The Channel 4 quiz show Countdown and the government would seem
to have little in common.
But on closer inspection, while presenter Richard Whiteley presides
over the legendary clock on the daytime TV programme, the
government’s clock is also ticking away. For in just over five
months ministers are due to decide whether to create a children’s
database so that all professionals working with children can share
The government must decide whether to start working towards
implementing IT systems containing basic information on all
children, as detailed in the Children Act 2004. Eleven information
sharing and assessment (ISA) trailblazing areas in England, based
on local authorities, have been established to inform this
decision. All are at varying stages.
Three of the 11 are yet to go live with pilot IT systems while
three others have still not finished their pilot (news, page 10, 12
May). Here we speak to three ISA trailblazers at different stages
of development to find out how they are progressing and what the
lessons have been so far.
Telford & Wrekin and Shropshire
Working as an ISA trailblazer was a natural step for Telford
& Wrekin Council, according to the local authority’s head of
children and young people services, John Gilbert. “We saw the ISA
as an external endorsement of the way we were doing things. This is
a further rung on the ladder of a journey we are all climbing
In January 2003, the government gave Telford & Wrekin
£1.1m for the ISA and, three months later, ran a pilot with
The ISA operated in south Telford and encompassed 36 schools,
including primary, secondary and special schools until March 2005.
Gilbert says that adapting the way professionals working with
children operated was like “turning an oil tanker, not a mini-boat”
because it was about changing their mindset. “The ISA was about
trying to change a culture and people’s ways of thinking in a short
period of time,” he says. “The acid test for any pilot is not how
successful it is when you are in the middle of it but how it is
after you have finished. If we go back to what we were doing
pre-April 2003 then it will have failed.”
It is widely accepted among the other ISA trailblazers that
Telford & Wrekin is top of the class. The council has
mainstreamed the ISA processes into its work with children and
families and has broken up the areas that the pilot covers into
five school and community clusters with between 10 and 12 schools.
It is now recruiting five co-ordinators to oversee the work of the
One of the successes of this approach, says Gilbert, is that
colleagues who worked in the pilot areas know how to approach
information sharing within the different locations.
Although Telford & Wrekin’s experience has been positive it
still had to deal with difficulties over data sharing, especially
from GPs who were unsure about how they fitted into the ISA
Knowsley became a trailblazer local authority because it wanted
to improve its multi-agency working. And progress on this has been
achieved, says Mark Simmonds, the council’s ISA manager for 15
months until last April, who raised awareness of the benefits of
information sharing with practitioners.
“The whole drive of ISA is towards early intervention and
working with children and young people to try to prevent their
needs becoming acute,” he says.
In April 2003 the council was awarded £1m from the
Department for Education and Skills to develop ISA.
The first thing it did was to revise its model of children in
need and get all its partner agencies to agree to work to the same
Joann Clarke, who took over the ISA project manager role from
Simmonds, says this move was vital as each partner could see where
their service fitted into the model, and therefore within the ISA
itself. The 12 major organisations involved, including two primary
schools and a secondary school, also signed an information sharing
agreement with the council.
Despite its success with the agencies, Clarke says the pilot
faced some problems with those working on the front line. “At a
practitioner level it was about improving their confidence and
trust in sharing information, about what information they could
actually share with each other and how they did that,” she
The ISA trailblazer set about changing the ways that
practitioners work, such as how they liaise with each other when
they make a referral to another agency.
All 205 practitioners in the pilot area completed two days of
training on how the ISA system operates and Clarke is continuing to
run a training event each month until September.
She says Knowsley is committed to continuing the work of the ISA
because it can dramatically improve the quality of practice,
sharing of information and provision of services for children and
young people. “We will be able to prevent duplication in services
and highlight any gaps,” she says.
Leicester, Leicestershire and
Peter Chester, the service manager for the Leicester,
Leicestershire and Rutland (LLR) ISA, is the first to admit its
pilot has not been an easy ride. LLR’s pilot began in April 2003
when it received £1.2m from the Department for Education and
Chester says the scale of what the trailblazer was initially
asked to do, when it was first known as the identification,
referral and tracking system, was much broader than LLR had
A particular difficulty the ISA encountered was in getting the
necessary information on children and young people from the health
authorities. Concerns over the confidentiality and sharing of
certain information resulted in the pilot having to “pull back”.
Chester says: “Health needed to be satisfied that the security
controls over patient information were adequate.”
This meant that, when the pilot was rolled out, it covered
children and young people in the Rutland area only and not in
Leicester and Leicestershire, as had been envisaged.
The LLR ISA developed a directory with 900 services, both
locally and nationally, for children, young people and their
families that anyone can access on the internet. This element of
LLR’s ISA work has been the most tangible, says Chester, because it
is visible on a website and people are using it, including 100
practitioners in Rutland. LLR has also established a database of
the 2,500 under-18s in its ISA pilot area.
Chester stresses that the difficulties LLR faced did not prevent
it learning from the ISA process. “In confronting some of the
issues it has been good that we have managed to resolve them. It
has built up confidence at all kinds of levels for practitioners,
managers and service leaders.”
Despite the bumpy ride, Chester says the process was worth
pursuing. He adds: “The complexity of working across such a large
partnership should never be underestimated.”