Saturday, 13 December 2008

ContactPoint and Schools

Coming out of the recommendations in light of the Victoria Climbié tragedy, ContactPoint is a DCFS project to create a central database that will be the "quick way for practitioners [schools, doctors, health workers etc] to find out who else is working with the same child or young person, making it easier to deliver more coordinated support." [DCFS Annex A: Q&A]

We in independent schools are being required to provide information about our pupils. Whilst it is tempting to see this as a defining step towards a Big Brother, ID cards etc or as another opportunity to share our personal data with a wider audience [see Daily Mail article 14/11/2008], there is behind this a much more reasonable rationale. It may be both worrying and surprising to learn that the Government at present do not know who is and who is not at school. The DCSF know who attend maintained sector schools and also those who are home-educated, however they cannot distinguish between pupils who go to independent schools and those children who are not being educated at all. By providing details of our pupils the DCSF will be able to do the sums and thus will be able to identify those vulnerable whose parents who have never registered their child at a school.

The data that we are required to provide is governed by the statutory instrument The Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007. The personal information includes the following: name, current address, gender, date of birth, parental name and contact details.

There are three aspects to the way in which the Department is implementing this project that combine to undermine confidence in ContactPoint.

The DCFS are working with a concept of "fuzzy matching" of data - in other words ContactPoint relies on an algorithm to come up with the best fit - sadly this might not be right match. This is driven by the utilitarian idea of "useful rather than accurate information". This methodology might be acceptable if there were a rigorous data-checking procedure in place. However in the absence of any mechanism for schools to ensure that the data that they have provided has been correctly matched with the other data that the DCFS is receiving, it is deeply worrying. Mistakes in input, data transfer and matching inevitably will be made. Again, this methodology might be acceptable if there were a data field that could act as a robust unique identifier, thus allowing the database to create a perfect match. Despite every child in the country having a unique identifier, their NHS number; and, despite this number being one of the pieces of data to be held on ContactPoint, it is considered too sensitive and personal piece of information to be used in this way. The consequence of these three aspects of their methodology is that ContactPoint will not contain accurate data, which may undermine the whole usefulness of the exercise. If the DCFS is taking child protection and inter-service communication seriously, one might expect that a high level of accuracy of the data be a high priority

The DCFS' methodology may seem bizarre, but they do find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, in light of the Victoria Climbié and Child P cases, Government and local agencies are being attacked for not having effective lines of communication [I'll leave the sledge-hammer to crack nut arguments to others]. On the other hand, there have been a number of examples of Government departments not looking after our personal data. The inadequacies of the above methodology derive from an institutional paranoia that ContactPoint data will end up in the wrong hands. However, there are some indications that what the DCSF have come up with is neither going to protect children [which incidentally is not an explicit aim of ContactPoint] or to protect our data.

If the sole purpose of the database is better to facilitate communication between those who have contact with a particular child, then the DCFS only need sufficient information to be able to match school data about a pupil accurately with the information that ContactPoint is receiving from GPs and other practitioners. Independent schools routinely hold multiple addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses for a single pupil. We have a responsibility to both our parents and to our pupils to protect their personal data. Given the Government's record at looking after such data, I believe that we would be prudent to provide the DCFS with the minimum data required by the statute.

For more information: Baroness Delyth Morgan's letter to Independent School heads 25/11/2008

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