Emerging practice details


C4EO theme: Early Years

Developing an Early Years Strategy, Cumbria

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Early Years
  • General resources

Priorities this local practice example relates to:

    Basic details

    Organisation submitting example

    Cumbria County Council

    Local authority/local area:



    The context and rationale

    Background details to your example

    Development of an Early Years Strategy, where all Early Years Providers and professional partners that support the development of early years’ services work together to improve the life chances of all children from pre-birth to five years.

    The aim was to develop an Early Years (EY) Strategy that was informed, shaped and owned by all partners in the Early Years Sector.

    A wide range of colleagues from education, health, social care, children’s centres, private, voluntary and independent settings, childminders and voluntary groups, and everybody working with the youngest children in Cumbria, were brought together in order to explore how they could more effectively work together to raise outcomes for children by the age of 5 years.

    The challenge was to change a culture of ‘silo working’ to ‘partnership working’ within the early years.

    The strategy for improving the early years was developed using the ‘turning the curve’ methodology.

    The percentage of children aged five achieving a good level of learning at the end of Foundation Stage as measured by the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) profile has been exceptionally low in Cumbria from 2008 to 2011. In 2011, Cumbria was one of the lowest performing Local Authorities in the country. Compared to statistical neighbours, the local authority (LA) was performing at an exceptionally low level, particularly for outcomes in communication, language and literacy. The gap between girls and boys was wider than that nationally and growing. However, the gap between the lowest 20% of children and the median was narrower than that nationally up to 2010. In 2011, the gap widened to be similar to the national gap.

    The quality of the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector was also a concern. LA statistics showed that a high percentage of PVI nurseries were in high intervention categories requiring a significant amount of improvement. The percentage of nurseries graded good or better by Ofsted was slightly lower than the national average. Only one nursery was graded inadequate. Data collected from the PVI sector for children’s attainment at age 4 years showed a high percentage of children at levels below age related expectations, particularly in communication, language and literacy.

    It was clear from data analysis that there were issues relating to communication, language and literacy development in the youngest children which meant that many children were starting Reception classes at significantly low levels.

    The quality of assessment in the PVI and maintained sector was also considered and to ensure that assessments were accurate and in line with national exemplification. A full moderation of all maintained infant and primary schools was therefore undertaken.

    Knowledge Base
    As part of the self-evaluation processes, a variety of research papers and looking at how other LAs have brought about rapid improvement in the early years sector, particularly in terms of improving outcomes were considered.

    Using outcomes from research into communication and language from University of West England (UWE), Bristol: ‘Early Communication Environment and Language Development’, it was clear that a child’s language development and levels of vocabulary by the age of 2 are a strong determining factor of achievement later in life, but particularly in determining school readiness.

    • To improve outcomes for all children by the age of 5 years so that the percentage of 5 year olds attaining a good level of learning is at least in line with national figures
    • To improve the quality of all Early Years provision across Cumbria so that a smaller proportion of settings require intensive support and the proportion of settings graded good or better by Ofsted are at least in line with that nationally.
    • To bring all professionals working in Early Years together with a common purpose, to identify the key issues for improvement in Cumbria and implement appropriate work streams to achieve those aims.
    • To change the way the Early Years team works to ensure smarter working brings about significant change and improvement in the Early Years sector.


    The practice

    Further details about the practice

    Initial Stage
    A small core group of people was identified. This group met in September 2011 to discuss the issues raised by the data and other intelligence gathered from the people involved. The initial group consisted of Early Years Team Managers, Planning and Commissioning Officers, Senior Adviser Early Years, Senior Manager Learning Improvement Service, Senior Manager Inclusion, a Nursery Headteacher, a Primary Headteacher, a PVI Nursery Manager and a Speech and Language Therapist.
    The following objectives were identified from this initial meeting:
    • Removal of the gap between maintained and private providers of early years’ services.
    • Build systemic capacity.
    • Further develop the role of the Children’s Centres in improving outcomes for children.
    • Review of the Early Years Contract for Free Entitlement.
    • Parental Engagement.
    • Inclusion.
    • Organisation review.
    • Communication.
    The group also identified a number of other professionals who needed to be involved: social care, health, workforce development and children’s centres.
    The findings were discussed with the Assistant Director for Schools and Learning. As a result of the meeting it was agreed that in proceeding with the strategy:
    • A specific methodology would be used: Turning the Curve.
    • An external Consultant experienced in change management would be employed.
    • Work would be carried out with C4EO.

