Remember the “database state”? Before the last election,
freedom lovers in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were highly
critical of Labour's propensity to collect personal information about every
citizen. The Labour government believed that building vast databases would
enable the state not just to fight crime but also to monitor our use of public
services, enabling government to allocate resources more efficiently. Billions
were spent in pursuit of these objectives, despite increasing evidence of the
risks to privacy through careless handling of the supposedly secure data, and
despite the expensive failure of several high-profile projects (such as the NHS
central information system and the National Offender Management system).
In opposition, Conservatives promised to limit the use of
such data, improve security and, in some cases, to cancel databases altogether.
This was an agenda around which the two coalition parties could happily
concur. In practice, it has has proved
rather more difficult to achieve. Labour's project to put every child in
England and Wales on a database, called Contactpoint, was cancelled by Tim
Loughton, then Children's Minister, in 2010. Mr Loughton took the view that logging
information about 11 million children would hinder, rather than help, the
prevention of child abuse.
As the Sunday
Times (£) revealed at the weekend, however, a database almost as big as
Contactpoint, and carrying far more detailed information per child, is not only
being built in 8 out of 10 state-maintained schools but is now also being
shared with local health services, charities and the police.
The School Information Management System (SIMS) was devised by a
schoolteacher in the 1980s to enable schools to manage pupils' records online;
it was bought by Capita in 1994.
According to Capita's website, its aim is “to
free teachers from an administration burden so they could concentrate on
learning and teaching.” As Capita explains “if you can’t see every pupil, every
class and every department year-on-year, you can’t measure progress effectively
and can’t intervene effectively.” SIMS is
“trusted with managing the records of 6 million pupils every day,
managing pupil records in over 22,000 schools, for the last 25 years.”
For many teachers, using a SIMS database to log pupil attendance,
performance, grades, progress and behaviour seems uncontroversial. Data can be
shared easily with other teachers and parents can be given up-to-the-minute
reports on a child's progress. Performance targets can be monitored through
a ‘traffic lights’ colouring system.
According to Capita, schools can also “Use data recorded on both an individual
and a group basis to inform judgements about how to allocate resources most
effectively for school improvement.” Labour's vision, of deploying technology
to build a single picture of every individual in order to improve efficiency,
is steadily being realised.
Most parents, insofar as they are aware that their children's
teachers are using SIMS, are probably content that pupil information is being
collated by computer. Of course, there are always risks attached: careless data
entry could lead to a false picture of a child being created and circulated,
teachers might place too much reliance on data at the expense of personal
judgement and face-to-face interaction with other staff. Computer software can
only be as competent as the people using it, and Capita's extravagant claims
for the benefits of its products must be taken with a pinch of salt.
However, parents who receive SIMS-based information about their
child's progress at school might be surprised to learn that any of this
information is being shared beyond the school gates. There is a big difference
between trusting teachers to share a pupil's grades with another teacher in the
school and permitting them to pass the
information to a local authority database. There is even more difference
between a school keeping tabs on a child's lateness for lessons and offering
the data to the police.
“If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide” is the
mantra of those who justify information information gathering on the grounds of
safety, child protection, or the prevention of crime. But that ignores the
essential role of trust in allowing data gathering to take place. Individuals
and parents who agree to the collection of their personal data, or information
about their children, need to have confidence that it will be used responsibly,
not be passed around without consent (except in an emergency), and will not
leak out into the public domain. The more data is shared with different agencies, the greater the risk to
personal privacy, and the greater the erosion of trust. In the context of
education, and in any situation involving children, trust is particularly
important: parents must be able to trust teachers and have confidence that the
school will always have the child's interests at heart. Treating children as
units of data, for the better allocation of resources, may be technically
effective, but it doesn't build trust.
Local authorities, schools and indeed IT producers like Capita's
SIMS, should also be mindful of the risks of indiscriminate data collection
obscuring important or urgent information. The last government optimistically
believed that a database with 11 million children on it would enable social
services to spot child abuse. As child protection experts observed at the time,
however, you don't find a needle in a haystack by making the haystack bigger.
The increased dependence by social workers on inputting data and filling in
forms has also reduced time on the front line of child protection; moreover, it
threatens to undermine responsible decision-making.
This week Lord Carlile is due to release a set of recommendations
on child protection resulting from his enquiry into a horrific case of
child-on-child abuse in Edlington, near Doncaster, in 2009. Two sadistic brothers aged 10 and 11, who
were well known to social workers and care agencies, tortured and sexually
assaulted two younger boys and left them for dead. Doncaster's Serious Case
Review (SCR) on the incident found that social workers had missed numerous
opportunities to take the offending boys into care long before their behaviour
deteriorated to this extent. The main problem seemed to be not that there was
any lack of information being collated about the boys, nor indeed any shortage
of inter-agency meetings to discuss their circumstances, but that none
of those social workers or agencies involved was willing or able to take a
Education Secretary Michael Gove ordered the Carlile enquiry
because he was dissatisfied with the recommendations in Doncaster's SCR.
According to a leak at the weekend (again in the Sunday
Times £) Lord Carlile's recommendations will include the proposal that all
schoolchildren undergo annual medical checks at school (instead of just
receiving a school entry check as at present), so that school nurses could look
out for signs of abuse.
Presumably the results of those millions of new checks will
be entered on a Capita database and passed around all the relevant authorities?
Let's hope the other Carlile recommendations will be more potent. Back in 2005,
report (PDF) on Labour's reforms to child protection and their Every Child
Matters agenda, I made a couple of recommendations which still, I believe,
remain valid. First, that social workers should spend less time in data entry
and multi-disciplinary meetings, and secondly that there should be a direct
chain of command – and accountability –
from front-line social workers to the head of child protection in every local
authority, and thence to the Secretary of State himself.
History has shown that drawing 11 million children into the
child protection net has allowed the real victims to slip through. So let's not
repeat Labour's mistake. Instead of just privatising the database state, we
should concentrate on dismantling it – and in rebuilding trust, direct
communication, and personal accountability.