Identifying and providing early help to pre-school children and their families

Staffordshire County Council is developing effective ways to identify pre-school children sufficiently early and to engage their families with effective support, inspiration and practical help.

Design in the public sector

In 2015, Staffordshire County Council (SCC) applied to be part of LGA and Design Council’s Design in the Public Sector programme. The council was investigating the development of community-based solutions to support families with babies and pre-school-age children, where there are known lower-level risk factors but where earlier and less formalised intervention has the potential to have a significant longer-term impact.

The Challenge

Children under the age of five are over-represented in the Child Protection (CP) population in Staffordshire. While they make up 20-23 per cent of the population under 19 years of age, they represent between 40-45 per cent of children on CP plans at any one time. In the majority of families, the issues of concern arise from neglect and chronically poor parenting. The county is committed to finding a more effective way to identify vulnerable pre-school children sufficiently early and to engage their families with effective support, by way of practical help, expanded support networks and empowering parenting experiences.

Children’s centres and other early year’s programmes have met and sometimes exceeded local and national targets for reaching families with young children, including those regarded as the hardest to reach and/or the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, the trend of over-representation in the statutory system has been unaffected. The opportunity of achieving ‘the best start’ for all Staffordshire’s children in those years which have the greatest impact on their future life-chances remains elusive to all services for whom this is their brief, despite best efforts to achieve excellence and work in partnership.

Imaginative and confident co-production with families and communities themselves is the approach that the county is looking to shape an effective solution.

During 2014, Staffordshire Observatory undertook extensive research as part of SCC ‘Best Start’ transformation. This identified that less than a quarter of 0-5s in the 0-30 per cent most deprived LSOAs (lower-layer super output areas) engaged in universal and early intervention services at the Children Centres across Staffordshire. In Lichfield the engagement was lowest of the eight districts, at 13 per cent.

A decision to reshape Children Centre provision across Staffordshire was made in January 2015. This left Burntwood, a settlement of approximately 30,000, with no local children’s centre.

Born initially out of a campaign group, a group of local mothers were inspired to create a new organisation, Spark CIC, to take over the running of two children’s centres in the town, with the help and support of officers and elected Members, with cross-party support.

Engagement and action

The council team who undertook the Design in Public Sector workshops involved a director from Spark CIC as an integral member of the team.

During the opening two days of engagement with Design Council, all members of the challenge team had the chance to reflect on the challenges ahead. The design tools used enabled all members of the team to reflect on the challenge from each other’s perspective, and there were a number of iterations of the design challenge itself.

One of the earliest realisations was that the impact the council was trying to make was as much, if not more, on the parents of young children in Burntwood.

Success would take the shape of better parenting, regular engagement with other families in similar situations, facing similar challenges or, better still, having survived such challenges and imparting their learning through peer support. The theory that building relationships between families would enable more resilient families and communities was to be the focus of this action research programme.

This was specifically not about recreating the previous Children’s Centre offer through a community organisation.


Success would be a thriving, financially stable community organisation creating an offer that engaged ‘at risk’ families at an early stage in child development and maintained regular engagement through their most formative years though a blended offer which embraced all families.

The team were able to agree a broader definition of ‘at risk’ families than previously documented (living within 0-30% deprived LSOA’s); to include young parents, single parents and those with early signs of having Special Educational Needs. Following day two of the workshop, the group agreed a revised challenge: ‘Brighter beginnings for families through community support.’

This broader statement enabled both parties to agree new ways of working with benefits which were two-fold:

From the county council’s perspective, it acknowledged that the best environment for children to be engaged in would not just consist of children from deprived backgrounds. The tools and techniques used also helped the officers be clear how their investment would need to reflect a focus on ‘at risk’ families but also to accept there were many alternative and creative ways that Spark CIC could increase their revenue streams from alternative funding streams.

From Spark’s perspective, it helped their understanding of how Staffordshire could directly finance sustained engagement of those considered ‘at risk’ on a transactional basis, rather than through more traditional grants. The idea generation session, utilising participants from other councils on the programme, suggested a range of potential new revenue streams that had not been considered by the community interest company.

