Last year, as the country veered between covid-related lockdowns and social mixing restrictions, we asked Snook, a consultancy working on service re-design, to help us deepen our engagement with families to ensure that anything we do has their needs and aspirations at heart. This process of agencies and clients working together is called co-design or co-production if clients are involved in delivering the services as well.

So, between December 2020 and March 2021, Snook facilitated a number of workshops with partners from across the Bettws Early Learning Community including education, health and voluntary and community organisations. We aimed to create a framework for co-design and explore what the barriers, opportunities and needs are to achieve it. The workshops centred on five elements – vision, values, persona, channels, distinction – and enabled us to explore them in more depth by asking questions, such as, what do we believe in, how are we different, how do we communicate?

Given the context of the pandemic, some of these were hard to work through – communication with and between families, and between families and organisations, has been particularly difficult, and it can be hard to engage with families when they are focused on immediate priorities, don’t have access to communications technology, and are fearful of group activities when covid rates were still high.

What did we learn?

Community needs

  • Parents/carers need time and a way to get involved that works for them. They deserve to feel secure in themselves, their homes, their environment so they feel confident enough to take part
  • They need support to overcome any lack of trust or motivation – they need to feel their voices will be heard in order to feel confident in their own views
  • Children need to be empowered to understand what taking part in the community might mean for them. They need strong relationships to feel secure that their voices will be heard
  • Community leaders and regular volunteers need to feel their work is recognised and valued. Local businesses need to see that changes will benefit them and their customers
  • ELC service delivery partners need clear and simple communications and a common language so everyone – including families – understands we’re the same team
  • Service delivery partners need to get to know families and their unique needs
  • Co-design and co-production need to lead to sustainable actions and interventions so that we maintain our motivation to stay involved

Barriers

  • Confidence – or the lack of it – is often at the heart of the barriers to participation and delivery. Many people lack experience and confidence in using technology, asking for help, understanding what co-design means
  • Services are often designed more around the professionals delivering them than the requirements of their users
  • Access to space, time and technology is another key barrier – particularly during the pandemic
  • Getting buy-in from communities who may have been consulted in the past without seeing tangible differences in their lives

Opportunities

  • In approach – making sure we communicate what we’re doing – what it’s all about – to give confidence that the community is valued and a valid part of the decision-making process. Then making sure that the process is workable for both families and delivery partners and that we learn from what we’re doing and what has been done before
  • In projects – demonstrating theory into practice; starting with some small projects to get momentum going

Doing it in practice – growing the Biscuit Club

The Biscuit Club is an opportunity for parents (with or without their children) to come together to share information, support and advice. It is based at Bettws in Bloom, a local charity, and was inspired by similar groups elsewhere in south Wales. It was started by local parents in collaboration with workers from the housing associations and GAVO who initially led activities, but the group became increasingly self-sufficient.

Then along came the pandemic and the group was unable to meet in person for some time which hindered the development of group autonomy. Members kept in touch using WhatsApp which proved to be very effective during the pandemic – it enabled members to stay connected and maintain the friendships developed, combatting the loneliness and isolation of lockdown. They also found WhatsApp to be a more neutral space within which to make suggestions and develop ideas.

In the summer of 2021, Kirstin Nott was appointed as Bettws ELC Project Officer with a brief to build up family engagement. One of the first things she did was to seek a revival of the Biscuit Club. Although she initially organised and facilitated activities for the group, she has increasingly been able to take a more supporting role. Group members suggest activities and issues they would like to hear about, and Kirstin organises them. By Christmas 2021 the group felt able and confident enough to organise a party for the children which they largely did themselves. It was very successful, but the group felt it had been quite a learning curve!

The Biscuit Club model is now being replicated across Bettws with morning Coffee Clubs running weekly at each of the primary schools.

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