Fri, Mar 27, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The hidden risks of databases on children

Among a proliferation of government databases in the UK, the three causing greatest concern over legality, privacy and consent were set up to protect children

By Liz Lightfoot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Schools in England in both the state and independent sectors will have a duty to supply the information. The Independent Schools’ Council, which represents private schools in the UK, has campaigned against the database and has sent out letters to headteachers advising them to draw the shielding provisions to the attention of parents. It also suggests schools refuse to fill in the section on additional school-based services accessed by children, substituting for every pupil the words: “For information about additional school-based services, if any, please contact [x].”

Council chief executive David Lyscom calls ContactPoint “a global solution to what is essentially a problem of looking after the children most at risk.”

“If you want to find a needle in a haystack, then don’t make the haystack so big that no one can find anything,” he said. “We are against it, but we recognize it is being implemented and we are giving guidance to schools because there is a general lack of trust in the system.”

The UK Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) defends ContactPoint as a fast and efficient way of ensuring no child slips through the net.

“It will save time, not cost time, and it will have sophisticated security systems in place,” a spokesman said. “It will not include huge amounts of personal data, but it will simply flag concerns and ensure one professional can see when other professionals have been working with a child. In fact, it won’t contain any more personal data than is already held on most children anyway.”

ContactPoint is also supported by two of the biggest children’s charities. Chris Hanvey, deputy chief executive of Barnardo’s, says the database will not eradicate non-accidental child deaths, but it will help protect children by enabling practitioners to coordinate their approaches more quickly.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) agrees that the current generation of children cannot be protected by returning to the days of paper records. Wes Cuell, its director of services for children and young people, says enormous effort has been put into making ContactPoint as safe and secure as possible.

“No recording system can ever be completely failsafe, but the NSPCC believes the benefits of ContactPoint for children facing abuse are overwhelming,” he said. ““It will help ensure that any concerns about children picked up by one agency do not fall under the radar of the different professionals working with those children.”

Headteachers have already raised concerns about the new Common Assessment Framework, under which people working with children must fill in an eight-page form to access additional support for lower-level problems that are not putting the child at immediate risk. The system is about to be computerized and become known as eCAF. Teachers will no longer be able to leave gaps but will have to complete every field, says Terri Dowty, the director of Arch, a charity for children’s rights and a coauthor of the database report.

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