Sunday, July 30, 2006

Dishonesty of Special Needs provision

Some damning testimony in today's Observer from neuropsychologist Dr Janis Newcomen, about the treatment of children with special needs:
'It was always my intention eventually to return home to the United States, but I'm going years early because in all conscience I can no longer participate in a corrupt and dysfunctional system that is dishonest in its treatment and management of children with special needs.'

In seven years as an NHS neuropsychologist, Newcomen has been so disgusted and upset by what she has seen that she is packing her bags and walking away. She says she can no longer bear to watch children and their families let down again and again. As a specialist who is supposed to provide help she says that she feels 'handcuffed', forced to accept hidden waiting lists, discrimination and constant cost cutting. She says she is officially prevented from making recommendations that could safeguard children's futures.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The truancy scam

We've just been looking at the truancy sweep data for Spring 2006. Since we published our research almost a year ago very little has changed.

In fact, looking back over the data since 2002, there's a clear pattern: an average truancy sweep stops around 10 children, and around 4 of those will be counted as truants. Well, at first glance that probably sounds like a reasonable use of public money, always assuming one isn't too bothered by the human rights implications of having the police question 6 young people who are going about their lawful business, nor about the type of surveillance to which it habituates them - not to mention the fact that some non-truanting children are intimidated and upset by the whole shebang.

On average, each truancy sweep lasts 3 hours and occupies 2 police officers, several education welfare officers and other staff, police drivers, community support officers - all to 'catch' 4 truants. Do they still sound like a reasonable use of resources?

When we published our report, our presence was requested at DfES. At a meeting that was less than mutually cordial - indeed, one of the DfES staff was aggrieved that the breakfast news reports had caused him to choke on his cornflakes - the role that 'presentation' plays in truancy sweeps became apparent. Hardly surprising: they must serve some kind of purpose, and it doesn't appear to be the obvious one of reducing truancy figures.

Mystifying, then, that Joe Public is prepared to continue doling out council tax funds without a murmur for what is little more than a macho advertising campaign designed to frighten everyone.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Look out, there's an ASBO about

It looks as if we can expect an increase in the number of ASBOs issued for ridiculous reasons:
The Home Office is planning to give local authorities targets for the number of antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs) and acceptable behaviour contracts they should issue, as part of plans to reduce regional variations in their use. From September antisocial behaviour and respect indicators will be tied in with local area agreements, which determine local authority funding.
In other words, 'if you want your money next year...' So much for leaving it to 'local communities' to sort their problems out.

Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) are a particularly obnoxious device, and ripe for a legal challenge. They can be issued to anyone under 18, or to parents of under-10s, and contain the same type of list of proscribed behaviour as an ASBO.

The difference is that ASBO applications are heard by magistrates, whereas ABC hearings are conducted by the same local authority that wants to issue them. 'Evidence' is gathered by professional witnesses who go around collecting stories from neighbours. Although ABCs are described as 'voluntary' agreements, the sanctions for breaching them can include eviction - a rather elastic definition of voluntary seems to be in use.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Inconvenient children

The start of the summer holidays has triggered the predictable rash of ‘how to survive your children for six whole weeks’ articles. It’s time for parents to display their special membership of the grown-ups club by rolling their eyes at each other while saying, within earshot of their children: “Only five (four, three) weeks to go!” The message is pretty clear: you’re a nuisance and I don’t enjoy spending time with you. Would any marriage or friendship survive that? Unfortunately, though, children’s dependence means they have no choice.

An interesting coincidence that last Saturday’s Guardian carried an interview with ‘Supernanny’ Jo Frost – the Barbara Woodhouse of the nursery. Decca Aitkenhead’s blistering account makes it clear she was
not impressed:

Frost appears to have given so little thought to the show's sensibility that it's hard to know how much of it she even really shares. She may be the face of the brand, but she has no editorial control. It was Ricochet who chose to cast an unqualified nanny in a semi-pantomime role, and styled her to look like a pseudo-dominatrix. The series producer told me this was "serious, educational documentary-making". But in a crowded TV ratings battle, producers aren't in the business of educating. It's their job to work out what will make us watch.

Why do we watch? Supernanny tells viewers that the problem with "out of control" children is not their unhappiness, but the fuss and bother they cause to grown-ups. And five million of us tune in - dwarfing ratings for the more thoughtful Little Angels - which says a great deal about our prevailing attitude to children.