One of the most useful techniques that the team came across for the first time was around engagement with ‘super users’ at one end of the scale and those who were ‘disengaged’ at the other, rather than focusing on the average participant or recipient of activities and services. By undertaking surveys with the ‘ends’ of the normal distribution curve, much richer data was gathered by the team that could be used to design a more engaging offer for families.

It was agreed that the discussions with families would be carried out by Spark volunteers, rather than council professionals. The insight gained highlighted that the Children’s Centre free pass scheme that the council had developed to improve access by low-income families had actually created a barrier to engagement by those it most wanted to help, due to the stigma attached to having to present their card at the beginning of each session.

Spark CIC has since decided to introduce a membership card at their ‘Spark Centres’, which all members will have. They will also seek to maximise the benefits to all families through potential commercial discounts through local businesses. SCC has agreed to fund a data management system for Spark to enable them to maintain registers of all activities and to better understand their membership habits, something which was impossible using the current paper-based systems.

The other main product of the DiPS programme has been the creation of a process to financially incentivise Spark to engage ‘at risk’ families. The outputs from the data management system will become the backing sheets to support monthly invoices, whereby SCC reimburses Spark for the ‘lost’ revenue from families who would previously have been entitled to a free pass.

Using data from the first 1,100 families involved in Staffordshire’s Troubled Families programme (known locally as Building Resilient Families and Communities), thematic and geographic areas of risk have been identified. These have been agreed as the risk areas and Spark receives a £3 per-session incentive to engage with families who meet these criteria. This is done through a data exercise and does not require the family to identify themselves to other group members as being ‘at risk’.

Data from the summer term of 2016 was the first to be used in this way and has resulted in a payment of £1,092. This payment was welcomed by Spark and is a small investment in terms of county council expenditure. The important distinction here is that rather than being a grant from the local authority, the arrangement is now transactional and ensures that the county council is only paying the incentive to families who are most likely, based on evidence-led research, to be ‘at risk’. In numerical terms, the payment equates to support for 78 qualifying children, who attended 364 sessions over the 3 month period. This equates to approximately one third of children who attended sessions during the term. It is important to both parties that sessions consist of a good mix of families so that those seeking support can be supported by the community themselves on a peer-to-peer basis while at the sessions but also in friendship groups which develop and last beyond the Spark sessions.

Staffordshire County Council is also funding 2,000 leaflets which volunteers from Spark will deliver to all properties within the geographical target area. It is hoped, by both parties, that this will identify additional ‘hidden’ families who are ‘at risk’ and encourage them to participate in future activities.

Over the coming weeks, data from the Autumn term will be entered into the data management system by Spark volunteers which will lead to a further payment. It is hoped that, once Spark begins to reap the rewards of this system and the county council is happy that the prototype system is working, the data input will become more regular rather than a large exercise at the end of every term, and will lead to a more regular revenue stream for Spark and a more up to date data set.

Wayne Mortiboys, District Commissioning Lead at Staffordshire County Council, explained:

The beauty of the agreed solution is that out of those attending – through use of a membership card for all – those harder to engage families are unidentifiable to the other participants, thereby reducing stigmatisation and increasing their participation.  The tools and techniques learnt by both the council and Spark during the DiPS programme really helped both parties identify what was most important to them and to create a win-win solution.

This approach will be piloted through a prototype laminated paper membership card initially and engagement levels recorded and analysed over a six-month period. If this pilot shows that engagement levels with ‘at risk’ families has risen, a further investment is available from SCC to prototype a credit card-style electronic swipe card which will reduce the need to manually data punch registers.

If this is successful then it has the potential to be rolled out across Staffordshire for other community organisations to be financially rewarded and incentivized to create additional activities for families ‘at risk’ which demonstrate their engagement. This outcome would enable SCC to demonstrate increases in reach data with families across a wider area and increase sustainable funding streams for community organisations delivering shared SCC outcomes.

Staffordshire logic model


If you would like more details or to discuss this project please contact:
Wayne Mortiboys
District commissioning lead
Staffordshire County Council
Mobile: 07855 336997