At least it’s honest…

March 24, 2010

Wall points out this revealing error in the government’s ‘easy read’ version of the ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ green paper:

Parliament is the group of ministers at the centre of the government who make the country’s laws.

The short and disastrous history of an IT Project

March 24, 2010

Last Wednesday, Ed Balls announced that £38m was to be made available for front-line social work:

The £23m will go into a new social improvement fund to reduce pressure on front-line social workers. There will also be £15m to improve IT systems in local areas.

On the same day, the government’s chief adviser on the safety of children warned that:

Treasury demands for cuts will seriously affect social workers’ ability to protect vulnerable youngsters at a time when greater strains are being put on the service…
Sir Roger Singleton said that the Treasury had already demanded £300m from the non-schools budget for children. The “increase in demand and higher expectations of performance is not being matched by the provision of additional resources [and] the capacity of the relevant services to keep children safe will inevitably be diminished”, Singleton said.

In other words, rather than announcing the miraculous provision of ‘new’ money, it might have been fairer to say that the government would only cut the budget by £262m instead of the planned £300m.

The mention of £15m to enable local councils to scrap their ICS systems if necessary and start again caused us to consider the history of the ‘Integrated Children’s System’ (ICS). This inept fiasco has not only cost vast amounts of public money; it has also done enormous damage to child protection services.

To begin at the beginning, 2003 saw the start of ICS, when the government invited applications from local authorities to pilot the new system:

Implementation of ICS will be part of the introduction of ‘e-social care records’ in 2005. Its development also supports wider government initiatives such as the identification, referral and tracking system *(see below for explanation), which is central to the forthcoming children’s green paper, and is intended to facilitate information sharing across children’s services.

The process over the next few years was to be micro-managed and coerced from the centre, as can readily be seen from the list of publications on the DCSF site.

In 2004, the DCSF commissioned an evaluation which was delivered to them in 2006. It didn’t see the light of day until April 2008, following 18 months of Parliamentary Questions and FOI requests. The evaluation questioned whether the ICS was fit for purpose, but these objections were brushed aside. Subsequent research confirmed the initial evaluation’s assessment, but it was not until the government’s own ‘Lifting the Burdens Taskforce’ published a review of DCSF in February 2008 that the message began to sink in:

In some cases there is good evidence that new IT based approaches undermine existing effective or good practice. For example local authority staff believe that the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) moves the focus of activity towards compliance with the expectations and needs of a standardised system, which appear to be chiefly related to data capture, and away from using effective professional approaches and analysis related to meeting the needs of the client family and child.

Finally, in June 2009, the government wrote to local authorities telling them that the plan had changed, and that

“local authorities will not be required to comply with the published specifications for ICS”

It also set out:

“…the government’s continued and enhanced commitment to supporting local authorities in the implementation and improvement of their local systems, including by helping local authorities to assess the ‘usability’ of their systems and to work with suppliers to make improvements.”

Six years on, and there were still doubts about ‘usability’! As for the cost, this has been put at around £60m, although that figure refers to central government spending and doesn’t take into account the money that has come out of local council budgets. This letter from DCSF to Directors of Children’s Services in November 2006 gives some idea of the scale of the budget – and also makes it clear that more than half of it was spent during the 3 years after DCSF had received the critical evaluation report.

Last week, Robert Fitzgerald, children’s services product manager at ICS provider OLM Systems, told Community Care that the government’s centralised approach to ICS had been disastrous.

“The government thought IT was going to solve the problem, but the way they went about it, it actually became the problem,” he said. “What councils have always needed to do is determine their needs, which is down to the people and the processes they go through. Every authority does things in different ways and the prescriptive process simply hindered innovation.”

That hits the nail on the head. If you are designing a case-management system in order to make workers’ lives easier, you start by talking to them and finding out (a) how they do their job and (b) what would help them to do it better. Instead, a shedload of money has been wasted, and now a whole lot more needs to be spent on clearing up the mess. Meanwhile, to end where we started, as the BBC points out:

“there are still 5,000 vacancies in children’s social work in England waiting to be filled.”

*’Identification, Referral and Tracking’ was the name of the information-sharing project that gave birth to Contactpoint and eCAF. It was announced in August 2002, and subsequently re-branded as a ‘response’ to the Laming Report in the ‘Every Child Matters’ green paper published in November 2003.