Frost is surprised by how popular the show is among children themselves, but I'm not, for Supernanny is not unlike a children's story: naughty kids do wicked things, get their comeuppance, and live happily ever after. It's the appeal to adults that is more revealingly arresting. What Supernanny ultimately offers, and what people evidently want, is a regime for making children less inconvenient. As the blurb on Frost's latest book puts it so succinctly, "Want your life back? You need Supernanny!"

Mind you, the Guardian has nothing to boast about. Every week in the same supplement, readers are treated to the tribulations of ‘Living with Teenagers’ (whose demeanour, as we all know, is universally obnoxious to the point where we can all make sweeping generalisations).

Frankly, if any parent's attitude lends itself to such bile-filled description of their teenaged offspring, all the while feigning martyrdom or expressing wistful longing for the lost days of babyhood - not to mention revealing intimate details about their daughter’s difficulties in using tampons, or their son’s anxieties about sex - then it’s hardly surprising that relationships are strained. Whether or not ‘names have been changed’ is irrelevant: the betrayal is the same.

A few years back, the Mental Health Foundation published a report on children’s mental health, ‘The Big Picture’. Sadly it isn’t available online, but we’ll leave you with a terrific quote from it:

We claim to be a child-centred society, but in reality there is little evidence that we are. In many ways, we are a ruthlessly adult-centred society where children are defined almost exclusively in terms of their impact on adult lives…. Our adult-centred society has tried to contain and limit the impact of children on adult life by either excluding them from much of it, blaming them for disturbing it or by admitting them only as designer accessories or treating them like pampered pets.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Children's identity is safe with us...

In the Sunday Times today:

FRESH evidence that Tony Blair’s flagship identity cards scheme is in crisis is disclosed in a confidential Home Office report which has been leaked to The Sunday Times.

The 32-page “restricted” document says that the security system protecting the card and the national database could be infiltrated by criminal gangs involved in identity theft

So how is it that the Information Sharing Index doesn't present such problems, then? Does a couple of hundred million really buy better security than the National Identity Register's projected billions?

It occurs to us that if the Index is genuinely secure, there is no reason whatsoever for excluding children with 'celebrity status' (which presumably includes high-profile politicians' children) from it, as the Government intends.

Information Sharing Index consultation

Just spotted something curious. In a statement to the House on April 26th, Beverley Hughes said:
We will seek Parliament's agreement in autumn 2006 to the main Regulations to govern the operation of the index. We will consult publicly on draft regulations in the summer of 2006.
But on July 5th the following was quietly slipped in to one of her answers:
We will consult over the autumn on draft regulations that will bring the index into operation. The draft regulations will be laid before both Houses for debate under affirmative resolution procedures.
In other words, the consultation on the Information Sharing (aka 'Children's') Index has been put back, and the announcement made in print so small that we almost missed it.

Possible uses for £224m

A document leaked to the Observer shows just how bad things are in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services:

A letter sent from the Department of Health to senior NHS officials shows that the government will fail to meet its three key targets for children and young people's access to psychiatric care by its deadline of December.

The biggest setback is that for one-quarter of the country there is no emergency help for teenagers suffering a 'psychotic crisis' or severe depression. This '24/7 cover' was seen as essential for vulnerable children and teenagers, who can otherwise become far more seriously ill and sometimes suicidal.

For families whose children have learning disabilities, including autism, the situation is also bleak. Only half of primary care trusts, which commission care from hospitals, can provide access to mental health specialists for these youngsters. The leaked document includes a survey showing that in some areas, such as Kent, there is no mental health service at all for such children.

The third target which cannot be met is for 16 to 17-year-olds to have appropriate care. Many end up in adult psychiatric wards, which can be dangerous.

Ah well, if we put millions into a comprehensive database system, at least we'll know which children would need services if we could afford them.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Armed for education

A short item in the Times Education Supplement today points out that the new 'Vericool' biometric school registration system is provided by a subsidiary of the US company accused of training interrogators at Gitmo:

A military company connected to the US interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay camp is behind a finger-printing system used in British schools. VeriCool, which runs fingerprint registration and cashless school lunch systems in 22 UK schools, is part of Anteon, an American company which provides training and technology for the US military.

