Unhealthy plans

April 20, 2007

Last month we mentioned that the number of Health Visitors had fallen to its lowest level in over a decade, with all it implies for child protection and the master-plan for health visitors to intervenebefore the birth of children judged at risk of falling into a life of crime.”

Here’s the latest news:

A survey of 1,000 health visitors has disclosed that 55% of them are now making fewer visits to families – and the biggest impact has been losing track of vulnerable families.

Amicus/the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association, which commissioned the research, said that this will lead to increased cases of child abuse and more mothers struggling with postnatal depression without professional help.

This new ‘double whammy’ for community health services comes a month after Amicus/CPHVA used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal a 40% cut in the number of health visitors being trained in England this year.

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Making progress

April 19, 2007

We’ve just checked up on Early Day Motion 686 calling for a debate on the use of children’s fingerprints in schools. It’s up to 81 (pleasingly cross-party) signatures now.

Tell your MP about it!


Sniffy evidence

April 19, 2007

According to Dr Anthony Seldon, the head of Wellington College:

The government should pay for sniffer dogs to search schools, in an attempt to stamp out drugs misuse among pupils

Indeed, Dr Seldon is so keen on the idea that he pays a private company to sniff over his pupils every term.

Apart from the fact that some children are terrified of dogs, while others may regard them as unclean, there’s a further problem. The idea that sniffer dogs are infallible is a myth. An article in the Register pointed out last year:

The only empirical research into the public deployment of drug dogs was conducted in New South Wales, Australia, and revealed that over a 12 month period 73 per cent of people searched as a result of dog indications had no drugs about their person.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.


Priorities

April 17, 2007

Apologies for the current blog silence. Deadlines are looming out of the mist like monsters in a horror film and life is pared down to the bare essentials.

Here’s another in our occasional “Forget the shoes, Daddy needs a new laptop” series.

In the Guardian this morning:

A £12.4bn programme to modernise IT systems throughout the NHS in England is running years behind schedule and failing to prove it is value for money, a committee of MPs said today.

Also in the Guardian:

The most vulnerable newborn babies are being cared for by a service that is so acutely understaffed that less than 4% receive the level of care the government admits they require.

A survey of all 224 neonatal units in the UK reveals that on average they are understaffed by a third. An extra 2,500 neonatal nurses are needed to meet the levels of care set by the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, and endorsed by the Department of Health.

Meanwhile, The RCN warns:

The debt crisis facing the NHS is “real and entrenched” and has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs…According to the study, entitled Our NHS – Today and Tomorrow, some 22,300 health jobs have been lost across various trusts as a result of redundancies, freezes on recruitment and post closures. In addition, almost three-quarters of newly-qualified nurses have been unable to secure jobs

And talking of laptops, just spotted this one:

I’ll tell you what also really annoys me: how much money my school spends on technology.

We all have to have laptops – my year is the last in which they weren’t compulsory – and there are interactive white boards, and flat-screen televisions outside the assembly hall that show the netball results, and ones outside the gym that are supposed to show sports games but mostly they just show music videos on mute – how stupid is that? – and then flat screens outside the IT department that say “Can so and so in Year 7 please come and collect her laptop”.

But we’re not allowed to print off our homework at school because, guess what? The school doesn’t have enough money to buy paper.


Education wrongs

April 12, 2007

Via Longrider, a fascinating story on the BBC site that bears a bit of dissection. A school in Darlington has banned a 16-year-old pupil from attending the end-of-year-dance. Why? Because her parents declined the offer of extra study sessions on the basis that:

their daughter was already a high achiever who did not need the burden of extra classes.

Sounds pretty reasonable, unlike the response they received:

Headteacher Dean Judson then wrote to them saying their daughter would be excluded from any “other voluntary activities” at the school.

“Voluntary”? Not according to this man:

School chief executive Eamonn Farrar said the extra study sessions were made compulsory five years ago.

Really? So they took a unilateral decision to extend the school’s hours without any consultation? Then why ask for parental consent? Possibly because it’s not true, and they don’t mean ‘compulsory; they mean ‘coerced’. Bit of a difference.

Mr Farrar goes on to say:

“If we were to give the children the choice of attending the extra study sessions, what do you think the response would be? They wouldn’t attend.”

Given that the girl in question is already doing just fine academically, the criterion in operation seems to be blind obedience rather than anything to do with education, and ‘We will make you do as we say, even if our actions are unjustifiable’ sounds perilously close to bullying.

