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Digital solutions for family hubs and start for life: Learnings from Barnsley

As part of the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme, local authorities are shaping enhanced services delivered through transformed hubs to ensure all families can access the support they need and improve health and education outcomes.

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As part of the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme, local authorities are shaping enhanced services delivered through transformed hubs to ensure all families can access the support they need and improve health and education outcomes. At the Autumn 2021 Budget, the government committed to invest £301.75 million to transform services, achieve integration at a systems level, and improve the universal Start for Life offer in 75 local authorities across England. 

As one of the 75 local authorities that received Family Hubs and Start for Life funding, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council sought to enhance its offer for local families and embarked on a journey to integrate innovative digital solutions into the service delivery model. One intervention they commissioned as part of their Family Hubs programme was EasyPeasy, an integrated digital solution for the early years designed to enhance early years development from birth to age 5, improve the home learning environment, and close the gap in school readiness. EasyPeasy is evidence-based and included in the Early Intervention Foundation Guidebook. 

Sam Cunningham, Family Hubs Review Manager at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, shares how the council approached the design and delivery of their Family Hubs programme, the key challenges and opportunities faced, and the impact of the EasyPeasy offer in their local families and communities.

The challenges faced by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council

Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council supports local families and children via six Family Hub centres and a Virtual Family Hub; delivering joined-up early help services for children from pre-birth up to 19 years or 25 years if the young person has a disability. They bring together practitioners from a range of universal, targeted and specialist services in each local area, including schools, police, social care, private and voluntary sector, and some adult services.

The council identified challenges in supporting local families effectively post-COVID, before undertaking their Family Hubs transformation. One challenge was ensuring the accessibility and availability of support resources for parents and caregivers, with in-person support not reaching as many families with the information and services they needed as before the pandemic. The team also wanted to increase engagement with local parents, specifically those in hard-to-reach communities and from disadvantaged backgrounds, in activities and services promoting early childhood development and improving the home learning environment. 

With a new funding stream as a Family Hub local authority, Samantha and the wider Children’s Services Team set about to review and enhance the early years provision in Barnsley. 

The solution implemented: EasyPeasy 

In response to these challenges, and seeking a partner to deliver a localised, integrated, digital service for parents and practitioners of babies and children from birth to five, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council turned to EasyPeasy and commissioned their digital solution in June 2023. 

My role was developed to come in and support the transformation of the Family Hubs framework and work with partners and stakeholders to make that happen within the time period for the funding. One of those pieces of work was the home learning environment and early language which is where we commissioned EasyPeasy because it met the framework for the HLE and what we've got to achieve within each strand for the minimum set of expectations and go further expectations. We're aspiring to achieve and exceed all of those! 

Sam Cunningham, Family Hubs Review Manager at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council 

EasyPeasy offered families and early years teams in Barnsley a digital platform that provided accessible, engaging, and evidence-based support to inspire simple, positive interactions at home or in settings, improve family dynamics, and support child development. As part of this offer, premium access to the app was made free for their entire community and promoted via their Family Hubs centres and resources, and early years teams and settings. Practitioners in Barnsley also received online training, providing teams with additional guidance, best practices, and advice to achieve home learning environment outcomes and drive impact for children and families.

Barnsley’s dedicated EasyPeasy data dashboard allowed them to easily track and monitor outreach and impact, with real-time data on take-up amongst children and families, engagement with content, geographic breakdown, and numbers of reach-to-families in low-income households. Barnsley were also able to uncover local support needs and build understanding and awareness of local services through direct feedback and satisfaction from parents and families.

The key thing for us was the online application and the fact that it was a digital offer. There's a massive recognition that families won't always have the time or ability to access the information they need in person or during office hours, so the accessibility of the app was key for us and it ticked off the need for self-use for families and not developing a dependence on an in-person service or service hours.

Sam Cunningham, Family Hubs Review Manager at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council 

The impact of the programme amongst children and families in Barnsley

Since implementing EasyPeasy, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council have noted positive outcomes amongst local families and the instrumental insights from monitoring progress via real-time data to make informed decisions. The anecdotal feedback from families has been overwhelmingly positive, indicating that EasyPeasy has become a valuable resource in their parenting journey. Parents in Barnsley have also expressed appreciation for the app's accessibility, ease of use, and relevance to their specific needs. 

Impact in numbers:

  • 12 per cent of all children aged 0-5 living in Barnsley reached within nine months
  • 66 per cent of children reached are from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • 88 per cent of parents say they know more about what they can do to help their child develop their speech, language, and communication skills
  • 94 per cent of parents say that since using the EasyPeasy app, they feel they are making a difference in their child’s behaviour
  • 97 per cent of parents say they will continue to use EasyPeasy.

The app was super simple to us and made it easy for me to incorporate new activities into our daily routine. 

 EasyPeasy Parent, Barnsley

Love, love, love the fabulous ideas and how much fun we had.

EasyPeasy Parent, Barnsley

Lessons learned by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and recommendations to other local authorities

Through their experience with EasyPeasy, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council emphasise the importance of assigning ownership of such initiatives to operational managers and practitioners who can champion and drive engagement effectively amongst local communities. 

I’d definitely recommend giving an operational manager within the local authority the autonomy to manage the rollout. Let someone take pride in it because then you see a massive difference in uptake amongst families. I think there can be some stigma sometimes when it comes to digital applications, but the fact that this is an application for adults and for parents and carers, and not for children to sit and look at, is the key message to get across to families. And just and just have fun with it as well so wherever you’re speaking to parents or having an event that can be interactive, have a table out with the app open to show parents have fun with it!

 Sam Cunningham, Family Hubs Review Manager at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council 

Additionally, Sam notes that maintaining access to their real-time dashboard data has been instrumental in monitoring progress and making informed decisions, and so recommends other local authorities spend enough time analysing and understanding their data to be able to make informed decisions about their provision and prioritise sustainability and long-term planning when integrating digital solutions into service delivery models.

Outlook for the future of the Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council Family Hubs programme

Looking ahead, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council is committed to sustaining and further enhancing its Family Hubs programme, including the integration of EasyPeasy. They are actively exploring avenues for long-term funding and scalability to ensure the continuity of their initiatives beyond the current Family Hubs funding cycle. With a focus on outcome measurement, leveraging innovative digital solutions, understanding the needs of their local communities, impact assessment, and collaboration with partners, they are committed to making a positive, long-term difference in the lives of families within Barnsley.

Sam Cunningham: Family Hubs Review Manager at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council