Anteon has the contract to run specialist courses on topics including interrogation and counter-intelligence at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, headquarters of the US Army Intelligence Center. The company, recently bought by a larger defence business, General Dynamics Information Technology, has been accused of training interrogators who worked at the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay.

It's by no means the only example of connections between defence contractors and education services. Serco, amongst other things, maintains the UK's stockpile of
nuclear warheads whilst running Bradford and Walsall education authorities. Vosper Thornycroft shows its softer side by delivering the Government's Connexions service for 13-19s.

Several years ago, we asked the Government whether alternatives were available for young people and/or parents with ethical objections to having services delivered by companies with links to defence services and the arms trade. We also wrote to various journalists and organisations that might, as we thought, offer support to the people who complained to us. We never did receive any replies - maybe it's just too much to take on.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Antisocial Lettuces (2)

John Lettice in The Register neatly captures the 'all buses are red' nature of the Government's latest wheeze to predict which babies will grow into criminals:
The problem with prediction is that although it is possible to identify 'tell-tale' signs in actual offenders, the presence of these does not necessarily identify future offenders. Start with the real villains and work backwards, and the signs were all obviously there, but studies that start with the signs and work forwards don't end up separating the serial criminals from the law abiding. So yes, it may still seem 'obvious' that you can figure out what made people bad and go back to childhood and fix it, but right now you haven't been able to prove it. So stop experimenting on whole generations until you have proved it, OK?
What sort of criteria are used to judge the likelihood of a child becoming an offender? You can get and idea by scrolling down this page to the 'reasons for concern'. If you have 'housing difficulties' or are 'living in a high crime area', or even if you 'lack facilities', your baby is at risk of social exclusion.

There are quite a few schemes already in existence - see our website for a rundown.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Stamp out binbagging (2)

An update on the binbagging situation that we've mentioned before: 90 local authorities have now signed up to the ‘no binbagging’ charter, so that leaves 60 laggards.

Please, if your local authority is continuing to pretend that binbags are an adequate substitute for a suitcase to carry looked-after children's possessions when they move between placements, go shout at them. Put something on your blog so that others find out about it. Binbagging may seem a small matter, but it gives a very distressing message to a looked-after child and, quite honestly, we're astonished that any local authority can be so insensitive.

We recommend a look around the (very nice) website of A National Voice, the charity organising the binbagging campaign. In their own words:
A National Voice remains the only national organisation run by and for young people from Care – we exist to make positive changes to the Care system in England for 60,000 children currently looked-after.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Antisocial lettuces

Hilary Armstrong, the Social Exclusion Minister, plans to target under-2s who may become antisocial. Yes, really:

She is studying a project which involves parents being visited regularly by nurses throughout the first two years of a child's life and coached on child rearing, as part of attempts to reach dysfunctional families who do not ask for help.

Nurses and health visitors will be asked to identify parents who are not coping or whose older children's behaviour raises concern and direct them to parenting classes, social services intervention or help with drink and drug problems...

Critics will argue the move is a dramatic extension of the state into the parent's home that will cause nurses to be seen as snooping, while stigmatising families who are singled out for such attention.

Apparently more details will follow in September.

Critics are in fact likely to say a great deal more than the report suggests: the evidence is stacking up against 'early intervention'. Far from being, at worst, ineffective, a growing body of research suggests that it can actively do harm. At the recent LSE conference, Jean Hine, a member of a 5-university
research team, gave a fascinating presentation on this very subject. Although necessarily brief, it does capture the simplistic nature of intervention in a child's life. Listen to it via this link - the sound quality is poor, but it's well worth the effort.

And in case you’re wondering what lettuce has to do with all this, see our footnote to this blog entry. What a comforting fantasy it is that everything can be discovered and controlled.

Privatised DNA

DNA in the news again – we've explained our particular interest once or twice before:

The security of the police National DNA Database is in question following the disclosure of confidential emails which reveal that a private firm has secretly been keeping the genetic samples and personal details of hundreds of thousands of arrested people.

Police forces use the company LGC to analyse DNA samples taken from people they arrest. LGC then supplies the information to the National DNA Database. Yet rather than destroy this afterwards, the firm has kept copies, together with highly personal demographic details of the individuals including their names, ages, skin colour and addresses.

