Three views on evidence for local systems change


Tim Hobbs | CEO | @tim_hobbs_lab

The Early Learning Communities Toolkit 

Save the Children UK are committed to working in local communities to promote children’s early learning and help narrow the attainment gap for children growing up in poverty, compared to their more affluent peers. To support this, they asked a team led by Dartington Service Design Lab and the University of Plymouth to develop a framework that local communities could use to develop an evidence-informed strategy for their area to support improved early childhood development. Tim Hobbs explains why it takes a holistic approach to evidence to make meaningful change.

Knowing the Context

I’m at a fire station near Margate. Cars are being cut up in the yard and sprayed with foam. Inside are 30 people, firefighters included, talking about many things: John Bowlby’s work on childhood attachment theory; the Turner gallery on Margate seafront; the ‘DFLs’ - those Down From London- who frequent it; Cliftonville community - one of the most economically disadvantaged wards in England - just a stones-throw from the gallery where the playground is littered with glass and needles; and the pride and respect for the straight-talking local school teachers and nursery workers. 

How does all of this come together in a place-based strategy to improve early learning outcomes? How can evidence be considered in light of the local context and potentially competing priorities of families and professionals? We set about building a toolkit to navigate these questions and make this possible. 

We started with a review of the research about ‘what matters’ in promoting early learning outcomes, alongside consideration of the evidence about ‘what works’ in relation to different interventions and local system change efforts. This was led by Lab Associate, Nick Axford, based at the University of Plymouth, alongside a stellar line-up of collaborators [1]. This review, alongside Dartington’s 15 plus years of experience in place-based work, provided the foundation for the Early Learning Communities Toolkit.

So far, so traditional, right? But at the heart of the Toolkit is a three-part view of evidence. One thing we’ve learnt over many years at the Lab is that every type of ‘evidence’ has its advantages, but using only one type for decision-making has limited traction. 


  • Taking a research or evidence-led view has the advantage of building on a great deal of prior experience and systematic analysis. The risk is that this is too far removed from local context or experience – how does it relate to families raising their kids in Cliftonville today? 

  • Taking a professionally-led view capitalises on the rich experience of people working in local communities or contexts. But professional boundaries often cause friction, and a perceived rush to intervention from services disengages families. 

  • Taking a community, user-centred perspective connects with what children and families really care about, grounded in their local context. Yet it will miss out on learning from elsewhere and can struggle to embed within local public system infrastructures, blocking sustainability.

This three-part view of evidence is not new – our friends at Research in Practice have been helping local government leaders grapple with the inherent tensions. Yet we also think that for a place-based strategy to have an impact, it should balance these three perspectives.  


Application of the Toolkit in Reality

Let’s look at how one of the four initial sites - the Margate Early Learning Community – used the toolkit to consider and unify these perspectives. The Margate Taskforce is a multi-agency partnership bringing together professionals from health, social care, early years, DWP, and community safety. This is bolstered by a wider network of early years providers, community VCS and local families. They are committed to improving early learning outcomes for children growing up in Cliftonville. 

 First, this group considered the research evidence about ‘what matters’ to promote children’s early learning outcomes. Borne out of the rapid review, the ‘evidence matrix’ below considers key influences on children’s early learning outcomes - they’re on the left. To the right are the more immediate parent and family influences, and around this, the wider service, economic and community influences. Within the Toolkit, users can select specific outcomes and developmental stages, and consider what the wider body of research evidence says about how powerful an effect each influence has on them.

The Margate partnership explored and interacted with the evidence. They considered what factors - when looking only at the research evidence - stand out as most powerfully influential on children’s early learning and development. As indicated in Figure 1, the group’s interpretation of the research evidence placed a strong emphasis on the importance of proximal influences such as close bonding and attachment, play and verbal exchanges and parental involvement in learning and education. Taking only an evidence informed view might lead one to base a strategy solely around these. 

Figure 1: An evidence view

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Let’s take a look and see where a different perspective might focus. We asked the Margate partnership – predominantly professionals - to consider what they thought were the most powerful influences on children’s early learning and development in the local area. As is common, professionals highlighted those influences that are most ‘visible’ to them within their caseloads. We see a strong emphasis on parent mental health, substance misuse, domestic abuse and maltreatment (see Figure 2). This isn’t exactly surprising given their caseloads, but it doesn’t align with where the research evidence suggests we should necessarily place the most emphasis to improve outcomes. Of course, maltreatment, abuse and parental substance misuse can have a huge influence. But given that they affect only a small proportion of the population, it is not the whole story. 


Figure 2: A professional view

So what about the third view – that of parents and carers raising children in Cliftonville? The partnership has tight links with their community. They are known and trusted, so when asked, parents open up, and a different story emerges about what affects children’s development. Here we see a strong weighting to the bottom-right of the matrix (see Figure 3). Parents in Cliftonville speak about the physical and social environment in which they raise their children. They talk about the assets of the area but also their frustration about how unsafe these environments are. They are littered with rubbish, dog mess, glass and discarded needles. Their home environments are at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords that invest little in their upkeep. The result is often a choice between an unsafe external environment for their children to play and learn in, or an overcrowded home environment in a state of disrepair. 


Figure 3: A parent/community view

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Bringing together the three perspectives 

How do these competing – arguably equally important – perspectives come together? This is how it happened when the Margate partnership came together using the Toolkit, independently facilitated by the Dartington Service Design Lab.

The prioritised outcomes were children’s speech, communication and language development and social and emotional development in the first few years of life: each considered as foundational to closing the subsequent attainment gap. And in Margate what unified the perspectives of research, professionals and parents/communities, was the central importance of play. The partnership was committed to working with the community to make Cliftonville an amazing place for children to grow up, full of opportunities and encouragement to play in and out of the home. This involves not only providing services and supports, but also working to influence the local environment as well as community and professional norms, mindsets and interactions. So why play? 

  • The research evidence is super-strong on the value and importance of play: verbal interactions and stimulation of children in the very early years are vital for exactly those prioritised outcomes.  It is clustered with other critical influences like attachment and parent engagement in learning.  

  • Play also spoke to parents and communities. What they want is for their children growing up in Cliftonville to have fun, happy childhoods, and they were frustrated by limited opportunities for them to do so. This is something they could work with others to address. 

  •  It also galvanised professionals: they could see an important role for them and their associated services and supports to help equip parents to support their children’s play, and play with them. Professionals saw opportunities to collaboratively tackle some of the very pressing practical barriers that limited parents’ ‘bandwidth’ to play and interact with their children, including stress and poor mental health, and financial hardship. Redesigning some of the services around them and these needs could reduce some pressure, so parents could just ‘be’ and play with their kids for a while. 


The hard work is taking place right now to operationalise this and create the system infrastructures conditions, and services needed. But the shared vision and priority they’ve set is one that goes beyond “all children have a great start in life”, to one which can practically drive spending, delivery, and monitoring decisions. And with research behind it, and the right stakeholders feeling heard, we believe some of the conditions for success are met already. 

The Toolkit is freely available on a Creative Commons license – it’s currently helping other Communities come together to design their own priorities and strategies. In our next blog, our design team – Maria and India – will talk about the role design had in making this resource something people can use.  

[1] Including Kathy Sylva and Jane Barlow at Oxford University, Bianca Albers at the Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI) and Jonathan Sharples at the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).