2019 – 2023

Learning and evaluation of local systems change approaches to improving early learning outcomes

The Backdrop

Indicators of inequality in early child development have been increasing sharply over the past decade: the number of children in poverty, the gap in birth weight by social class, differences in infant mortality between socio-economic groups and the educational gap between children receiving free school meals and other children have all increased.

From housing and parenting to childcare provision and family income, there are many interconnected factors that have an influence on outcomes in child development. No single organisation can address these factors alone. Rather, it requires different people and organisations across a system to work together.

Save the Children’s (SCUK) Early Learning Communities (ELC) programme aims to improve early learning outcomes for children growing up in poverty by changing the ways local organisations work together and with families. 

In 2018, SCUK initiated the ELC programme in four locations across England and Wales: Bettws (Newport), Feltham, Margate and Sheffield, hoping to learn how to fundamentally reimagine systems to prevent children and families falling into the deepest forms of hardship. The ELCs bring together people and organisations from across sectors to understand the needs of local families, learn how to work effectively together and make lasting shifts in behaviours and structures to enable long term change. In 2019, Collaborate was appointed as lead learning and evaluation partner (in partnership with NPC) to help understand systems change progress and support ongoing learning and improvement within and across the ELCs.

What we did

We developed a Systems Change Maturity Model to help support learning about local systems change progress within and across the ELCs. Evaluating system change is not straightforward and requires a different approach to more traditional, programmatic evaluation. Reasons for this include the length of time it can take for systemic change to impact outcomes for children and families and the complex and interconnected range of factors that impact outcomes, making it difficult to attribute change to specific activities or causes.

For these reasons, rather than focusing on traditional outcome measures, the maturity model sets out key underlying conditions that are foundations of a ‘healthy’ system. Developing these conditions will help create a healthier system that is more likely to support improved outcomes for children and families. The model draws on insights from both the ELCs and Collaborate’s place-based systems change expertise and frameworks (for example, Building Collaborative Places and Margins to Mainstream) and includes indicators of what each condition might look like at different levels of maturity. Importantly, the framework is a tool to support ongoing learning and adaptation as well as understanding progress. 

As the learning partner, Collaborate has been working with the Maturity Model, mainly through regular interviews and focus groups involved in each ELC, to synthesise and share insights with the communities as a tool for reflection and adaption, as well as sharing emerging insights externally. We also convene learning sessions that bring together the ELCs and SCUK to reflect on progress, introduce ideas and tools to support their systems change practice, and enable peer learning.

Impact and Learning

The Maturity Model has been a helpful framework to help foster shared understanding of underlying conditions that can contribute to systems change and what progress might look like. Throughout the project it has been important to ensure the framework is understood as intended primarily for learning and improving, rather than demonstrating impact in a more traditional sense. The value of the tool lies in the conversations it provokes and the learning it generates. 

To enable this, the Maturity Model needs to be used where there is a foundation of shared understanding about systems change goals, the interconnections between the conditions, and where there are opportunities for peer learning to reflect and act on the findings. We are also working to help make the framework more accessible for different audiences.

Evaluating change in complex systems always requires ongoing adaptation and refinement. This has been particularly true of this work due to factors including a major restructure at SCUK and the pandemic, both of which have understandably significantly impacted both delivery and capacity to engage in learning and evaluation. We’re continuing to work with SCUK to adapt the evaluation and learning approach to the current context and learning so far.

The last phase of the work will involve us conducting one final evaluation to help capture and reflect on progress over the past three years and identify opportunities for further development. We will also be working with SCUK to share overall learning to inform wider local systems change efforts.

Trying to navigate and convene partners to fundamentally rethink how systems can prevent the widening of the inequality gap for children is complex and messy. The Maturity Model has enabled us as convenors of the system to reflect on the approach we are taking. It has enabled us to begin to understand distance travelled and has been a catalyst to learn and share the principles and practice of our approach.

Rebecca Thomas
Bettws (Newport) ELC Lead