Parents 1st, in association with the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR), published the first phase of an Evidence Review to support the design of A Better Start (ABS) projects in December 2015.
The review, commissioned by BIG Lottery on behalf of the five ABS sites (see tender document), will help the sites discern “what works, when, for whom and in what circumstances” with regard to forming local partnership strategies that incorporate volunteering, peer support or community champions. This was a ‘rapid review’, which precedes the full systematic review of the evidence which Parents 1st will present in the second phase of their commission.
In this first phase of their evidence review and evaluation of best practice, the researchers identified four core principles or approaches that seem - from the literature so far - to be distinctive, important, and associated with achieving positive benefits. These are:
Strengths-based approaches to supporting parents; The development of positive interpersonal relationships between everyone involved; Mutuality in the design and implementation of support programmes is helpful. This requires parent, professional and volunteer to all benefit from and learn from interaction with each other. “It is not about the volunteer providing a service to the parent or carrying out delegated tasks for professionals,” write the report authors; Governance, though not much studied across the literature, seems to be critical to the success of flexible and relationship-based projects. Skilled supervision of volunteers, for example, and the role of coordinators who assist in managing the relationships between volunteer, parent and professional, may be particularly important.
It is a prerequisite for volunteering, peer support and community champion programmes that there should be a desire to design and deliver projects such that the child is at its centre, the researchers found.
According to the available evidence, the researchers were able to state with confidence that volunteers can have a direct impact on improving ABS outcomes for children (see presentation of findings). They were able to cite examples of volunteer projects making an impact in each of the three developmental outcome areas being targeted by the A Better Start programme:
- Communication and language
- Social and emotional development
- Diet and nutrition
The report also discusses the indirect impact volunteers can have on these outcomes, through their creation of the “conditions for change”. These include changes in local culture, maternal confidence, service engagement and the community understanding of professionals. Much of the influence of volunteers stems from their specific role within the system, write the study authors. Opportunities for building higher levels of trust than for example statutory agencies are able to do, as well as succeeding with families who may not qualify for or engage with public services, make the volunteer role valuable for successful engagement. In addition, peer supporters can offer the unique advantage of empathy and engagement with those they seek to help.
However, volunteers should not be seen as a replacement for professional support, the researchers found. The most important factor in the success of a volunteer, peer support, or community champion project, is the way in which volunteers interact and work with professionals. Because of this, it is important to involve professionals from the outset in project design, steering groups and training. Projects should also have a coordinator co-located within a professional service, and must articulate clear role boundaries and referral guidelines.
A Better Start is a £215 million investment by the Big Lottery Fund, launched in October 2012 to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable babies and children in England.