    2nd Stage
    An external consultant was engaged to work with us and after initial meetings to agree the scope of the work an introductory day was held. A group of professionals including: Assistant Director (Schools and Learning), Senior Manager (Inclusive Learning), Workforce Development Manager, Senior Manager (Districts, social care), Planning and Commissioning Officers (0-5), Early Years Team Managers, General Adviser (Learning Improvement Service) and Early Years Senior Adviser (All Children’s Services); 2 Nursery Headteachers, 1 Primary Headteacher, 1 PVI owner/Manager and the C4EO consultant came together to work on the issues surrounding low outcomes for children and agree a way forward.

    The stated aims of the day were to:
    • Challenge ourselves to develop a shared, realistic, understanding of the present level of children’s development and assessment in Cumbria;
    • Enjoy agreeing together what a higher value future could mean for early years children in Cumbria;
    • Be challenged to consider how we must act differently to deliver high value for children.
    The outcomes of the day to:
    • Develop a shared vision and outcomes focussed strategy between all partners.
    • Ensure strategic leads for Education, Social Care and Health have all signed up to the strategy.
    • Share information – improve communication.
    • Ensure the Children’s Workforce Development and Early Years teams work together to develop learning/skills priorities for all settings.
    • Raise the profile of Early Years with all stakeholders.

    Moving forward to:
    • Have a clear commitment for a higher value future for all children in Cumbria
    • Ensure clarity of the roles and responsibilities of the core group – are they the right people and if not, who else needs to be involved?
    • Turn talk into action: define the processes needed to do this.

    3rd Stage
    An evaluation of Day 1 took place, and although some thought-provoking issues were identified, it had not moved us to a stage where a plan for improvement could be produced.
    It was also noted that health services had not been fully engaged with the initial strategy work. Actions were taken to secure this.

    A half day session was planned with the whole Early Years’ Team: this used the data to determine what the most pressing issues were and to look at research in those priority areas. The session was very productive and area action plans started to emerge. These plans were shared with the larger group and a decision taken to invite a wider range of professionals to a full day workshop to be led by the C4EO consultant.

    4th Stage
    A full range of professionals including Children’s Services, Health, Headteachers from Nursery, Infant and Primary Schools in the maintained sector, owner/managers from PVI nurseries, Childminders and Children’s Centre Managers attended the workshop.
    The group was split into 4 groups: 3 area groups based on the 3 large Districts of Cumbria (Allerdale and Copeland, Carlisle and Eden and Barrow and South Lakeland) and a core group consisting of senior managers within Children’s Services and Health. At this stage there was no-one representing Social Care.
    The outcome of the day was to produce:
    • A vision, principles and priority statement
    • An overarching delivery plan
    • 3 District plans with specific priorities and delivery plans for each area.

    5th Stage
    Delivery of the Strategy on an area delivery basis.
    The following outcomes have been achieved:

    • All partners in the groups are working together to improve outcomes for children in Cumbria.
    • Roles and responsibilities are understood.
    • There is greater alignment between workstreams in Children’s Services, Health Services and the private and voluntary sector.


    Achievements so far

    Further details on your achievements

    Performance Measures
    National indicators of the ‘good level of learning (78+ scale points and 6+ scale points in all PSED and CLL scales) and narrowing the gap were used as the main performance measures as it was in these outcomes that the most improvement was needed.

    Significant improvements have been made but it is recognised that there is still some way to go in order to sustain this level of improvement and ensure that all children in Cumbria have high achievements, and that our vision is fulfilled that ‘Cumbria is a good place to grow up in’.


    graph a

    graph b

    graph c

    graph d

    graph e

    graph f

    Difference for Children and Families
    • An increased percentage of children are entering Key Stage 1 at expected levels and therefore better able to access the national curriculum, particularly in reading, writing and mathematics.
    • The Early Years Strategy is shared and owned by all Early Years Providers and has brought a range of professionals together to plan services for children aged 0 to 5 years in a more integrated way, taking into consideration the specific needs of the children within each District.
    • All Early Years Providers are being encouraged to work together in a more integrated way and to listen to the voice of children and their families.
    • Children and family voice is important - so the next steps are to ensure children and families are given the opportunity to say what is important to them and how best meet their needs can be met.
    • A method of collecting evidence from families needs to be devised to ensure that services are meeting their needs.



    Other details

    Sustaining the practice
    • Focus on communication and language for the youngest children (0-3) through the Early Language Development Programme (working with EY Advisers, PVI settings, Children’s Centres and Speech and Language Therapists, alongside children and families).
    • Focus on Pre-School and Reception aged children to ensure that the EYFS is fully implemented and embedded into every PVI setting and school with secure assessment procedures (Profile moderation).
    • Delivery of the strategy through the three Districts of Cumbria working closely with a range of professional partners as well as giving children and families a voice regarding the services provided.

    Costs and benefits
    • Working closely with partners to develop sustainability through the communities in which work is taking place - ultimately to develop setting to setting and school to setting support systems, led by the best system leaders.
    • An intention to work closely with the National College for School Leadership (system leaders’ development and EY Strategic Leads programme) to develop system leadership.
    • Continuing to make good use of C4EO tools and programmes.
    • Maintaining, where possible, a strong EY team of Advisors.

