A Better Start National Evaluation: Launching the first annual report and thematic report

A Better Start (ABS) is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set up by The National Lottery Community Fund.

A Better Start (ABS) is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set up by The National Lottery Community Fund. There are five ABS partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham, and Southend-on-Sea, each aiming to support families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. More information about ABS and the protocol for the national evaluation can be found here.

The national evaluation is working to address four objectives, presented below. In line with the programme and evaluation plan, the objectives are progressing at different paces. Insights will build over time, working together as a ‘mosaic of evidence’ to understand the contribution that ABS has made to children and families. We will synthesise findings from across the mosaic of evidence, drawing on principles of contribution analysis, to provide conclusions as to if, how, and why ABS contributed the intended change.

In this blog, we are presenting interim findings from two public evaluation reports:

Below are summaries of the types of evidence relating to the four evaluation objectives presented in the reports and some headline findings.

Objective 1: identify the contribution made by the ABS programme to the life chances of children who have received ABS interventions

  • Interim findings presented in the annual report are around establishing an understanding of the structure and design of ABS partnerships and working through the practicalities of the outcome element of the evaluation.
  • Using publicly available data, we have identified non-ABS wards that are similar enough to ABS wards to use as a comparison group. The main analysis for this objective will take place in 2024.
  • ‘Activity Mapping’ spreadsheets completed by each partnership in 2022 have shown the priority outcomes that active ABS services have been working to address are: communication, school readiness, perinatal mental health, breastfeeding initiation, and breastfeeding at 6-8 weeks. These, among others outcomes in the ABS Common Outcomes Framework 1  will be evaluated through Objective 1.

Objective 2: identify the factors that contribute to improving diet and nutrition, social and emotional skills and language and communication skills through the suite of interventions, both targeted and universal, selected by ABS partnerships.

  • This objective explores how the ABS partnerships are trying to change children and families’ lives for the better, and what supports and hinders ABS partnerships when doing so.
  • Key shared themes of what worked well in achieving child-level outcomes include: building relationships and trust with families to encourage engagement; leveraging opportunities for peer-to-peer support; and adapting services and recruitment strategies to improve accessibility and increase engagement. Challenges and what worked less well are also presented in the report.
  • Both reports include these themes specifically in the context of the ABS programme and partnership areas.

Objective 3: evidence, through collective journey mapping, the experiences of families from diverse backgrounds through ABS systems

  • Over time, the qualitative evidence about families’ lived experience with ABS will examine: how ABS activities and interventions concerned with early childhood development outcomes can be embedded and sustained in family lives and practices; the implications for families of ABS systems change; and families’ contribution to systems change associated with involvement in ABS.
  • Findings thus far have shone a light on the lives of families accessing services and the role of ABS in family life. Patterns in the data suggest that ABS partnerships are reaching families complex and intersecting needs. An aspect of ABS that parents/carers particularly value is that provision aligns with their perceived priorities and perceived needs for their children and their families.
  • Alongside positive experiences with ABS, the findings also illuminate some challenges and barriers to engaging with ABS services.

Objective 4: evidence the contribution the ABS programme has made to reducing costs to the public purse relating to primary school aged children

  • The main analysis on ABS cost-effectiveness will happen later in the evaluation when objective 1 reports on outcomes and objective 2 shares findings on systems change.
  • Interim findings in the annual report show how ABS funds have been allocated across the programme in the partnership areas up to the 31st March 2022. Findings from the annual mapping activity are also presented showing how partnerships have allocated funding to achieve specific ABS outcomes.

The evaluation findings can support audiences in the following ways:

  • For ABS partnerships, the interim findings can help inform the ongoing going delivery of the programme.
  • For practitioners, service commissioners, and policy makers in the Early Years sector, the findings provide information about the outcomes of ABS programmes and how the ways of working across ABS influence them.
  • For parents and carers, findings demonstrate the difference that ABS programmes make to the lives of families with young children, and how their voice and input is impacting the delivery of the programme and reaching into other parts of the Early Years sector.

For those with an interest in the mechanics of large-scale, complex evaluation work, the annual report illuminates the evaluation methods used, challenges encountered in data collection and ways of mitigating challenges.

NatCen is hosting a webinar where we discuss the findings to date as well as next steps on the 6th of June from 10-11am. Register for the event here. At this webinar, you will have an opportunity to hear more about the findings and ask questions to the evaluation team.

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  1. The A Better Start Common Outcomes Framework was agreed between The Fund and ABS Partnerships and published in 2017. The framework makes use of routinely collected administrative data to collate information on key child development indicators and outcomes.