Interesting article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian recently, lamenting the current government’s abandonment of the joined-up approach to children’s wellbeing, under the Every Child Matters programme. Recent tragedies, such as the deaths of Hamzah Khan and Daniel Pelka, have pushed child protection back up the public agenda. Sadly, almost every time such a case hits the headlines the same list of failings emerges.

As Toynbee writes:

Every inquiry finds doctors, social workers, teachers and police failing to speak or share information, passing the buck and leaving the child unheard.

Case after case, back to Victoria Climbie and beyond, showed different people being involved with a child at different times, but no one able to piece together the whole picture.

So far so familiar. But I was interested to see Toynbee disinterring a project previously written out of recent history. ContactPoint – the children’s database that was so misunderstood and is now so forgotten.

contactpointThis was an IT-based directory, growing out of a recommendation from Lord Laming’s enquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie. It enabled someone dealing with a child to find out what other professionals were in contact with that child, and talk to them if there might be shared concerns.

Let me declare an interest: I worked on the ContactPoint Project. It was a triumph in many ways: a government IT project that worked and came within budget, a simple to use tool that was built on complex, innovative technical developments. But in other ways, we failed.

Crucially, we never overcame widespread misunderstandings and won hearts and minds. ContactPoint didn’t have have a lot of personal information on children. It was secure. It did not stereotype children by including ‘flags of concern’ (despite what Toynbee’s article says about that).

It was really nothing more than a directory that helped authorised and qualified professionals talk to each other and share information about a child when they needed to. But both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took against it, largely on supposed civil liberty grounds.

A key argument said it was disproportionate to have every child listed, when only a small minority would ever be the subject of concern. But no practicable way has been found of keeping data only on those children who might one day prompt concern. It would be like compiling a slimline Yellow Pages without including any plumbers because most people’s pipes are usually fine.

Sure enough, when the coalition took office in 2010, ContactPoint was binned without delay. The new Minister responsible was uninterested in how it might be working. Instead, having campaigned vociferously against it, he was keen to shut it down as swiftly as possible.

The early days of a new government are an anxious time for civil servants. And when the new government has made a clear and unambiguous commitment to get rid of something, arguing against doing so is not an attractive prospect for even the most senior official. So when, in an early meeting, the new Minister asserted that no one could show him any real evidence that the system was any use,  no one was very keen to contradict him.

One civil servant (clearly lacking in ambition), pointed out that such evidence did in fact exist. A report of the experience of the ContactPoint ‘early adopters’ had been published late in 2009. You will struggle to find it on the current Department for Education website – what it says is inconveniently at odds with what the present government has done – but it still sits in an archive of ‘un-documents’ from Labour’s days. You can find it here.

ContactPoint lessons learned reportThe report drew on the experience of real practitioners – the few who ever got the chance to use ContactPoint in their jobs. Did they think it could make a difference?

Carol, an education welfare officer said:

“In each case where I have used it, I have been able to quickly get in touch with the right people…one young person…had left his school, and the family had moved out of the borough, and left no forwarding address. I learned from ContactPoint that the family was living under an alias and the child was not attending any school. I would never have obtained this information without ContactPoint.”

Here’s Phil, the Deputy Principal of a school attendance service:

 “We have located eight students who had been designated as missing education for over a year…outside the borough but within our national borders. We’ve been able to get in touch with the relevant local authorities to alert them, so they can make contact with the families involved and establish what support is required.”

And Anita, working in a hospital A&E department:

“A child…lied about his address and phone number as he had run away from home. I went onto ContactPoint and was able to find his correct contact details, enabling us to quickly contact his social worker…”

Within weeks of the coalition government coming into office we shut down the ContactPoint database, and permanently destroyed both the system and the data on it.

One coalition agreement objective quickly ticked off. One government IT project that was being delivered successfully and within budget scrapped. Over £200m spent for nothing.

Hard-pressed professionals struggling on without modern tools to help them join up the dots and protect children better.

That’s democracy. It was a manifesto commitment for both coalition parties, and civil servants serve the government of the day. But are children safer as a result?

On the Guardian website, someone called ‘tclare’ commented on the Toynbee article. She said she’d had a friend working in a hard-pressed social work department. She worried about the file of names of missing children, and the lack of a system to check that they were OK wherever they had gone. Before the 2010 election this friend:

told me that a new IT system (contact point) was being developed to solve the problem but she was anxious how slow it was in coming in and how desperately they needed it. Apparently a huge amount of money had already been spent on this IT system when the coalition came in and unbelievably scrapped it! …it was part of the lib dem’s ideology that all data bases were’ a bad thing’. It is the single most terrible thing that the lib dems have done in my opinion.


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Filed under early years, Policy

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