    Learning from the experience
    • Being focused: this has been essential throughout in bringing together a number of partners.
    • Resilience: things do not always go to plan so resilience and tenacity were important elements of the project.
    • Vision: this was important from the outset – communicating to everyone what was needed to achieve our goals and why it was important.
    • No compromise: children are too important to compromise over.

    There were a number of challenges along the way related to time and commitment. However, once the vision was secure and people were able to ‘buy into’ the vision the challenges were overcome. Within the current economic climate a great deal has been achieved at little cost.

    When replicating the process the following aspects are important:
    • Aims and outcomes: be very clear about the intended outcomes from the project. In the case of this project, raising achievement for all children by the age of 5 years. Improvement needed to be sustained and to involve embedding good practice in teaching, learning and assessment for all children aged 0 to 5 years. It was essential that the change was brought about through partnership working.
    • Partnership working: drawing together a number of partners all working in the same area is beneficial and brings about a more effective service for children and families as well as providers. Use of data: understanding the data and the questions it raises about practice and ways of moving things forward is an important part of the process. Evaluation: constant evaluation of the improvement journey is an essential component of the project and brings change and further development as appropriate.
    • Sustainability: to ensure that the practice is sustainable into the future a way of working has been developed which does not require additional financial resources other than the existing staffing structures which are in place.

    Core leadership behaviours
    The following eight core behaviours have been identified as part of successful elements of leadership (see National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services/C4EO (2011). Resourceful leadership: how directors of children’s services improve outcomes for children. Full report. Nottingham: NCSL and apply to this example.

    i. openness to possibilities
    Throughout the project it was essential to be open minded, to think outside the box and to be open to ‘doing things differently’. Many possibilities presented themselves during the project, including working in different teams across services.

    ii. the ability to collaborate
    Collaboration across services, including with the voluntary sector was very important in order to have a holistic approach to improving outcomes for children and making it easier for families to access services.

    iii. demonstrating a belief in team and people
    Prior to the establishing of the EY strategy, people tended to work in ‘silos’ not always aware of what other people were doing. This project has had a focus on team working and people first – more importantly children first.

    iv. personal resilience and tenacity
    The project has had its challenges. It has been necessary to draw on personal reserves, particularly in terms of problem-solving and not letting go of principles, personal resilience and tenacity.

    v. the ability to create and sustain commitment across a system
    This was probably one of the most vital components of the project: e working hard to obtain commitment from a number of partners and then to sustain that commitment over time. This has been one of the most successful elements in that not only has commitment being secured but there is substantial evidence through the now embedded district clusters of it being sustained and that it will be so into the future.

    vi. focusing on results
    This project had a strong focus on results. The main focus was on outcomes for children aged 5 years as evidenced by the percentage of children reaching a good level of learning. It has also focused on outcomes for younger children – at ages 2 and 4 which will become increasingly important as the strategy is fully embedded.

    vii. the ability to simplify
    To make the strategy accessible to a range of people it has had to be kept simple. Complex ideas and processes have been simplified and made clear so that everyone involved can benefit. This has been most apparent when simplifying the language use in different disciplines, for example clarifying educational, social care or health ‘jargon’ so that everyone understands what is needed.

    viii. the ability to learn continuously
    A tremendous amount of learning has taken place during this project. Learning from research has been vital as well as learning from mistakes. Self-evaluation has taken place continuously, identifying learning from this and sharing it with all partners.

    C4EO Golden Threads
    The following Golden Threads apply to this example.

    You can do it – promoting resilience
    From the very beginning, developing and promoting resilience has been key feature. Changing the culture to one of ‘can do’, as ‘the curve’ has been turned to bring about the necessary improvements.

    Know your communities
    This is important to our practice as work to support young children and their families is reliant on knowing each community and what is needed to improve outcomes for children in those communities.

    Together with children, parents and families – involve service users
    Our work is centered on children, parents and families in partnership with all relevant partners to bring them the best possible service which addresses their needs. Through the footprint clusters service users are being involved in the work.

    It takes a community to raise a child – see the bigger picture
    Holding the baton
    It is important that each person is able to ‘hold the baton’ when appropriate and lead others in making a difference.

    Culture not structure – learning together
    We have tried to develop a culture of working and learning together and from each other rather than working through professional structures. We want to have a culture of ‘can do for children’.

    Prove it – making change happen
    This has been central to our work as we’ve changed practice in leading change and ensuring that outcomes for children improve – and continue to improve. We have built in a quality assurance programme which looks at the impact of each footprint programme to ensure that change is making a difference to young children.

    Back to resources