Best use of Local Area Research: The value of making friends: How a deeper understanding of user need has created a brighter future for children in Waltham Forest


Ahead of a major new round of commissioning, Revealing Reality was asked by Waltham Forest to study the daily lives, experiences and needs of young families in the borough – helping the council to reintroduce the service user voice into discussions about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of its children’s centres.

Using place-based ethnography, depth-interviews, co-design and stakeholder workshops our research went beyond ‘stated needs’ to reveal the underlying needs and difficulties facing parents and children in the borough.

We demonstrated that many parents’ difficulties were rooted in a lack of social support and close friendships, and that the current delivery of children’s centre services was often falling a long way short of meeting this need.
By combining rich detail on families’ everyday experiences with an overarching argument about the importance of friendship-making to improving their overall wellbeing, we not only equipped the council with specific recommendations for improving and better demonstrating the effectiveness of future provision, but helped to unify disparate stakeholders around a single, all-encompassing objective.

This unprecedented depth of understanding directly resulted in a step-change in Waltham Forest’s commissioning specifications for Early Years services – and the addition of a new statutory objective designed to help parents overcome social isolation.

Wow factor

This research demonstrated how identifying the ‘upstream’, underlying needs of service users can unite a wide range of potentially divided stakeholders. In this case, exploring the damage done by parents’ social isolation – and how children’s centres can overcome it – brought professionals from across the council together around a common goal.


At a time of budget reductions, and a higher-than-average proportion of children living in poverty, Waltham Forest was facing tough decisions about the future of its Children’s Centres: whether to cut them altogether, integrate them with other services, or find new ways of justifying their existence.

Internally, there was faith in the services’ value, but inconsistencies in delivery across the borough were making it hard to develop a coherent argument in their favour. Moreover, underlying political tensions and territoriality were limiting disparate stakeholders from agreeing on action.

Recognising that the key to resolving this stalemate was to reintroduce the user voice, Revealing Reality was commissioned to conduct research that brought the experiences of local families to life – and to the centre of decision making. The findings united commissioners around a common understanding of user need, and enabled them to redesign Children’s Centres’ service model around the health and wellbeing of those families.


To be effective, this research needed to not only inform, but inspire council commissioners – connecting them directly to service users. We designed a sophisticated mixed-methodology consisting of place-based ethnography, depth-interviews and co-design groups – the latter inviting service users to propose specific solutions to challenges, which we then took directly to stakeholders, challenging their assumptions and informing the final service specification.


Understanding underlying need
Through extensive data-triangulation – from both users and non-users of Children’s Centres – our research went beyond stated needs. We saw that, while parents often described friendship making as a key motivation for using the service, many struggled to make friends. Loneliness, and a lack of support, appeared to be a significant problem for parents, and their children.

Reducing unhelpful ‘cues’
Our study revealed how some session structures were failing to promote friendship-making. Many parents felt obliged to follow their children at all times; paranoid about others’ opinions, thereby reducing their contact time with other adults. Many of the ‘external cues’ in centres – focused exclusively on children and their development – made it feel inappropriate for parents to prioritise their own needs.

Unifying stakeholders
By casting light on deeper friendship-making needs, our research widened the debate around health and wellbeing outcomes; which gave a ‘centre of gravity’ around which disparate decision-makers could coalesce.

Having refined this overarching narrative at a series of immersive joint analysis-workshops with the Waltham Forest team, a major dissemination event brought together over 30 stakeholders from a range of services – including Early Years, Health, and Social Care. By sharing the stories of young families, we demonstrated the connection between friendship and health and wellbeing. Moreover, commissioners now see that, by making friendship-making their ‘business’, Children’s Centres have an opportunity to meet needs ‘upstream’ of a range services – thereby driving efficiencies and improved outcomes for all stakeholders.

As a direct result, Waltham Forest completely redesigned its commissioning specification, demanding that Children’s Centres put parental friendship making at the core of their remit – adding a fourth statutory objective which makes tackling social isolation a key objective.

Key learnings

  1. The strategic value of bringing end user perspectives to life for stakeholders in a form that’s impossible to ignore or forget. Immersive story-telling, photography, and co-design techniques that directly challenged service commissioners – and their ideas – with the views and voices of target users meant that stakeholders returned to their day-to-day roles fully convinced of the need for change
  2. The political power of high-quality user research. In particular, the ability of user insights, when clearly and memorably presented by researchers, to reconcile divisive political tensions and help stakeholders to see the wood from the trees; injecting energy, passion and determination back into their work, and empowering them to overcome the barriers of red tape and internal limitations
  3. The inadvertent power of external ‘cues’ when designing and delivering services on the frontline. In particular, how well-intentioned ideas – many drawn directly from statutory objectives – can have profoundly limiting secondary impacts, which together undermine the effectiveness of what the service is really trying to achieve