Carers need to become sharers
Information sharing is at the centre of the new Children Bill, announced last week. The proposed legislation would revolutionise the way that schools, hospitals and social services deal with children.
Each local authority would keep a central database of information on the children in its area. Youngsters who come into contact with one of the local agencies - health, education, social services - would be flagged on the system. Two or more flags would trigger a meeting to co-ordinate services for the child.
Schools are expected to be at the centre of the system, which will refocus children's services on the local neighbourhood. But schools are also at the heart of the problems identified in various pilot initiatives.
In preparation for the Children Bill, local authorities across England have been testing out new ways of sharing information. Fifteen trailblazers for the information retrieval and tracking system have been given pound;10 million, and every local council has received pound;100,000 for development in the area.
Partner agencies in the pilot areas have been shocked by teachers' lack of awareness of the issues. "I've had to explain the background. Schools have not seen this coming," said one project worker.
"At the moment schools lack the proper procedures to handle confidential information," says one local authority manager.
Few schools have policies on confidentiality and staffrooms tend to be places where information is freely shared. In many schools the special needs list is pinned to the staffroom wall, complete with pictures and personal details.
But doctors and social workers have strict professional codes governing how and when they can pass information on to other people - even other professionals. The lack of such codes in teaching concerns them.
"Teachers are well-meaning, they want the best for their children and they want other people to understand the child and the family circumstances," says a health professional. "But there's a fine line between professional discussion and gossip."
The Government is confident that these problems can be overcome. In last week's announcement, children's minister Margaret Hodge said data protection laws and other barriers to passing on crucial information, identified as one of the factors in the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie four years ago, will be amended or dismantled. A new "duty to share" will be put on authorities holding information on children.
Gloucestershire is already working on collaboration. Moira Swann, who is leading the county's project on integrating children's services, thinks it is essential to establish a map of what services are available and create a culture where people are used to working together.
"We are working very hard to resolve issues around information sharing. We need common definitions and common ownership."
The Gloucestershire pilot is running in six schools. In Hesters Way primary, in Cheltenham, school project worker Beverley Wall is helping acting head Mel Richards to identify other agencies that can work with the school to meet children's needs.
Ms Richards says: "Beverley put us in touch with local charities and children's agencies and our staff are becoming aware of what's available to help families."
Hesters Way serves an area of considerable disadvantage. Kate Cole, educational welfare officer, thinks the system will help her.
"We've identified families with financial needs and with housing problems, and we've already been able to identify resources that I didn't know about."
Mel Richards is quite happy to see her school as a partner agency working alongside other agencies. Already there is a family centre and a speech therapist on site. Once the project has bedded in, liaison will be handled by Rosie Walker, who manages the family centre. Both believe that dealing with problems in the family and the home will make children more settled in school. But it won't happen overnight.
Gloucestershire plans to extend the programme to all its schools by September and to have a retrieval and tracking database in place by August 2005.
This wouldn't contain all the records held in an authority on a child.
Instead it would identify which agencies were dealing with a child or a family. If there was more than one, a lead worker would be named who would co-ordinate support. In a school context, a child might be named if he or she had special needs or was truanting. The lead worker might be a teacher, possibly the special educational needs co-ordinator, the educational welfare officer or a mentor.
In theory, the new systems should offer a simple way to get vital information into schools. Some authorities are planning websites, others are looking at shared databases. A few areas are developing a system to allow professionals dealing with a family to share records.
Hertfordshire has had a fully integrated system for three years. It created joint professional teams of social workers, educational psychologists and educational welfare officers, and developed a database to support them - allowing social workers to access educational records, and schools to see when children were being supported by social services.
Paul Clark, Hertfordshire's deputy director of children's services, says:
"It has allowed integrated casework. One co-ordinator, one file, one database. This is happening now, it's routine."
But it wasn't easy, and, if the Government's ambitious agenda is to be realised, schools will have to rethink the way they approach a whole series of issues - from exclusion to home-school relationships.
Next week: should schools be the focus for the delivery of children's services?