The distorting mirror

March 15, 2010

I’ve just been reading a fascinating paper called ‘Becoming a Problem: how children develop a reputation as ‘naughty’ in their earliest years at school’. It describes the process by which children learn compliance, and how they learn that they are bad if they fail to do so. It really is worth reading. As a taster, here are a couple of excerpts:

Disparate frames are granted coherence with reference to the assumption, derived from developmental psychology, of a normal developmental course (Walkerdine 1988). Children who fail to act, or to be recognised as acting, in accordance with expectations of what is normal for children of their age are at risk of being judged a problem.

…There is a constitutive circularity in the discourse of normal development: specific child behaviours come to be read as signs of deviation from the normal path; yet the integrity of the normal path is consolidated by the identification of deviations. Individual acts by children are read metonymically, as ‘standing for’ the bigger problem; while the status of the bigger problem is constituted in the iterations of the acts that ‘stand for’ the offence. This has practical implications for children who become subject to such framing, as it may lead teachers and other arbitrators to orient to ‘offending’ behaviours and pay less attention to those that stand ‘outside’ the frame. Once a child’s reputation has begun to circulate in the staffroom, dining hall and amongst other parents, it may be very difficult for her behaviour not to be interpreted as a ‘sign’ of such imputed character traits.

And if you’ve ever wondered about the role that bullying plays in school discipline, this might provide some insight:

The classroom is an important site for the production of problematic reputations. The public nature of discipline, conducted under the imperative to form a crowd of children into the collectivity of a ‘class’, means that children who diverge from the rules are identified as ‘different’ in plain view of other children and adults. There are undoubtedly good reasons for classroom rules – courtesy, democratic participation, safety, a congenial learning environment. However these rules are operationalised in ways that marginalise a minority of children, who become examples against which the preponderance may recognise itself as ‘normal’.

Written Ministerial Whisper

March 12, 2010

You could be forgiven for missing the announcement that the national eCAF database is going live, made in a written ministerial statement yesterday:

CAF information is currently recorded using a paper format or on local systems. A new system to electronically enable the CAF, called National eCAF, will be made available from 22 March 2010 to a small group of early adopter organisations who have applied to take part in this scheme. They comprise four local authorities—Birmingham, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Walsall, and two voluntary organisations—Barnardo’s and Kids. Information will be held on National eCAF, as with the CAF, only with the explicit consent of the child or young person, or their parents or carers as appropriate.

If you’re still not sure what a CAF (‘Common Assessment Framework’) is, it’s a personal profiling tool to be used on children and their families when a child needs services. The Practitioners’ guide can be downloaded here (pdf) and we recommend that you scroll down to Annex D on p.71 to get an idea of the kind of information that is sought. That weasel word ‘appropriate’, designed to disguise subjective opinion as non-judgmental, makes 21 appearances, as when a practitioner is invited to consider whether the child has ‘age-appropriate friendships’ and ‘appropriate behaviour’, or whether parents offer ‘appropriate’ sensitivity, warmth, guidance and support.

And, yes, they are planning to put this information on a single, national database.

As for consent, we have been told repeatedly by those working in children’s services that, in practice, if you want services you had better agree to the CAF process. When it comes to who actually gives this ‘consent’, to quote from our research report on the subject:

The Government asserts in guidance that children in England can generally be presumed able to consent to the sharing of their personal and sensitive data from around the age of 12. Many local authorities repeat this advice. It has no basis in English law.

Unaccompanied children need privacy, too

March 9, 2010

A fairly flat-out piece of research has resulted in our latest report, ‘Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum: Privacy, Consent and Data Protection’.

We are particularly alarmed that information given to social workers by children for one purpose is being used for an entirely different purpose by UK Border Agency. If you don’t have time to read the full report (or even the Executive Summary at the beginning) two articles, one in CYP Now and the other in Community Care, explain what we mean.

Once again the old problem of consent rears its head, too. Despite our efforts, the government’s erroneous belief that 12-year-olds can be presumed competent to give consent to data-sharing persists unshaken. In case you’re wondering, that assumption has absolutely no basis in English law. It has been made up. Or, as one of the lawyers contributing to our earlier report on children’s consent said, plucked ‘out of the air’.