Adapted photo by Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash

Participation and ownership as keys to effective strategy

One of the last pieces of face-to- face work Collaborate was involved with before the start of the first COVID-19 lockdown was with Dartington Service Design Lab, supporting long-time Collaborate partner Oldham in the development of a new early years’ strategy. In this blog, Collaborate colleagues and Oldham Council’s Head of Early Years Paula Healey reflect on one of the key insights of the work: as Myron Rogers says, ‘people own what they help create’.

Despite much good work over many years, Oldham has struggled to raise child development outcomes as measured by the government’s Good Level of Development (GLD). The 2019 results show Oldham remains in the bottom quintile, despite a four-percentage point improvement. The results also showed stubborn inequalities, with only ten local authorities in England having greater inequalities in outcomes for children at age five. To address this, the government has made Oldham an Opportunity Area, but money has been largely targeted at Oldham’s schools in order to achieve the target of 70% of children reaching the GLD by 2021.

A Peer Review in early 2019 showed Oldham has what it takes to do much better: it has many passionate and committed staff working with young children and delivering good programmes. But the Review also found that, too often, these programmes were acting independently and not as part of a common, collaborative effort, based on shared priorities and aligned structures of governance.

Responding to the challenges

Dartington, with their deep expertise in applying evidence to better early years outcomes, and Collaborate, with our focus on system conditions needed to support effective policy and practice, were asked to support Oldham in addressing these gaps. The borough knew they needed an approach consistent with the direction being taken across Greater Manchester, but there was also an awareness that effective solutions must have a distinctly Oldham flavour. The new approach must be created in Oldham, for Oldham, by Oldham.

Strategies written in dark rooms tend to sit on shelves. The key to the process in Oldham was sunlight: an open and inclusive process combining Dartington’s analytical skill and subject knowledge, with the insight, energy and creativity of those whose work shaped the experience of young children in the borough. To capture the breadth of the determinants of child outcomes, this meant throwing the net wide. It couldn’t just be the Early Years Team. It meant including those working directly with children and families as practitioners, as well as providers, commissioners and people from a wide range of policy and strategy roles, as well as really active participation by councillors.

In Oldham there is a real pride in the place and keen-ness to work together for the good of Oldham, but few processes to support this way of working. It is this collaborative capacity that needs to be built, and the way the strategy was developed began this process. It enabled conversations to happen across the system, between people who would never normally meet. It strengthened relationships as groups reimagined together how things could be different, wrestled with knotty issues, and tried to solve problems together.

A systems approach that worked

This work together revealed the need for a broader suite of Oldham outcomes to capture the wider (particularly social and emotional) determinants of child development, and clarity over the precise intermediate outcomes to allow everyone working with young children to see how their work had a part to play. There was agreement that more focus was needed earlier in the life of a child, reflecting an overall shift towards early intervention and prevention. Along with demands for greater clarity in governance and lines of accountability, there was a need for a consistent approach to measurement, with decisions better informed by data. Finally, there was a need to make collaborative work across organisational boundaries easier: by changing the way services are commissioned, focusing on building relationships across the system, sharing learning and developing a shared culture.

For some the participatory process was revelatory, a model for how strategy development should be done. It is an approach that takes time and real commitment from all involved. The payoff, as Myron Rogers has observed, is that people feel much greater ownership of things they have helped to create. Whilst we recognise that ownership of the strategy will not automatically mean young children’s development in Oldham will improve, it makes it more likely, built on stronger relationships and systemic collaboration.

Please get in touch if you want to find out more about how Collaborate can support your area in similar participatory processes of strategy development.

Paula Healey, Jeff Masters and Fanny Olsson.