Refocussing child protection

April 29, 2010

A nice interview in Community Care with Eileen Munro on her plans for improving child protection:

Munro wants to wipe the slate clean. “We’re not talking about trimming back the current forms but re-examining why we record anything and ensuring that what we do record helps children. We have to go back to recording the narrative, not data.”

She puts a welcome emphasis on the need to include children and families in the process, rather than simply doing things to them:

Munro is keen that all documents are simple enough for families to read them and flexible enough to take children’s views into account. “That might mean a child’s drawing or a poem,” she says. “We need to be trying to understand children’s experience and not treat them as oddities who must be fitted into the assessment process.”

Update: Also on the child protection track, Sue White takes no prisoners in Society Guardian today:

The system keeps limping along – its feet bearing the self-inflicted gunshot wounds of trigger-happy policymakers…They promised us a safe 4×4 in which to navigate a primrose path, but we’ve ended up down a muddy track in a Reliant Robin. Let’s get out and walk.


Policy-making without evidence

April 28, 2010

Disappointing to see the Scottish Children’s Commissioner applauding early intervention.

Speaking at crime reduction charity Nacro’s annual conference in Nottingham, Tam Baillie said indicators that a child will go on to offend can be present from a young age and it is important to “get in early”.

It’s yet more proof that if you keep repeating something often enough, even intelligent people (who should know better) start to believe it. The ‘risk prediction’ concept is now firmly entrenched but where is the evidence that this approach is actually effective? Sure, there are plenty of research reports that begin with phrases like “there is mounting evidence…” or “it is now widely recognised that…” but when you drill down, the actual evidence is scanty, anecdotal or non-existent.

It’s a shame that policy-makers and politicians – across all parties – haven’t paid closer attention to the report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, ‘Risky people or risky societies?’ which goes to the trouble of examining the evidence-base.

Policy interventions that seek to target individuals and their families on the basis of certain characteristics, with the intention of preventing future offending, have no obvious basis in current research. Risk factor research also operates with a number of assumptions that, on closer scrutiny, are problematic and, despite claims of scientific objectivity, are necessarily ideological. The nuances and qualifications have at times become lost in translation from the academy to Whitehall, but the focus on individual and micro-social risks has chimed with the priorities of policy makers.

That’s not to say that you can’t do something about factors within a local environment that tend to disadvantage children, but:

different population groups in different parts of the country experience markedly different levels of risk…The challenge is to rethink a policy framework that recognises the variable risks that different groups face in society, but without engaging in the dubious and ultimately futile exercise of identifying risky individuals.

By all means provide decent housing, good schools, decent leisure facilities. By all means intervene when a parent is neglecting or abusing their children, or when a child is clearly skidding off the rails. But for now we need rather more rigorous evidence that children’s life-trajectories can be predicted before anyone ‘intervenes’. And on the ‘do no harm’ principle, we also need a reasonable degree of certainty that ‘intervention’ (together with its co-respondent, sensitive-data-gathering) aren’t actively harmful to those who would otherwise have been fine.

Left and right hands still out of sync

April 27, 2010

The move to online services in education continues apace:

Becta has told English secondary schools to provide online reports for all pupils by September…Ultimately, the agency wants all schools to integrate the online reports into virtual learning environments so parents can see what their children are doing in the classroom.

Well, assuming their internet access hasn’t been suspended, that is. This is exactly the kind of thing we had in mind when we argued that the disastrous Digital Economy Act has some pretty serious implications for children’s education rights.

Quacking Information Security

April 26, 2010

News in the tech press that the NHS has been visited by Qakbot – a worm with a keen appetite for peoples’ sensitive data. (Despite the name it wasn’t specifically designed to target the NHS).

The effects of malware on systems that gather our sensitive data haven’t really entered public consciousness, but there are potentially serious problems here, especially when so many practitioners are logging in to systems remotely.

Last year, Tim Loughton asked a string of government departments about the incidence of malware during the previous year. Most of the replies fell into one of two categories. The Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department for Communities and Local Government played the Mornington Crescent card by insisting that national security would be threatened if they even looked at the question.

Others, including the Department for Health when asked about NHS hospitals, produced the standard brush-off: ‘The information requested is not held centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost’.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families dealt with it like this:

how many and what proportion of computers in (a) local authority children’s services departments, (b) Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service and (c) schools were found to be infected with malware in 2008.

Information on the number or proportion of computers infected with malware is not collected centrally from either local authority children’s services or from schools. However many schools do employ a managed service for their ICT support and those organisations will normally maintain this information and report to schools.

