Adapted image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

What does it take to change local systems?

Following on from two previous blogs (here and here) about our work in partnership with NPC as evaluation and learning partner to Save the Children’s Early Learning Communities (ELC) programme, in this blog we share key insights from the latest systems change evaluation report. The report summarises systems change learning over the last year from across the four Early Learning Communities: in Bettws, Newport; Feltham, London; Margate and Sheffield.

Evaluating systems change: understanding ‘systems conditions’

As we described in a previous blog, we have developed a maturity model to help track the development of ‘system conditions’ within each of the four ELCs — key enablers which signal that the system is changing in ways that will lead to better outcomes for children in the longer term.

Summary of Early Learning Communities maturity model

In the two evaluations so far, the first five of the conditions (top row) emerged as foundational to the work of the ELCs. This is not to say that the remaining five conditions are not important, but in the context of the ELCs, these are conditions that were prioritised in the early phases of systems change work and provide the foundations for subsequent development. The ELCs will now work to maintain and embed these conditions while also paying increasing attention to the remaining conditions as their work and partnerships mature.

Nurturing systems change: key learning points

We explored learning from across the four ELCs relating to the foundational conditions. The three main cross-cutting themes relating to local systems change were:

1. Purposefully building collaboration as a foundation for systems change

Collaboration is a crucial foundation for systems change. Given the huge amount of inter-related actors and factors that impact early years development, no single organisation can create change working alone.

The ELCs are cross-sector partnerships, made up of a range of people and organisations that are part of the early years system in each place. ELCs have fostered collaboration in a number of ways including co-design of local ELC strategies; co-delivery of ELC interventions; partnership boards; and dedicated resource to build capacity for collaboration (e.g. one of the key functions of ELC Lead roles is to nurture partnership working).

Key learning points from the ELCs about what it takes to foster collaborative approaches include:

  • Building collaboration requires conscious attention and investment. 

Collaboration doesn’t always come naturally and requires individuals to push against structural and cultural barriers, learning how to balance the interests of individual organisations with collective goals. It is critical for organisations to purposefully build the structures, skills, mindsets and confidence to support collaboration.

  • Building collaboration requires practical experiences of working together.

Giving people practical opportunities to work with people from other organisations and services is an important way to make collaboration real.

  • Modelling collaboration can have ‘ripple effects’ outside the partnership itself.

Showing the link between strong collaboration and tangible outcomes can influence the wider system towards greater collaboration.

2. Creating the conditions for the system to change itself

While collaboration is an important foundation, it will not in itself create systems change. Only through a focus on “shifting the conditions holding a problem in place” (FSG), will the ELCs and similar initiatives achieve lasting change.

Fostering shared ownership for systems change efforts across the system has been an important focus of the ELCs. Key learning points include:

  • Foster shared ownership from as many people and organisations as early and widely as possible.

Systems change involves everyone in that system, which means nurturing shared ownership across the people and organisations within it, including families

  • Develop and embed ‘system stewardship’.

Systems stewards play an important role in creating the conditions for systems change. In contrast to a traditional delivery or programme management role, system stewardship is about helping to create a ‘healthy system’ — a system that functions effectively and is more likely to produce positive outcomes. This is about building trusted relationships, fosters deep listening and learning, and helps people work better together towards common goals. The activity of the ELC, particularly the role of ELC Leads, has been focused on helping ‘steward’ the system to help build these conditions.

  • Sustainability through shared system stewardship.

As the ELCs mature, they see embedding and communicating the value of stewardship as an important part of sustainability planning. It is unlikely that the work of the ELC will be able to continue effectively without continuation of some form of this function, at least in the medium term. However, the role will need to change and adapt over time, and long term the goal is for system stewardship behaviours to become embedded as a way of working across multiple organisations.

3. Maintaining a sharp focus on systems change

It is challenging to maintain a focus on systems change because it requires constantly challenging dominant mindsets, practices and power dynamics. It is particularly difficult to focus on long term system-wide change when faced with limited resources and capacity to address the immediate needs of local families. Lessons from the ELCs on how to maintain a focus on systems change include:

  • Recognise and communicate systems change progress.

Reflecting on and communicating progress helps build momentum and engagement. The maturity model is one tool that can help identify the development of underlying conditions for systems change that can otherwise often be overlooked

  • Consider your potential to influence beyond your immediate geographic focus.

Understanding the systems you are part of at different geographic scales can help you create change. While many of the ELCs focus on a small geographic area, their ability to create lasting change in this place, as well as influence practice more widely, relies on understanding and connecting with systems at a larger geographic scale e.g. local authority boundaries.

  • Ensure all activities align with and inform systems change ambitions.

While delivery of interventions can contribute to systems change, this needs to be done with a purposeful focus on how this can contribute to wider and sustained change in a place. For example, when providing short term support to a specific cohort of children, we need to pay attention to what we are learning about barriers in the system that need to be addressed to improve outcomes for more children in the long term. This purposeful focus on systems change needs to be embedded in all aspects of the work, from delivery and governance, to leadership and workforce development.

  • Sense and adapt to the changing system.

Systems are changing all the time, so systems change practice requires being agile and adaptive to sense and respond to changes. The ELCs have continually adapted their approach both based on what they are learning and in response to changes in the local and national context.

See the full report for more about the ELC programme, detail and examples relating to the learning points shared here, and recommendations.

The final learning and evaluation report will be published in spring 2023.

To find out more about this work, the maturity model, and how Collaborate can support local systems change initiatives, please contact Dawn Plimmer

If you want to find out more about the Early Learning Communities themselves, please contact Sarah Crosby