each collect certain data on the family, but very often they work in silos – when they report on their data it is not connected with other services’ data on the same family.
Fragmented collection of data leads to unclear pictures of a family’s experience, and doesn’t capture holistic needs: it’s a partial view of what’s happening in a family’s life, from the service’s perspective rather than the family’s. Localities that would benefit from having a fuller picture about families’ experiences in order to improve their support face difficulties in integrating different sources of data – due to challenges with data-sharing (including differential interpretations of GDPR) and a lack of common identifiers used across services.
The difficulties are compounded by the fact that services are working towards different goals. Maternity services might be focused on birth outcomes, while health visitors may be focused on breastfeeding rates. A children’s centre could be looking at how many parents attend a full term of playgroup sessions and a nursery might be measuring reading scores. Of course, these are all important indicators (and it’s a simplification – these services will be looking at lots of different outcomes) – but there is undoubtedly inconsistency and gaps in what is measured and what is counted as “success”. It’s common to find different parts of the early years system talking at cross purposes, making it difficult to compare results. And are we defining outcomes in a way that reflects what actually matters for children and families?
Limited data capacity and infrastructure pose another challenge for the early years sector. A decade of cuts to public services has led to underfunded IT systems and has stripped back the number of data roles, putting extra pressure on those scarce roles that remain. Different services and departments often use completely separate data systems which have mismatched functionalities and structures, making data linkage even more difficult. Data systems often don’t produce or visualise information in an easy-to-use format that could actually help professionals and decision-makers glean insights and take action as a result. Overstretched frontline practitioners may not have the time, training or tools to enter the right information into systems in a consistent and usable format, leading to data collection issues and gaps.
There is a growing recognition among early years data professionals from different localities that they are facing similar challenges. And there are many examples of interesting practice, solutions and analysis that try to tackle these challenges. There would be huge benefits to greater collaboration and sharing of learning about data in the early years sector.
Establishing networks to foster more joined-up working and sharing of best practice would be a powerful way for the sector to start to use early years data to its full potential. Open data portals and analytics hubs where open-source code is shared could help the sector to expand its use of novel and effective methods of analysis. Solutions are needed to facilitate secure data linking between services and systems. A unique identifier for each child, such as their NHS number, which is used consistently across health, education, social care and other children’s services (as the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health has called for) would be the first step in ensuring we have that holistic view of a child’s journey through the early years and make it easier to track outcomes consistently.
There also needs to be coordinated work to support the development of a common outcomes approach that places child and family voice at the centre – this is an initiative currently being spearheaded by the For Baby’s Sake Trust, Early Intervention Foundation and Kindred2. And the sector needs to connect with key decision-makers and funders to embed and scale change.
By working together, the early years sector can harness the opportunities that data offers for improving outcomes for children and families.
Nesta will be hosting an early years data workshop in spring 2023. If you are interested in joining us for this session, please email [email protected] with the subject line "Early years data".