It simply won’t do. If a government department is mandating the collection of peoples’ sensitive data – particularly when this is without any opportunity to consent or opt out – it ought to be taking responsibility for the security of that data a great deal more seriously.

Parents’ Privacy Guide

April 16, 2010

We have been vaguely promising for ages to produce a guide for parents about children’s privacy, and we’ve finally done it in conjunction with the ‘Erasing David’ team. It’s here (pdf)

And if you haven’t heard of ‘Erasing David’ yet: it’s a fascinating film that receives its cinema premiere on 29th April and makes its TV debut on More4 on May 4th. David Bond, the producer, decided to disappear for a month and challenged private detectives to track him down. On his travels, he discovered just how much information about us is ‘out there’.

Watch the film to see whether he succeeded in evading his pursuers… it’s a ripping yarn and even for those of us involved in it, the finished product still pushes the adrenaline levels up. More about it on the Erasing David website.

Quick update: there’s a nice article about ‘Erasing David’ in the Times today.

A chance to stop the roundabout?

April 11, 2010

Three years ago we blogged about the nightmare of Special Educational Needs provision, and that particular post still gets a lot of visits.

It seems that nothing has changed. Bill Tuckey, writing in today’s Independent, rolls out a string of examples of the frustrating struggle faced by families trying to get proper provision for their children:

I could go on – list them by the dozen, all within a mile or two of where I live, all struggling with unsympathetic teachers or incompetent professionals, penny-pinching local authorities or draining legal wrangles – a toxic morass in the middle of which their child sits, miserable, let down, or excluded.

If the endless round of reports and recommendations haven’t made a scrap of difference, perhaps it’s time that families took up cudgels together – and this is precisely what Bill Tuckey is suggesting. Together with three other parents, he has set up the website ‘Sensay’ to bring families together on the basis that:

‘SEN provision in Britain could be vastly improved if parents like us could speak with a united voice, to demand more expertise, money and political will be expended on behalf of our children.’

They really want to hear from families doing battle with the SEN system. If that’s you, go and help get the ball rolling – and pass the URL on to anyone else who might join the action.

DNA porkies

April 9, 2010

The press seems to be pretty underwhelmed so far by the government’s latest breeze-chatting on the subject of the National DNA Database. See Alan Travis in the Guardian, for example.

‘Number-of-the-week’ appears to be 23 – purportedly the number of serious crimes that would have gone undetected if innocent people were not on NDNAD, but quite how anyone arrived at this figure is not clear. Over the years, the government has repeatedly spouted all kinds of numbers in an attempt to justify its unlawful policy on DNA retention, but has then invariably gone all coy when asked to provide any shred of evidence for them.

Read Genewatch’s press release for a rebuttal of this latest exercise in plucking things out of the air – and it’s worth following the link to their evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee where you can see (from the Home Office’s own statistics) the effects of NDNAD on detection rates over the past 7 years: none whatsoever.

Taking data security seriously again

April 6, 2010

It would have been easy to miss this piece of bad news buried in the tin-foil of a few million Easter eggs:

Memory sticks and CDs containing the personal details of 9,000 school children have been stolen from a house in north London…The computer equipment was encrypted – in line with council policies to avoid access to confidential information – but this was not the case with the CDs or memory sticks.

Apparently the member of staff responsible has been suspended and, according to Techwatch:

Barnet council has taken action to tighten up its security, by disabling USB ports and any access to external storage devices so such unauthorised file copying won’t be able to happen in the future.

The council has also ordered that all computers leaving the office will have to have their data encrypted from now on, and it’s launching an independent review into the whole issue of how its data is managed.

Perhaps Barnet hasn’t read the Data Handling Guidelines, created especially for them and all other councils 18 months ago. Had they done so, they perhaps might have considered reviewing their practices rather earlier and following the example of councils that have made it impossible to copy data on to removable media without prior consent.

In the course of their review, they may also like to bear in mind the words of Ian Brown in our report on children’s consent:

‘It is critical that systems are designed in a way that as far possible prevents security breaches, such as preventing sensitive data being copied onto unencrypted laptops, USB disks and other mobile media; and limiting very strongly the amount of sensitive data that can be copied around a system – eg it might be reasonable for a social worker to take home the records of 10 individuals on an encrypted laptop. It is a disaster waiting to happen for a director of children’s services to take home information on hundreds or thousands of individuals, regardless of laptop encryption or any information security training they have received.’

Nobody should be able to take the details of 9,000 children home with them in the first place.