We find that conversations about improving early years services often quickly turn to the challenge of data. There’s a growing interest in improving the use of data to design and evaluate services – but this is much easier said than done. Challenges range from identifying the right data to collect to designing data systems and infrastructure; from access to staff with skills in data analysis to negotiating issues of privacy and consent.
For us at Nesta, we’re particularly interested in learning more about the data that’s available to help us identify ways to meet our fairer start mission goal of closing the early years disadvantage gap (the gap in outcomes by age five between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the national average). We’re interested in using data to help us understand the needs of children and families, explore the role services are playing in children’s outcomes and identify areas ripe for innovative responses. We’re also interested in how better use of data can lead to better outcomes for children.
These questions formed the basis of a partnership between Nesta and Flintshire County Council. Working together, we developed a data-based early years research project to learn more about:
- the data that was available across early years teams in Flintshire
- the pressing questions that early years staff thought data analysis might help them answer
- how we could better use the available data
- the gaps there might be in existing datasets.
Services for families cross multiple departments, often with their own approaches to data collection and sharing, so we worked together to explore the datasets held by different teams in the local authority, the systems that inform data collection and any gaps they identified in the data. We also held a workshop with early years staff to explore what they really wished they knew about children, families and services. Through this process, we refined our research question.
Gail Bennett is Flintshire Council’s Head of Service for Early Years, Childcare and Family Support and she explained: ‘We wanted to be more informed about families and children in Flintshire to help us make decisions that are based upon information about the population and people’s needs.
“Flintshire was one of the first local authorities in Wales to take part in the national Early Year Integration and Transformation Programme, focused on connecting early years, health and education services. This work would feed into the aim of creating a more joined-up and responsive system, with services led by the needs of the population.”
We decided to focus the analysis on Flying Start services. Flying Start is a well-established programme in Wales for families with children aged up to four years old living in disadvantaged areas. The programme provides additional health visiting support, parenting support and speech, language and communication services. Families also receive funded childcare for two-year-olds.
The Flintshire team wanted to understand more about the people who Flying Start services are currently reaching and whether or not there are families living outside designated Flying Start areas who are likely to benefit from the services. Flying Start locations were first identified 15 years ago, with some later additions. In that time, we have seen changing demographic patterns in some areas and increasing levels of poverty (especially child poverty) across Wales.
We focused on comparing data about a small number of Flying Start and non-Flying Start areas to understand relative need, analysing engagement with parenting support in Flintshire and understanding more about the childcare available in the area.
We made use of datasets that included:
- local authority service data eg, information about engagement with different strands of Flying Start and parenting support programmes
- assessment data eg, post-natal depression scales
- national datasets eg, the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD)
- data about childcare provision eg, location, capacity, quality assessments.
Nesta’s data analytics practice explored different ways of combining these datasets to understand more about the situation in Flintshire. This ranged from analysing data about who attends different services to plotting travel times to services; from mapping childcare provision against indicators of deprivation to comparing self-evaluation data for participants in different parenting programmes.
The analysis presented us with a number of findings about services. For example, our WIMD analysis indicated that there are some areas in Flintshire that are relatively high-need now but which were not included in previous Flying Start area designations. We found that families living in Flying Start areas that were more deprived than others were just as likely to engage with the two-year-old childcare offer. There were also correlations between attendance at parenting courses and self-assessment results indicating improved mental health and wellbeing.
These are all really useful insights to help evidence approaches and interventions in support and services across Flintshire, and beyond. However, the real value of the project was in working together to learn more about how we could use data differently to support young children and families.
Kathy Williams, from the Flintshire County Council team, explained what they learnt from the collaboration with Nesta: “The whole process from start to finish has been full of learning. When we first started this journey I think I was hoping for a little bit of direction in terms of what the data would tell us generally about early years.
“The analysis has allowed us to now have a clearer picture of Flying Start areas, childcare and parenting. The process has shown us how to use the data we have to help inform future decisions and direction of travel for both Flying Start and the Early Years Integration and Transformation Project to better integrate health, education and early years services.
“We knew the value of data and how it could support our work but didn’t always have the means to analyse it in the way that Nesta has been able to. This has highlighted the importance of having a team equipped to do this and be able to share in a way that is clear to understand and meaningful.”