The Centre for Early Child Development (CECD) is the engine room of the Blackpool Better Start Partnership. The CECD works with academic institutions from around the world and shares learning and knowledge with the Blackpool workforce [1].

The CECD is recognised as a centre of excellence in early childhood development. A Better Start in Blackpool aims to improve the life chances of babies and very young children by increasing the use of preventative approaches in pregnancy and the first three years of life.

The Better Start Partnership in Blackpool has been awarded £45m over a 10-year period by the National Lottery Community Fund. The Partnership is led by the NSPCC and is made up of the CECD, Blackpool Council, NHS, police, and the community.

The funding was granted to tackle:

  • Poor diet and nutrition
  • Poor speech and language skills
  • Poor social and emotional prospects

The Better Start Cornerstones are:

  • Public Health – Change for a population
  • Evidence Based Intervention – Change for those with additional needs
  • Reframing & System Transformation – Building shared understanding and shared action
  • Centre for Early Child Development – Building and sharing learning

Blackpool Context

Blackpool is not an easy place to raise a family. Data from The Better Start Partnership from 2020 revealed that Blackpool is higher than the national average on:

  • Rates of violent crime, including sexual violence
  • Levels of adult obesity
  • Rates of drug and alcohol misuse
  • Low life expectancy
  • Adult suicide rates
  • Rates of 10-24 admitted to hospital after self-harming

Additionally, pregnant women in the Blackpool area display high levels of smoking during pregnancy, low breastfeeding initiation and a high under-18 conception rate.

There are significantly more children in care in Blackpool than the national average. As well as this, there are high rates of reception age children classified as overweight, low levels of children achieving a Good Level of Development at the end of reception, high levels of children with decaying teeth and high rates of children in low-income families.

The Science of Early Childhood Development

The Better Start Partnership is working to mitigate the challenges children are facing in Blackpool through the Science of Early Childhood Development.

They know that success in later life is not purely down to genes, but also down to the opportunities and environment for development that you experience in your early years.

Giving children the best start in life leads to; the reduction of risky and antisocial behaviour, improved physical and mental health, a skilled workforce, and ultimately the creation of a compassionate society through a well-equipped future generation.

This has significant consequences for policy and practice. In Blackpool, breaking the generational cycle of poor outcomes underpins all the work of the CEDC.

What do Communities want?

During the bid writing process for funding in Blackpool, members of the community stated that they wanted:

“To feel proud of Blackpool”

“To do more for themselves”

“For services to be more accessible”

“For dads to have a higher profile”

“To keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t”

“To be involved in the planning of services”

With the Blackpool Better Star Partnership, the CEDC think that they can:

  • Reduce Critical Pressures on drugs and alcohol, mental ill-health, domestic abuse, and social isolation
  • Build Parental Capabilities through improving parenting knowledge and skills, parent-child relationships, self-efficacy, and social cohesion

These efforts are underpinned by policy and intervention on housing, jobs, poverty, transport, and outdoor spaces.

A Place-Based Approach

The CEDC generate and design programmes to meet their aims for improving children’s outcomes in Blackpool. They frame the communications in these projects in a way that resonates with the community.

Global partnerships with academic institutions such as Harvard, Melbourne and Oxford are making Blackpool an exciting place for the development of scientific early childhood development strategies.

The place-based approach includes:

  • A public health approach
  • Evidence-based programmes
  • Workforce development
  • Evidence and impact

Projects

Parks and Volunteering: A place-based approach and a public health approach go hand in hand. The CEDC has decided to utilise parks and green spaces as sites for accessing children and their families and to improve public health.

£1.8m was invested in the development of parks and open spaces. This aimed to build a sense of ownership in the community, reduce anti-social behaviour and create opportunities for parent-child play.

Campaigns: The way that messages are shared locally is thought about carefully. They have tested out different ways of sharing public health messages on topics such as the importance of breastfeeding and avoiding alcohol during pregnancy.

The Be Your Baby’s Hero’ campaign was explicitly designed for communities to understand. It was framed in the context of positivity and social responsibility without blame and shame.

Health Visiting: The health visiting service in Blackpool has been redesigned. The service is now enhanced after a commissioned survey identified what the health visiting service should look like in Blackpool

This resulted in several changes, including the increasing mandatory visits from 5 to 8, a multi-agency assessment at 3 and a half years old, and a changed dialogue between parents and health visitors.

Dads Work: After the community highlighted the importance of dads, the Blackpool-wide Dad’s Strategy was developed to ensure the inclusion of male caregivers in local services.

The strategy was co-designed by local fathers. A Facebook Live runs monthly for dads to access peer support, volunteering opportunities and to have a say in designing the systems relating to parenthood.

Community Connectors: To ensure the success of projects, the right people need to be embedded within the community to promote and deliver them.

Community connectors have a crucial role in ensuring that families have positive experiences with services. They are trained in a range of public health messages and are there to offer non-judgmental support to the community.

Systems Change

The Better Start Partnership aims to bring about lasting change by altering underlying structures which make the system operate in a particular way.

The projects that the CEDC and the Partnership have introduced are doing this incrementally by challenging the usual way of working and commissioning in the community. There is an emphasis on not losing sight of why systems change is important. Changing the underlying systems is part of the ten-year funding journey and beyond.

Summary

This joined-up approach has been successful at embedding projects in the community and improving outcomes.

Ensuring the sustainability of the programme – beyond 10 years is an ongoing commitment of the CEDC, to continue their work improving early childhood development in the city. Partnerships with international academic institutions and members of the community improve learning and generate evidence. This maintains local relevance as well as national and international significance.

[1] Law, Clare. 2021. Director of the Centre for Early Child Development, CEDC

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Children growing up in Blackpool have historically faced poor outcomes. The Blackpool Better Start Partnership, which includes the Centre for Early Child Development, strives to give local children the best start in life. This article outlines the projects commissioned by the Partnership.

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