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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: The database state is not dead, just privatised

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 decision.

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, in my 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.


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