By Rukshana Kapasi, Barnardo’s Director of Health.
As the cost-of-living crisis continues and in the wake of the pandemic, so many of us are facing challenges when it comes to our physical and mental health. It’s arguably never been more important to work together to improve our health and wellbeing.
Barnardo’s history is steeped in supporting all children and young people to thrive, particularly those facing the most challenging circumstances, and we understand how their health is shaped by the world around them. Today, we run more than 150 health services throughout the UK providing mental health support, parenting advice, support for pre-school aged children, and advice on nutrition.
But with huge challenges facing both the health sector and the people it helps, collaboration may be the key to bringing about real change. That is the thinking behind the launch of Barnardo’s new Health Equity Collaborative. This brings together Barnardo’s, three Integrated Care Systems from across England and University College London’s Institute of Health Equity (IHE) to devise solutions to the health challenges faced by children and young people today.
Helping families to live healthier lives
Together, we will develop a new Children and Young People’s Equity Framework. This will use regional data and insight to develop actions for healthcare providers and local authorities to help people overcome the barriers which can hinder good physical and mental health. This could be helping parents to secure employment so they can provide healthy and nutritious meals for their children. Or it could be investing in home insulation to help avoid illnesses, such as chest infections, which can impact on school attendance.
In its first collaboration with a charity, the IHE has co-designed the programme and will lead on its technical elements including development, data capture and evaluation. The renowned Professor Sir Michael Marmot will co-chair a quarterly Child Health Equity Board, which will bring together national systems leaders to support and amplify the Collaborative’s work and help to ensure that long-term change is possible.
The ICSs in Birmingham and Solihull, Cheshire and Merseyside, and South Yorkshire were chosen by Barnardo’s following a thorough recruitment process based on the needs of the people in these regions and the challenges they face, as well as their previous collaborative projects. Each will be asked to identify a priority area for the framework which will have a real impact on health in the region.
Each ICS brings its own unique strengths to the table alongside local knowledge, experience in delivering services in the region, and informed decision-making. For example, up to 20% of children and young people in Cheshire and Merseyside are from low-income families. In some parts of the region, the number of children who qualify for free school meals is double the national average. The Food Foundation’s research found that it can affect their lives in so many ways, including poor educational attainment through absenteeism and obesity due to poor diet and nutrition.
This will be brought alongside Barnardo’s experience in working with children and young people and the IHE’s specialist knowledge of health equity, which looks at how factors such as poverty, racism or sexism can affect a person’s health. But the Collaborative will also ultimately be informed and guided by children and young people to really understand what works, where, and why.
The recent Hewitt Review, which assessed the performance of ICSs throughout their first year, makes specific reference to the Collaborative, which is a very positive step. Its findings also focus on prevention of poor health and the importance of giving every child the best possible start in life, which is at the heart of Barnardo’s ethos. It is both encouraging and empowering that the value of the thoughts and opinions of children and young people is being recognised at this level.
Championing the health of children and young people
At Barnardo’s, we believe that children and young people are experts through experience. We empower them to help influence decision makers. We use their honest views to inform our work. This Collaborative will rely heavily on the views of young people in each region, gained through face-to-face workshops and digital communications. We also have a range of resources and toolkits to help others including local authorities, charities and ICSs mobilise the voices of children and young people too.
Barnardo’s hopes to demonstrate the clear benefits of bringing together charities and community-based organisations, universities and integrated health and care systems. Each member of the Collaborative can glean expertise from each other, tackle problems in an actionable way, have a solid evidence base, help to shape national policy and – ultimately – ensure that our children and young people have equal access to the support they need to look after their physical and mental health.
We want to inspire other ICSs to also invest in health solutions for children and young people. Although we had capacity to select only three ICSs to work with on this Collaborative, we were encouraged by the number of applications received. That won’t be ignored – we have plans to host a Learning Network within IHE’s Health Equity Network and we will be inviting all the ICSs who reached out through the recruitment process to also share best practice and join webinars to receive updates from our collective work.
We hope that this is just the beginning for collaboration of this kind across the sector. We know that there’s real strength in helping, supporting, and learning from one another – not just as we continue to recover and rebuild from recent challenging years but also to ensure the future is brighter for the next generation.
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