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Opportunities and challenges for local authorities in using early years data

In the Mapping Early Years Practice Project carried out between 2022-23, our project partner the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) conducted a survey and in-depth interviews with representatives from 27 Local Authorities (LAs) in England. Initial findings from data analysis by Nesta’s data scientists revealed a wide variety of early years policies and practices.

To better understand how LAs have used data in their early years work, the current study returned to the original dataset and conducted a qualitative analysis of the interview data, focusing on three questions:

  1. How was data being used by LAs to support early years work?
  2. What were the challenges reported by LAs in relation to using data?
  3. What were the attitudes to using data within different LAs?

Our project partner ACER analysed interview transcripts from all 27 LAs, with a focus on one of the six interview topics – Assessment, Data, and Information Sharing. The study team also examined interview transcripts covering the other five topics, including Parenting and the Home Learning Environment (HLE), Healthy Child Programme (HCP), Speech, Language and Communication (SLC), Infant Mental Health and Perinatal Mental Health, and Quality in Early Childhood Education (ECE). Interviewees’ responses relating to data and information sharing from these topics were included in the analysis of the current study.

Most interview participants were LA staff. Although NHS staff were invited for interviews, they were not present in some interviews. Findings from this study therefore were more likely to reflect the views from LA staff rather than NHS staff.

What we learned

LAs reported using data to support early years settings, providers, and parents

One important way LAs used data was to identify gaps in provision and potential training needs, such as settings and providers that were underperforming, or families who were not engaging with their local services. For example, an interviewee told us:

“Some of those settings we would consider to be yo-yo providers, ‘good’ at the last inspection, [then they] might be ‘requires improvement’, then they go back to ‘good’, then they become ‘inadequate’. We keep a special relationship with them just to ensure that they are getting some additional support.”

LAs also used data to support children’s transitions between settings and schools, including providing transition documentation with information on children’s strengths, needs, and social interactions, so that the new school can support the child effectively. Here is an example given by a LA staff:

“[We’re looking at how] we can prepare for providers, parents and children with SEND to have a really smooth transition from the PVI sector into either their nursery class in the school or reception.”

Data sharing and integration varied among the LAs, with many LAs experiencing challenges in sharing and using data

Some LAs with established integrated systems benefited from streamlined data sharing, highlighting the importance of technological infrastructure in facilitating efficient collaboration and information sharing across LA services and the NHS. One interviewee told us:

“We have a joint data sharing agreement which other areas do not have, and it was very evident that was a real strength, that the data that we know about pregnant women and families is shared across services in the understanding that we will use that data to provide good care for families in a timely manner and appropriate to when they might need it.”

The most frequently reported challenge on data sharing was the lack of cohesion among different computer systems which “don’t talk to each other”. As a LA staff explained:

“That is probably our biggest [challenge] - our Midwifery systems don't talk to our Community systems, and our Community systems don't talk to other systems. We're all on a different electronic system of recording and reporting, which is a challenge.”

Concerns on adhering to GDPR regulations and absence of data sharing agreements also caused barriers to sharing information. For example, an interviewee told us:

“With the GDPR, I think there is a real confusion about people understanding what data they could share, and who they could share it with. So a seemingly apparent tension was created with GDPR and safeguarding sharing of information”

Other barriers to the effective use of data included a lack of staff time and a lack of training for data analysis. As illustrated by a LA staff:

“Having adequate resources to do data analysis, it's been a problem that we have… The more resources you have the more you can do some work with the data. It's fairly limited the resources that we've got.”

LAs expressed a willingness to build partnerships and collaborate with other services

Most participants demonstrated positive attitudes toward information sharing and collaborative efforts to improve early years support. One interviewee told us:

“The enthusiasm to share information is there. It's the process, I think, that is the issue.”

A culture of establishing partnerships to share data already existed within some LAs. As a LA staff explained:

“We have a perinatal network meeting that runs every two months… We share what each other’s services are doing… It’s a multi professional discussion to see who might be able to help families”.

Key findings

Findings from the current study underscore the important role that data plays in supporting LAs’ early years work. These findings also highlight the challenges faced by LAs in effective sharing and use of data. The key barriers that need to be addressed to enable LAs to make use of data in their early years work included:

  • lack of cohesion and integration between the computer systems used in early years teams within LAs, early years settings and providers, and NHS
  • lack of permission and consent to share data between LAs and other services
  • lack of dedicated time for staff to carry out data quality checking, synthesising and analysis
  • lack of training among children’s services staff in data analysis and effective use of data.


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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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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Brendan McGinley

Brendan McGinley formerly worked as a Research Fellow for the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER UK) within the International Development Division.

Sladana Krstic

Sladana is a Senior Research Fellow, having started at ACER UK in mid-2016. Sladana is an experienced researcher, providing psychometric support on ACER’s various projects.