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HeadStart evaluation shows rich learning from huge mental health and wellbeing programme

Anna Freud researchers have published the final evaluation of HeadStart, a huge programme delivered across six local authorities in England to explore and test new ways to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people and prevent serious mental health issues from developing.

Running from 2016–2022, HeadStart was a £67.4 million programme set up by The National Lottery Community Fund (TNLCF), involving six local-authority-led partnerships in Blackpool, Cornwall, Hull, Kent, Newham and Wolverhampton. They worked with local young people aged 10–16, schools, families, charities, community and public services to design and try out new interventions aiming to promote young people’s mental health, wellbeing and resilience.

Published today, researchers from the Evidence Based Practice Unit at Anna Freud and UCL have written a final evaluation report that examines HeadStart’s overall contribution to young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and also draws upon the extensive programme of research that has contributed rich learning and a wider understanding of the picture of young people’s mental health in England. These findings include the influence of risk and protective factors and the role of families, schools and communities in supporting young people’s mental health.

Throughout the programme, Anna Freud researchers headed up the HeadStart Learning Team, which has worked with TNLCF and the local partnerships to collect and evaluate evidence on the various interventions, interviewing the young people, professionals and parents and carers involved in the programme and administering an annual survey for young people. The final evaluation report sits alongside dozens of evidence briefings, case studies and summaries of young people’s views that were published throughout the programme.  

Professor Jess Deighton, Head of the Evidence Based Practice Unit at Anna Freud said: “It has been a privilege to lead the HeadStart Learning Programme. It has given us such a unique opportunity to improve understanding of young people’s mental wellbeing. Working with such committed partnerships and collaborators, we have been able to draw attention to the extent of mental health challenges facing young people by hearing from over 80,000 young people across England. We have also been able to explore in-depth the factors that challenge young people’s mental health and wellbeing and those that support it.”


HeadStart was a huge intervention, reaching 24,500 children and young people through targeted support, 246,000 young people through universal provision and 5,200 parents and carers. More than 24,000 staff have been trained in ways to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

The detailed evaluation report shows the success of some specific interventions delivered within HeadStart and suggests a reduction in school exclusions in HeadStart areas. Interviews with young people indicated that many valued the support they’d received and found it helpful. The evaluation also showed some areas where positive impacts of the programme were not apparent and possible areas for improvement identified by stakeholders.

It provides insight into the overall outcomes of support that are most valued by young people, parents and carers and school staff, including emotional and behavioural improvements, help managing relationships and gaining the confidence to help others. The report also reiterates the importance of trusted relationships in helping young people to manage challenges to their mental health and wellbeing, and how mental health support might need to be ‘stepped up’ when they are experiencing multiple challenges.

The evaluation demonstrates how HeadStart shone new light onto the mental health challenges that young people face and gave new insight into those most at risk. HeadStart learning shows that a priority in early intervention is ensuring all those who need help are identified early, in order to get support to those who need it most.

Read the final HeadStart evaluation report here and find out more about Anna Freud’s involvement in the programme.

Read a blog by Professor Jess Deighton, head of the HeadStart Learning Programme, on the conclusion of the programme and what it tells us on the value of strong networks and trusted relationships in young people’s lives.