National Information Sharing Index: will it improve child protection? The trailblazers report back…

The need for practitioners and agencies to work better together and to share information about their young clients more readily was clearly highlighted by Victoria Climbié’s death. Lord Laming’s subsequent report into the handling of her case, and the Every Child Matters green paper that followed that, placed information-sharing firmly at the centre of early intervention and prevention work.

Even before these reports were published, cross-government guidance on improving information sharing and assessment was issued to all local councils in England in November 2002, detailing a set of nine minimum requirements across children’s services in their areas.

On top of this, 11 trailblazer groups covering 15 local authorities in England were identified and funded to pioneer new systems for information sharing.

Now, the groups’ experiences are influencing the work of other councils up and down the UK as the deadline for linking local databases together to form a national information sharing index, to be known as ContactPoint, fast approaches (see What is ContactPoint).

So what can other councils learn from the trailblazers about systems for sharing information? In December 2005, early findings from the pilot sites suggested that local online databases – known as children’s indexes – were already improving the service experience for children and families, resulting in faster and more effective intervention before problems became serious, and reducing the time wasted by practitioners trying to find out which other services were involved with a child and trying to contact the right person.

The findings, published by the Department for Education and Skills, also suggested indexes were allowing quicker assessments to be made about whether a child was receiving universal services.

East Sussex Council, one of the ISA trailblazer councils, initially worked in partnership with its neighbour West Sussex Council during the pilot period.

The area’s Local Children’s Index now holds basic information on the 246,000 children and young people aged zero to 17 living in East Sussex or receiving services from the local authority but living elsewhere. Information recorded includes details about which universal services each child accesses – such as the school they attend and the GP they are registered with – as well as flagging up any additional or specialist services they may be involved in. It is automatically drawn from several existing databases, helping ensure it is up to date.

East Sussex’s ISA manager Celia Wilson says the benefit of having the index in this format is that the county’s 2,800 practitioners can now simply log into the computer system, type a child’s name into the directory, and immediately be able to identify what services that child is accessing and which other professionals the practitioner may need to liaise with. The contact details of the professionals involved with the child are also logged there.

Telford and Wrekin Council is another of the trailblazers and began working in partnership with Shropshire Council on a pilot in January 2003. Sarah Tough, a change for children manager at the council, says: “For us, ISA was not an IT project in itself as IT wasn’t the solution. We saw IT as an enabler as a means of supporting practitioners to speed up the process of knowing who is involved with a child.”

The process of developing an electronic index to record details of the 47,000 children in Telford and Wrekin was helped by consulting with local families and gaining their consent. Tough says very few families refused to have their child’s details recorded on the index once they knew what it was about.

To support this work – and reassure parents – the council also carried out a piece of work looking at the legal implications of information sharing and what IT was needed to support it appropriately.

However, another of the trailblazers, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, found a very different answer to the legal dilemmas creating a local database posed. Acting on legal advice, the west London council withdrew from the pilot and decided to focus instead on developing information-sharing business processes and training. A spokesperson for the council explains: “The council was advised that it could not use primary care trust data to populate a local information sharing index. As such data was considered critical to the success of the index, it was decided not to proceed.”

Another significant issue in terms of developing local indexes is how they fit in with the common assessment framework (CAF) and the integrated children’s system, the electronic case record system for children’s social care. East Sussex’s index uses a “CAF indicator” next to the name of the practitioner who is acting as the lead professional for a child. Consequently, all those working with the child and who have access to the index can check with the named professional the status of the child’s assessment. A similar system at Telford and Wrekin means all staff accessing the index automatically know if a common assessment has been conducted with a child or not.

Despite some concerns, the government and many social workers are confident that the development of electronic indexes – at both a local and national level – is a step in the right direction to help safeguard more children, target preventive services more effectively, and ensure those professionals working with children can make better use of their time. Accuracy is therefore key. As Wilson warns: “No care management system is perfect and it is only as good as the information it holds. It depends on the people writing down and recording the information. You can be at the mercy of other agencies.”

The Lessons
● A cultural shift towards sharing information more effectively is a prerequisite for a successful electronic index.
● Staff training in using the local indexes should be multidisciplinary and carried out within the wider context of integrated working.
● Staff using the index need to understand the roles and responsibilities of other professionals accessing it.
● Getting the support of senior managers in children’s services is vital for the successful development and implementation of the index.

What is ContactPoint (back)
● ContactPoint is the forthcoming national information sharing index, which is due to go live by the end of 2008. It is intended to support practitioners across the country to co-operate to improve well-being and to safeguard and promote welfare of all children in England
● Early findings from the trailblazers, published in December 2005, suggested a national system was essential, as many children access services in different councils or move between areas
● More recently, a Community Care survey of almost 500 children’s social workers revealed that two-thirds predicted a national database was likely to aid joint working and lead to earlier intervention
● Statutory guidance detailing the operation, maintenance and security of ContactPoint is due out for consultation this spring, and final guidance will be published later this year

Related article
Find out more about the Newcastle and Gateshead Council trailblazer

Further information
Learning from Information Sharing and Assessment Trailblazers

Contact the author
 Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 10 May issue under the headline “Trailblazing for child protection”

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