About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Closing the disadvantage gap: the local authority perspective

What is the problem we are trying to solve?

For some years (between 2013 and 2017), the difference in outcomes between poorer and more affluent children at early years and primary school age was narrowing. However, by 2018, this disadvantage gap began to widen again. Figures from the Education Policy Institute show that in 2019, children from disadvantaged backgrounds started school, on average, four and a half months behind their more affluent peers. Furthermore, according to the Sutton Trust, over half of the gaps in attainment at age 11 are a result of inequalities at age 5.

Much of the work to close this gap has fallen on local authorities. Despite a deep desire to improve outcomes for children, solving such a multifaceted and systemic issue is not a straightforward task: budget cuts, reduced capacity and difficulty coordinating complex systems have all hindered efforts to tackle the problem.

What are we doing?

It was against this backdrop that Nesta launched Fairer Start Local in 2020, a programme of innovation partnerships with three local authorities – Leeds City Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority and City of York Council – to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. The programme, which will run for three years, has the potential to offer the capacity, headspace and new ways of working that will be vital for approaching the disadvantage gap in a genuinely innovative and impactful way.

"Take-up [of services] had been low for a very long time and we’d tried a lot of different things to improve it. We were stuck, and we wanted to come at the problem with a system-wide focus, using Nesta to bring expertise and to challenge us, push us and motivate us"

Lesley Wilkinson, Early Years Service Development Manager, Leeds City Council

Taking location into account

To test whether an innovation partnership could work, the councils and Nesta undertook initial projects earlier this year to establish key questions, foster relationships and develop new tools. For all authorities, part of this focus was on better understanding parents and their lives, bringing in their voices in a meaningful way and using learnings to improve and develop services. To achieve these goals, innovation was vital.

Although the attitudes and approaches of the authorities were interlinked, each partner embarked on the pilot stage of the project with a different challenge, often intimately tied to place.

The key question for Leeds, explains Early Years Service Development Manager Lesley Wilkinson, was to understand who was and wasn’t accessing services. There was a further, specific focus on speech, language and communication, where outcomes are particularly low. This was compounded by a long history of approaches that had simply not worked.

“People get complacent when they spend a long time working in an area of service,” Wilkinson explains. The new approach, therefore, was about an openness to “doing things differently rather than sticking with the status quo.”

The energy the innovation partnership inspired was tangible, Wilkinson says: “the workshops were very, very different to how things were. Word got out, it gathered momentum.” Practically speaking, data science and methodological tools were immediately taken to other meetings, changing the ways things were talked about and implemented and ultimately effecting a new approach.

“The exciting thing was people could see and feel from the very first moment that this was something different to what we’d been doing. It wasn’t just about talking, it was about doing, solving problems and bringing new, innovative techniques.”

In Stockport, the aim was to understand the support parents want, with a particular focus on social and emotional development. “During the pandemic there were huge concerns about the impact on this development,” says Locality Lead LJ Woodward. “We wanted to find out how we could widen the intersection for parents of what works and what’s actually provided.”

Here, the partnership helped develop already-existing innovation. “For us, it was about building on the transformation that was already happening, further developing the ambition of our school readiness programme by better understanding the data,” Woodward says.

Finally, in York, there was a focus on the take-up of services for two year olds. “We know the first 1001 days of life are crucial – conception to two years old,” says Social Mobility Project Manager Rob Newton. “We wanted to focus there, because we know there are families who don’t access offers of particular significance in closing the outcome gap for this age group.”

“For us, it was about building innovation into what already exists,” Newton says. “The innovation part of system redesign has to be done in a service-sensitive way – scrapping everything and starting again is a really bad idea!”. This meant using existing data in a new way, allowing the team to better drill down to previously unidentified root causes.

“I would be advocating to everyone to take a step back to look at what data you already have that might help you unpick some of your big questions,” he says.

The power of partnerships

A key focus for all three local authorities was partnership working. “It’s essential, isn’t it?” Wilkinson says. “In early years there’s an education element, a health element, children’s services, social services, that emotional aspect, parents themselves... there are a lot of stakeholders.”

“If you’re looking to shift how you work and outcomes, that ecosystem is essential – you have to have all of those partners around the table, with that focus on solving the problem and finding the solution. No one person can shift everything; it has to be a joint approach.”

Newton agrees. “Early years is pre-conception to five, which makes it a complex landscape. Even professionals sometimes struggle with the complexity, so it’s not surprising families can find it difficult to navigate. Partnership working is absolutely fundamental.”

One way to get through the barriers of this complex system, Newton argues, is to be explicit about common outcomes. “Explicitly attending to the principles of partnership working and paying time and attention to it is really important,” he says. “I believe it is possible and doable and can have a big impact on families.”

Partnership working didn’t just happen within the infrastructure of early years, nor just between the local authorities and Nesta: it was also about working with parents. “There’s already a strong culture of collaboration in Greater Manchester,” Woodward says. “But we really want creator collaboration with families through that commitment to co-production and championing the voice of both child and parent.”

A toddler holding a hand

Initial learnings

Though the initial pilot period of the programme is over, with results detailed in our report, there is much more still to be done over the next three years.

For Leeds, the process – and particularly the pace – was challenging. “But we’ve loved it and really embraced it,” Wilkinson says, particularly noting the “ripple effect” of innovative working. “Although we had some very clear and specific priorities, the approach has rippled across other parts of the system, acting as a glue to connect partners again. People are talking more, connecting more, they know much more about what others are working on.

“There’s a lot more to do, but it’s helped early years focus so much. And we think it will really improve our outcomes.”

Newton pulls out several key learnings. The first is understanding which areas have the potential for the highest impact and how behavioural insights can be applied to maximise potential; the other is developing “a clear narrative of shared outcomes” to help navigate the barriers of complex systems.

“You need to ask yourselves: what is it about the first five years of childrens’ lives that we collectively agree are the most important, and how can we articulate those in a way that is accessible and meaningful?”

Ambitions for the future and what next

The next three years will see all three of the projects developing, with each authority hopeful that ways of working and, ultimately, outcomes will improve tangibly during this time.

All three local authorities hope that any positive impact they achieve can scale to other local authorities. “One very real value in a project like this is bringing together knowledge and skills and having the opportunity to pool knowledge,” Woodward says.

"One very real value in a project like this is bringing together knowledge and skills, and having the opportunity to pool knowledge"

LJ Woodward, Locality Lead, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council

“We’d love to extend that into other local authorities, developing that community of practice and that learning network. While there are clearly some real differences, there are also commonalities and ways to communicate.”

Underlying all of the work was a shared and ongoing dedication to uplifting parent voices, working together to overcome local issues by systematically developing better co-production. The application of innovative tools and partnership working allowed the authorities to create these opportunities for co-design, helping them work together to overcome local issues.

A man kissing a child

“One of the things we want to do more of is listening to parents,” Wilkinson says. “And understanding – we don't feel we know enough about the communities that aren't engaging and why, so we want to dig a bit deeper.” Woodward notes the particular benefit of mixing qualitative and quantitative methods, which Stockport will continue to utilise during the next phase of the project.

“We learned so much from parents about the messages they wanted us to focus on – their children’s happiness, their development, immediate solutions for their worries. There was a reiteration of paying attention to the development of trusting and respectful relationships,” Newton concludes.

“Ultimately, parents just want the best for their children.”