The Impact Incubator shares learnings from an innovative collaboration with two local authorities to maximise access to education.

What would it take, not only to improve access to education for children and young people at heightened risk of school exclusion, but also to transform how we make that change happen?

For us, this means focussing first and foremost on how we go about building a response, in a way which is genuinely collaborative, systemic and sustainable, and evidence-based, rather than having a prescriptive idea of what the solution will look like.

School exclusions are on the rise. The national rate of permanent exclusions is 70% higher than it was five years ago (Timpson Review, 2019). This is, in turn, associated with poorer life outcomes for those 6,685 children removed from mainstream education each year. In the face of these rising national rates of school exclusions, a natural response might be to jump straight to finding solutions that will fix the problem. But, if we want our responses to exclusion to create lasting, transformative change, then we need to focus on how we can make change happen most effectively.

Here at the Impact Incubator, we work to amplify the change that we create by developing responses at a local level with a view to scaling impact more widely. The Impact Incubator has been looking at this symptom of a fractured system for three years now, and we believe that it goes beyond an ‘education issue’. Over the past year, we have been working with two local authorities, Gloucestershire County Council and Cheshire West and Chester Council, to develop responses to exclusion embedded in each respective context and to accelerate our learning nationally.

Below we share how we are putting into practice the methodology outlined in Making Change Happen by reflecting, from the perspective of our work to date, on some of the points detailed in that report.

From Theory to Practice

“Hold onto your transformation vision — and be agnostic about how you get there”

We want to improve support for children at risk of exclusion. We want to understand who they are, what could better support them and how to intervene effectively. But we don’t know where this journey is going to take us. We’re entering a process of coproduction, which means working together with partners from across the system to improve outcomes for children and young people at risk of exclusion. It is about people with different views and ideas coming together to make things better for everyone. We approach this process with an open and curious mind to find the best way to tackle this issue.

“Change is a collaborative process”

We are drawing on the expertise of those with experience at a local level and others in the education and social change sector more broadly.

When we talk about coproduction, we mean that local authorities, schools, parents/carers and young people must be meaningfully engaged as equal partners in working together to design and produce a response. This involves us acknowledging that we don’t know and can’t control what response will emerge from this collective process.

At the same time, we are convening national networks to capture and share cross-sector insights and cross-cutting learnings. We’re also a member of IntergratEd, a coalition of partner organisations working to improve outcomes for children and young people by reducing preventable exclusions and improving the quality of alternative provision.

Working together enables us all to share, test and refine our collective learning to shape a collaborative response. We won’t always agree on everything, but we value the challenge offered by one other’s diverse perspectives. We recognise that our differences make us stronger when we are united by a shared commitment to improving the experiences of children and young people in our education system. We know that to transform outcomes for vulnerable children, we can’t do it alone.

“Plan for scale from the start”

Our mixed funding approach means that we can develop both the local response and the national collaboration needed to make sustainable change happen. This is because local commissioner funding is supported by a portion of our philanthropic funding to focus on building a response locally, while the remainder of the latter is dedicated to building the national collaboration necessary to amplify the change generated across both local authorities. We are also proactively sharing our learnings with a wider group of interested parties, testing our emerging findings against other contexts.

“Understand the wider environment you are working in and identify where there is a window of opportunity for change”

Rising exclusion rates are a national concern. Local authorities, academics, sector players and the Government are all interested in understanding what can be done to stop this trend. Over the last eighteen months, we’ve identified key opportunities for change, such as the Timpson Review, the formation of IntergratEd, and momentum in academic research (for example, work led by Sarah Martin-Denham at the University of Sunderland and analysis by the Education Policy Institute). Making Change Happen outlines how these changes “can often be the tipping point for creating a new environment that’s riper for change”.

What’s more, our two local authority partners have a real appetite for change. Although neither have high levels of exclusion relative to the national picture, both councils recognised a need to act to prevent rates rising further locally and to intervene earlier in pupils’ school journeys. They want to improve outcomes for at-risk pupils and better use public funds to do so. This drive has been crucial to getting this work off the ground in what can be a delicate issue for local authorities. The commitment, passion and understanding of our partner local authorities and schools has created real dynamism for change.

“We’ve found that a new response is often needed to disrupt the status quo. This is based on a deep understanding of the need, barriers to change, and research into national and international best practice in addressing the issue (or similar issues).”

We want to understand who is at risk of exclusion from education, and what works for whom, to inform how they can be better supported. To this end, we are using a data-informed approach to improve local infrastructure.

We began with a substantial piece of quantitative data analysis, supported by extensive qualitative research, in Cheshire West and Chester to understand who was at heightened risk of exclusion. This uncovered some key factors associated with heightened risk of exclusion, including special educational needs, experiences of trauma, and deprivation on a community and household level. Alongside this, in Gloucestershire County Council, we co-developed an outcomes framework to collaboratively conceptualise the change that we’re looking to create.

Building on this initial phase, we’re currently working in both local authorities to map the local system and infrastructure: the wide range of people, communities, formal and informal policies and process that need to be brought together in order to achieve lasting change. We’re learning about innovative interventions, and how approaches such as restorative practice and trauma informed practice might form part of a response. We are also exploring the role of quality assurance around interventions.

Next Steps…

This ongoing process will involve in-depth conversations with the local authorities, schools, parents/carers and pupils. Founded in a deep understanding of whois experiencing exclusion from education locally and how, we want to understand how the system should be working, how it is working and where there are barriers or opportunities for change.

This is a new and exciting approach for our partner local authorities and for us, and we’d like to invite you to join this ongoing conversation, too! Together, we are exploring scalable ways to significantly maximise access to education for children and young people at the local level, with a view to informing national policy-making. If you’re interested in hearing more about how our ongoing programme of work develops, or if your work in this space is something we should hear about, please get in touch with us by emailing sfeducation@socialfinance.org.uk.

Read our Making Change Happen report in full