Features: January 6th, 2006

Every Child Matters

By Dave Gove

The Children Act 2004 represents a significant programme of change designed to ensure government services work collectively to respond to the needs of young people. As a result of the Act, all organisations in the public sector that have an impact on children’s lives, including, schools, welfare services, youth justice, health and local education authorities, are beginning to examine how they record and store information and how this data can help identify children at risk.

This has generated an urgent impetus within local government to break down the cultural and physical barriers between departments and create a more open infrastructure. The role of technology in these far-reaching changes can not be underestimated as the principle of ‘joined-up thinking’ needs ‘joined-up’ IT systems in the background supporting it.

There are currently many varied systems within each authority containing records relating to children in need of support. Allowing these systems to talk to each other will be a key enabler to delivering one of the guiding principles of the Act. Decisions regarding an individual’s welfare can be based on their full history with all public services rather than based on an individual incident. A youth services officer dealing with a child who self-harms for example, will be better equipped to address the problem more successfully if he or she is able to view details of any relevant issues with the child’s school life, such as incidences of bullying or past exclusions.

Before integration takes place, authorities must first identify what information is held in which departments and whether it is current or not. One of the richest and often overlooked sources of data on almost all children aged five to 16 is available in schools. Social services tend to hold records on young people that have already been referred to them, whereas a school has a current file relating to all pupils, detailing attendance, behavioural issues, emergency contact information, special needs, and whether they have been excluded or are in care. This data can be used in conjunction with other systems in the authority to identify children at risk from abuse, exploitation or neglect.

There are examples where this data integration has already been working successfully for some time. Many Local Authorities that Capita Education Services supply information management systems to already draw in daily pupil attendance information from schools. By querying the data, an Education Welfare Officer at the Authority can see which pupils are absent from school without authorisation and follow them up that same day.

Historical data can also be viewed so that trends can be spotted. A child who misses school every Thursday afternoon may have a regular job or be subject to bullying in a particular class. Once identified, an investigation can follow and any appropriate support offered to the child. Exclusions and behavioural information is also shared and the LA can keep track of all children being educated outside of school to ensure they are receiving access to learning.

The freshness of data is of great importance to early intervention as the changing circumstances of a child may have an immediate impact that requires someone from the authority to respond that day. Systems should allow for a dynamic flow of information so that changes in one system are automatically reflected in another. This will also help reduce the administrative burden of record keeping and ensures the accuracy of data. Address information if changed on one system for example, can be replicated on all the local authority’s relevant databases.

The Children Act has ensured that sharing information will become an integral part of each public officer’s duties to ensure the relevant help is available to children before they reach crisis point. Technology can help remove many of the physical barriers to this integration and ensure that decisions made about a child’s welfare are based on a complete picture of their circumstances.

Dave Gove is Director of Local Education Authorities at Capita Education Services.

Capita Education Services supply information systems for the management of pupil data for more than 22,000 schools and 140 Local Education Authorities. The company is a member of the Adaptors Club, an association of public and private sector representatives working to ensure that information can be transferred seamlessly through the different systems that operate throughout local authorities. www.capitaes.co.uk