As part of the discovery phase of our a fairer start mission to Wales, we wanted to learn more about the potential contributions Nesta can make in the early years through our technical innovation practices. These practices include developing ideas about what drives our behavior, using approaches based on human-centered design, data science and analytics, and robust evaluation to generate insightful evidence.
This has included short-term project opportunities for some of our practitioners to work alongside early years partners in Wales.
In South Wales, we have worked with Save the Children on a project which aims to support the home learning environment for young children growing up facing the challenges of poverty. We know that a home environment that promotes learning and play plays an important role in children’s development. Research has shown that what parents do is more important than level of education or social background when it comes to child outcomes. However, we also know that poverty impacts access to resources and opportunities and can create high stress levels for children and parents.
Save the Children has a long-established model of supporting families with emergency grants. One program in particular has evolved to provide families with both financial assistance and age-appropriate learning and play resources. Save the Children wanted to explore whether the reported positive benefits of this one-time intervention (grant plus resources) could be scaled up further with additional activities and family support to achieve greater impact.
The plan was for Save the Children to work with a group of local frontline partners to leverage the resources and the grant. This would involve co-creating additional support with families, such as new groups for parents. The project will work with 60 families, as well as local community partners including home visiting volunteers, support for refugees and asylum seekers, a community development organization and parenting support services.
Nesta and Save the Children have set up a learning partnership to explore the types of learning and evaluation approaches that might be suitable for this project. Nesta acted as a “critical friend” in the design phase from a technical perspective, and Save the Children brought challenge and vision based on its extensive experience working with families. We agreed that the outcome would be a learning toolkit, including evaluation tools that could be used by Save the Children and their local partners to support the evaluation of new co-created interventions.
We wanted to learn about the rich experience of Save the Children and its partners in working directly with the families who are at the heart of our mission for a fairer start. The project also presented some very interesting questions relating to the home learning environment (e.g. how can we build on material support to families to support longer-term behavior change?), as well as well as technical challenges (how to create enough coherence to allow evaluation when a project works with different delivery partners and different co-created interventions).
We agreed together that we wanted to focus on the relationship between stress and parents’ ability to support their children’s learning and development. We also reflected on the needs and interests of different stakeholders and agreed that our priority was to find ways to share the voices and experiences of families through the assessment tools we developed.
We worked together to develop a framework (logic model) to help us track each part of the different interventions we were exploring – the grant, learning and play resources, and new interventions that partners will develop. We have identified some of the benefits that families might experience at different points in the project. The different partners would design activities based on their services and the families they work with, so this framework brought clarity, consistency and a shared approach across the project.
We have developed pre- and post-intervention surveys that can be easily used in the field to help understand the perceived changes that the combined interventions have made to family stress, the home learning environment (both learning activities and social routines) and parent engagement with and perceptions of partner services. We have also developed a flexible qualitative interview guide to help the assessment team better understand parents’ experiences and preferences.
The surveys relied on existing scales that measure stress and the home learning environment, but the team raised questions about some of the original scales. They highlighted some of the assumptions they contain and their relevance to our context, for example that parents are stressed because they are parents rather than because of poverty. We discussed the challenges of asking frontline practitioners to use the language of the original scales directly with families, and the risks of transferring assumptions to families. We agreed that the measures needed to be tailored to our evaluation context.
Rachel Wrathall, Senior Partnership and Practice Manager for Save the Children in Wales, said: “After years of working with families in poverty, we knew instinctively that the basic needs of children and families had to be taken care of. taken into account before broader support can be put in place. With this project, we set out to formally evaluate the impact of a material grant plus a sustained home-learning intervention, collecting evidence of ways in which vulnerable families can be better supported. We were grateful for the advice and guidance of Nesta who embraced our vision and encouraged open discussion about formal learning opportunities. We look forward to delivering the research and sharing the results with our partners over the coming months. »