He rounds off with a real groan-inducing cut’n’paste from an early Blunkett speech:

“At the school we have standards and we extend these to the children. They have rights but they also have responsibilities too.”

Well, you know us, we’re happy to talk about rights any time. The school might want to take a look at Article 29 of the UNCRC. How does attending ‘compulsory’ and unnecessary lessons contribute to a child’s development? Prepare her for life in a ‘free society’? And how does such woolly, muddled thinking assist her intellectual development? One can only hope that the teaching that goes on in the school is of a rather higher standard than the thinking displayed here by its leadership.

The former UN education rapporteur reduced education rights down to a very simple ‘4As’ framework, presumably so that even the daftest could understand. Education should be: Available, Accessible, Adaptable and Acceptable to both parents and child. The extra sessions were not acceptable, so it’s the school that is breaching rights here. Maybe Messrs Farrar and Judson should pay a visit to the Right to Education site and do some extra lessons.


DNA Speculation

April 11, 2007

Chris Pounder, privacy law expert at Pinsent Masons, is pointing out the inevitable result of allowing speculative searching on the National DNA Database in order to find near matches to those whose profile is already held:

“Pounder anticipates that statistical techniques will develop and become more sophisticated. In future, a DNA profile of someone arrested could be statistically linked to more and more relatives like parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, many of whom will not have been arrested,” he said.

“In that way, the DNA database, even though it contains data relating to criminals, will span most of the UK population,” Pounder said. “If you are ever related to someone with a criminal record, your DNA will have the potential to be linked to that individual’s police records.”

The Forensic Science Service has been quick to point out the successful outcomes of speculative searching, but no mention is made of the pitfalls.

An estimated 1 in 20 of us may not have the father we think we have. Some people have to change their family’s identity because of witness protection, or to hide from a violent and dangerous ex-partner. Some children are adopted in circumstances where it is essential that they are never found by birth parents. There is also the issue of genetic markers for disease and the value of such information to insurance companies, for example.

‘Pandora’s Box’ has repeatedly been used to describe the potential dangers of speculative searching, and it seems entirely accurate. The Forensic Science Service has already been turned into a GovCo, and this is seen as a transitional step towards its becoming a fully privatised company. What are the chances of such explosive data remaining secret when control is no longer in the hands of government, and commercial opportunities beckon?


Adult truancy sweeps

April 10, 2007

We’ve been catching up with some truancy sweep figures and they’re entirely predictable. The report we produced 2 years ago could have been written yesterday.

More than a thousand sweeps were carried out during the 2006 autumn term. Around 4 truants were found per sweep; 60% of those stopped were not truants. A sweep generally lasts 3 hours, involving police officers, education officials, Community Support Officers etc etc. The average haul per police officer involved is 1 truant for every one-and-a-half hours of sweep.

It wastes millions and it is having no effect whatsoever on truancy figures. In fact the latest reports show that those figures are rising. Quite why everyone is prepared to tolerate having their Council Tax spent on having police officers prop up the walls in draughty shopping centres for hours at a time is beyond us, but it seems that the current truancy sweep policy is immune to logic.

If we’re not going to get rid of sweeps, then maybe we should extend them? The Guardian today says that:

The total cost of workplace absence last year was £13bn. Employers said they attributed around 12% of short-term absences to staff “pulling a sickie”, which meant 21m days were lost at a cost of £1.6bn.

If the government were to extend the truancy sweep powers to allow the police to question anyone seen out and about during working hours, we feel sure that the public would understand. After all, £1.6bn is a lot of money. If people aren’t bunking off work then, like the 60% of children who are not truanting when they are stopped and questioned, they have nothing to fear. Can’t see any problem really…


‘Judge Dredd’ CCTV

April 6, 2007

Seen on the ORG list


Children have their uses

April 4, 2007

So, not only are we about to have an increase in talking CCTV cameras, but:

Competitions would also be held at schools in many of the areas for children to become the voice of the cameras, Mr Reid said.

The Register reports that:

Children will be recruited from schools to take part in the £0.5m scheme and shown round CCTV operating rooms on school trips.

The cynical might think that a spin-guru had come up with this cute idea, but, apparently not:

Louise Casey, the government’s “co-ordinator for respect”, said in a statement this morning: “We are encouraging children to send this clear message to grown ups – act anti-socially and face the shame of being publicly embarrassed.”

Did anyone ask children if they wanted to send this message? I mean, did they think of it themselves? Even if that were actually true, it’s odd that their opinion suddenly matters when, for example, nobody remembered to consult them on the plan to raise the school-leaving age.

