Children’s Communities are an approach to tackling child poverty developed by Save the Children and a number of academic and community partners across the UK. Inspired by Harlem Children’s Zone and based on principles of Collective Impact, Children’s Communities are an alliance of local citizens, professionals and wider partners who seek to improve the life chances of children growing up in their areas, from cradle to career.
Each Children’s Community is locally driven, hosted by key local sponsor organisations and supported by Save the Children through a combination of expertise, funding and evaluation.
Children’s Communities were developed in recognition of three key realities:
1. Children’s life chances are shaped by a very wide range of interacting factors: immediate family relationships, their home environment, local services, social networks and wider circumstances. We need to develop an approach that recognises the importance of working with this system as a whole, and does so in a strategic, long-term and asset-based way.
2. Different places have different assets, face different challenges and experience different dynamics and opportunities, even where levels of economic disadvantage are similar. We need to work in a way that recognises and builds on the unique strengths and challenges of each area, and to invest in local approaches for transforming children’s futures.
3. The huge amount of energy, goodwill and resource poured into tackling the effects of child poverty can lead to duplication and waste, particularly where there is not an overarching strategy or urgency around what success looks like. We need to support people working to improve children’s lives by helping to align efforts and energies at a local level.
Children’s Community share the following features:
A neighbourhood: Children’s Communities are located in disadvantaged places with a history of partnership working for children and a collective commitment to take this to the next level.
A shared vision: Local services develop and implement a coordinated plan for helping children thrive, based on a shared vision for children and a shared analysis of children’s needs.
Integrated and holistic: Children’s Communities support children in the round and across the different stages of childhood, helping them to transition between family, school and community.
Generational: Children’s Communities work over the long-term. They tackle presenting symptoms and underlying causes simultaneously.
Powered by local voices: Children’s Communities are locally led. They identify their strengths, harness the power of local networks and relationships, and support people to find their own solutions.
Nationally evaluated: The Children’s Community project is underpinned by a body of research and evidence, and is being nationally evaluated by Sheffield Hallam University.
There are three Children’s Communities supported by Save the Children, based in Hackney (London), Tameside (Greater Manchester) and Wallsend (North Tyneside). In addition to support from Save the Children, they are part of a three-year external evaluation being conducted by Sheffield Hallam University. We anticipate that learning from their development and the evaluation will inform the future development of Children’s Communities, and of our activity in the place-based systems change space.
Methodologies being used
Children’s Communities draw on a number of influences and seek to apply them in a meaningful way, although this is rarely neat and often a work in progress!
Asset-based community development: We seek to apply the core principles of asset-based community development, starting by understanding the assets in an individual, an organisation or an area. We are interested in asking a) what can the community do for itself; b) where can support organisations or the state play a connecting, facilitating role; and c) what does the state, or supporting organisations, need to deliver?
Co-design and co-production: We believe that for a process, organisation or service to be most effective, it requires a multitude of perspectives which play equally important roles in its development. This means going beyond engagement and consultation to inviting a range of stakeholders – citizens, service users, professionals, individuals with lived experience – to participate meaningfully in design and/or production.
‘Design for extreme individuals’: We recognise that whilst there are varying beliefs about how ‘fit for purpose’ a service or system might be, our tendency to design for ‘typical users’ is an approach people tend to take unintentionally, but which can have significant consequences. We seek to ensure that individuals at the margins of society play a central role in our activities, planning, strategy and design.
System mapping and systems thinking: We believe that the role of Children’s Communities is to ‘lead by stepping backward’ and that the first step to supporting place-based systems change is to understand the wider system and one’s place within it. We use system mapping and systems thinking as ways of exploring what this ‘system’ might be, where we sit within it and to raise our and others’ awareness of this wider system, how it operates and how this informs collective action.
Theory of change: We draw heavily on Theory of Change approaches as a way to helpfully order our thinking, pool wider intelligence and establish a shared understanding of our context, our vision for success and the steps we need to take to achieve this. We recognise the benefits and limitations of Theory of Change approaches for complex community initiatives, however, and are keen to explore additional or alternative approaches to understanding and measuring our impact.
Save the Children supports Children’s Communities in the following ways:
• By providing strategic support, information and advice.
• By funding and/or fundraising Children’s Communities teams or seedcorn activities.
• By managing the national evaluation of the programme delivered by Sheffield Hallam University.
• By facilitating learning and research activities to support Children’s Communities teams to share learning with each other and those across the wider sector.
This support enables Children’s Community teams to:
• Provide strategic leadership and support to the local systems in which they are operating.
• Engage with local stakeholders to inform, develop and implement Children’s Community plans and activities.
• Catalyse strategic and systemic activities and behaviours, through connecting, funding, supporting and/or evaluating these.
There are a number of very different types of tension which our work in Children’s Communities has highlighted. We are hoping to do more work to share these, our reflections on them, and to invite others to contribute in light of them, but in summary
- The practical and strategic challenges in a large organisation facilitating locally-based teams and adapting processes and systems to accommodate their needs.
- The competing asks on time, typical of start-up organisations, around investment in engagement and relationship-building, marketing and profile-raising, fundraising and future planning, and so on.
- The resource constraints of seeking to support and shift system behaviours through a three-person team (Executive Lead, Community Coordinator and Data & Impact Advisor): in effect the tension between ambition and capacity.
- The structural challenges inherent in taking ‘a systems approach in an organisational world’ where goodwill can achieve certain (and often significant) movement, but structural factors (such as funding, governance, organisational incentives and wider political shifts) limit propensity for change.
We have current publications accessible on the Children’s Communities Network website here, and will be continue to share these on the site