Features: October 13th, 2006

What Matters Most

By Steve Baxter

Imagine the following scenario; Keighley is a vulnerable 14 year old who suffers from attention and behaviour problems at school. She has been brought to the attention of social services in the past because there is a history of domestic violence in the family – which the neighbours believe is sometimes directed at the kids. All seems to have quietened down in the last few months, but recently Keighley has started missing school on a regular basis; something she has never done before. Is it because she is struggling with school work or is it because the violence has erupted at home again?

One of the most important aims of the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda is to ensure that people like Keighley get the help and support they need, when they need it. By sharing information on children, all the support organisations coming into contact with Keighley know that someone accessing her school records – with the appropriate security rights – will be aware that social services may need to be contacted in the event of her absence. Likewise, an education welfare officer working at the authority would have up-to-date attendance information from the school and would know that they should prioritise Keighley’s case for investigation immediately. If there is a problem at home, the response mechanisms will come to her aid much more quickly; and should be working collectively when they do.

Every Child Matters is a magnificent vision. By working collaboratively and sharing information, local authorities can ensure that no vulnerable children fall through the net and all have the opportunity for a safe and healthy upbringing that will allow them to achieve. The reality of delivering this is somewhat complex in organisational, professional and technical terms. Departments that have worked separately for so long need a single pool of data on young people, irrespective of system variations or differences in working practices.

Sharing information in education

At South Gloucestershire, our aim is that anyone involved with young people in schools, the health service, police or social services, are able to access relevant data on any child from birth to 18. We are working hard to achieve this and so far the biggest strides we have made are in sharing information within education services.

Every month, we have a scheduled upload of data from every school in our area which includes attendance, exclusions and achievement information about each child in school. We use EMS, a system from Capita Education Services, to manage pupil data at the authority and we simply draw in the files which schools have exported from their own pupil management information systems. Although this process took a little while to develop, the result is a huge improvement in our response time to problems. Previously, if a problem was identified from a school’s annual attendance or pupil census information, it may have been too late for our support teams to have had any real effect. To improve response times further, we are currently implementing a system to automate this data feed so that it can occur weekly and provide ‘almost-live’ data across the system.

Supporting the professionals

At the most basic level, this data exchange means a social worker can instantly see which school a child is currently attending and no longer needs to search for the information. On a more complex level, it means that we can examine trends in the data to see that a particular child is beginning to miss school more and more frequently, or if a particular area is having an issue with exclusions, so we can examine the problem more closely and see where we can help. Attendance has improved at over 70% of schools since the new system was introduced and this is due to the collaborative working practices that data exchange allows.

Sharing data centrally has had the added benefit of cutting down a lot of data re-entry. A simple example is for pupil exclusions. When a child is excluded, their school makes a record of this on their own management information system. The local authority school admissions team would then create a record for their systems, as would the student support team. Now all departments use the information that the school inputs, saving time and ensuring information is up-to-date in all systems.

To develop this further, we are in the process of implementing a system where our social services staff, who use a different database to store case data than the education team, can view the information held in the EMS education system online. In the future we may decide to use something called Adapters, specific software which has been designed to view and match records from both database systems. This will create a truly joined-up support service where staff will be able to see all relevant information from their workstations when planning their interactions with young people and their families.

Promoting joint working

Contrary to staff expectations, each professional having access to more information about a child has led to much more walking or phoning around our offices. Colleagues seek each other out to follow up and find out more about a child or family and this can only lead to better quality interventions all round.

The path to get to this point has not been easy and at the moment there is still a great deal of data-cleaning required to check inconsistencies between different systems; which can be time consuming. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and over time we will be able to pull in just the updated data from the systems, rather than all the data, as we currently do.

This process of developing systems to share information on vulnerable children will be ongoing for many years to come. No doubt, it is something we will get better at over time by relating our collective experiences, and we certainly know that our efforts are worthwhile; for Keighley’s sake and the thousands of children like her.

Steve Baxter is Information and Performance Data Manager, South Gloucestershire Council.

Capita contact: Sean Massey, Director of Children’s Services, Capita Education Services, Tel: 01234 838 080