Let’s hope that, in between auditions, recording sessions and CCTV-centre visits, children are also given plenty of opportunity to hear alternative views, in accordance with their UN Convention rights, such as:

Article 13 The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds

or

Article 17 States Parties recognize the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources

After all, the government wouldn’t want to be accused of using the education system to brainwash children.


Champion enters the fingerprint fray

April 4, 2007

Microsoft’s Identity Architect Kim Cameron, has been doing some serious digging around the use of children’s biometrics. Links to some of the items on his Identity Weblog are on Pippa’s blog.

Recommended reading.


Spare change

April 3, 2007

Tim Worstall puts Polly Toynbee straight on the cost of the government raid on the pensions fund. Her comment that: “£5bn is a gnat bite” demonstrates how inured we are becoming to telephone-number figures. (“Only a couple of million? Is that all?”)

I had occasion (just don’t ask) to trawl some local authority circulars on the DfES site – worth a look to see how much is going on ‘parenting early intervention’ projects and the like.

One that caught my attention is the pilot of ‘Transition information sessions for parents’ (pdf). Apparently:

The project is envisaged as follows:
each of the schools involved offers a transition information session to a cohort of parents – all parents of children joining Reception or Year 7 in September 2006. The sessions help to build a firm foundation for effective partnerships between parents and their child’s school; engage parents in discussion about wider parenting issues; and provide a gateway to the wider services available for parents, through extended schools and other local and national services.

In other words, it’s about arranging meetings to spot those who need parenting ‘interventions’ and make sure they and their children use services. Nine local authorities are piloting this scheme – at a total cost of £1,126,550. (Is that all? I’ll have three of ’em)

Presumably if the pilots are deemed a roaring success, they will be ‘rolled out’ nationally. Extrapolating from the figure above to all 150 local authorities, my calculator makes that £18,775,833.


Paranoid? Moi?

April 3, 2007

I was sent this (thanks, David!) without any comment:

The MOM suite of parenting tools includes “comprehensive caregiving software tied to biometric indicators which communicate wirelessly with MOM, providing corresponding directives for the contemporary parent.”

…and then I saw the date.

I’ll own up to having read the article with growing horror, but my excuse is that I’ve been looking at this little baby:

Parents and carers can, through the KinderGUARDTM secure application software, define the weekly calender of events and locations for their child / children, and then subsequently monitor and report their exact position in real time. The system will also be capable of monitoring and reporting the previous locations of the child over a specified period of time.

KinderGUARDTM will also contain the unique capability to generate and transmit a “biometric signature” that is unique to the wearer– this will enable parents to monitor attributes such as skin temperature, heart signal, stress level, etc. This will also act as confirmation that the device continues to be worn by the intended child

Nope, that one isn’t an April Fool.


DNA Espionage

April 2, 2007

Surprising that this story hasn’t had more coverage:

Five civil servants who help run the national DNA database have been suspended after being accused of industrial espionage.

It is alleged they copied confidential information and used it to set up a rival database in competition with their employers, the Government’s Forensic Science Service. The FSS – which is suing the five men in the High Court – helps police investigate evidence from crimes and sells its services to commercial customers.

It also maintains the controversial database containing DNA samples of almost four million people, the largest in the world.


How can they tell?

April 2, 2007

Henry Porter is worth reading in yesterday’s Observer. Amongst other things, he says:

We are told that every child in the country will be assessed to see if they are likely to turn to crime. Those that comply to a profile set by some grim determinist working for the government will be ‘actively managed’ by youth justice workers and local social services. This is what Blair meant by being tough on the causes of crime.

In case anyone is curious about how an assessment is made, you can see a sample of the ‘indicators’ that are used to predict criminality. It’s from Ryogens (‘Reducing Youth Offending Generic National Solution’). Although Ryogens has only been taken up by a handful of local authorities, the indicators are derived from other, similar lists.

The idea is that practitioners select a ‘concern’ from the list, and the databases is configured to deliver an ‘alert’ when the number of concerns reaches a certain level. (When we were doing the FIPR report on children’s databases, we found that all local authorities had set their systems to 1.)

Further down the page, Ryogens also provides practitioners with a list of legal provisions that can purportedly be used to override any refusal of consent to share information.

After the FIPR report was published, we couldn’t find the link to the Ryogens lists on their website any more. However, the Wayback Machine had kindly preserved a copy.