In a separate twist, evidence has emerged that the Home Office has given permission for a controversial genetic study to be undertaken using the DNA samples on the police database to see if it is possible to predict a suspect's ethnic background or skin colour from them. Permission has been given for the DNA being collected on the police database to be used in 20 research studies.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Heads-down journalism

We've blogged before about the many problems in the care system. A letter in today's Telegraph from 11 major fostering charities adds yet another dimension:

Sir - For many years thousands of foster carers in England have been out of pocket as a result of fostering, with levels of allowances - theoretically designed to cover the basic costs of looking after a fostered child - varying widely across the country.

We have welcomed this Government's commitment to providing foster carers with a minimum fostering allowance, regardless of where they live. However, we fear that the level of allowances, due to be announced this month, will be far too low, condemning foster carers to continued financial hardship. There is already a shortage of more than 8,000 foster carers in England.

We urge the Government to reconsider these proposals before fixing allowances at disastrously low levels.

In other words, a consortium of charities has done their level best, hit a brick wall and is now sending a Mayday out to the media for some help in getting an 11th-hour change of heart from the Government.

It's depressing that they've reached this point. Less than 2 months ago, the Children's Minister Beverley Hughes opined:
“We are still not doing nearly well enough for these children who are depending on the state to be their corporate parent and we have simply got to do better”
Quite. Encouraging 8,000 more foster-carers would be a good start. She also professed enthusiasm for:
"the kind of qualitative relationships with providers in the voluntary and private sector that we haven’t got everywhere at moment”.
Well, here's a handy relationship hint: depending on the goodwill of foster-carers whilst pushing them into poverty isn't conducive to mutual happiness.

That's not the only problem, though. Having looked on the Fostering Network website, we see that a press release went out last Thursday, yet a Google news search fails to turn up any response to it. Do journalists not think this matters, or are they waiting until the scandalously low levels of fostering allowance are actually announced? How much of a heads-up do they need? The situation is precarious, and some media support might make all the difference.

Here at ARCH, we get pretty ticked off with journos who ring for suitably alarmed comments when it's too late to do anything.

When the Sexual Offences Act was going through Parliament in 2003, we told anyone who would listen just what the implications would be for starry-eyed teenagers. When the Act finally came into force in 2004, we were suddenly inundated with calls asking if it was true that kissing between under-16s was now unlawful? Yes, we replied, but it's a bit late to do anything now - it's a fait accompli. On the other hand, we said, if you'd like to talk about the Children Bill that's going through at the moment, which will allow a dirty great monitoring database to be set up... We'll get back to you on that, they replied...Ha. Instead, we were quoted ad nauseam on the subject of unlawful kissing.

I guess powerless outrage sells papers, but whatever happened to campaigning journalism? There again, maybe we're being unfair. It's just possible that Monday's papers will have the coverage this latest piece of hypocrisy deserves.

Nothing-to-lose lobbying?

Could it be that certain children's NGOs are finally getting to the end of their tether?!!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

'Data sharing could help young adults'

From this week's Young People Now:

The information-sharing system being developed for children and young people could be extended to young adults. Hilary Armstrong, the minister for social exclusion at the Cabinet Office, is chairing a cabinet committee on datasharing, and told Young People Now she is interested in exploring some of the information-sharing ideas from Every Child Matters.

Armstrong is also looking at the Social Exclusion Unit's Transitions report on working with troubled young adults, and how this work can be taken forward.

"Data sharing is very much part of that," she said. "There is a good model coming out of the Every Child Matters agenda, and we can use that in Transitions and in the adult field."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Data security breaches: stuff happens

(Hat tip Ideal Government) Since the massive US ChoicePoint scandal in February 2005, the PrivacyRights organisation has been logging reported instances of data security breaches in the US. So far, 88,931,692 records containing sensitive personal information are involved.

It would be useful to have the same kind of figures for the UK - a particularly pertinent issue when the government is seriously contemplating putting the story of children’s lives on to databases.

Many assume that the greatest threat to data security comes from hackers, but they are overlooking the very serious problem of the ‘inside job’.

Sometimes there is deliberate, corrupt disclosure of data. For example, the Information Commissioner recently published a report giving the
price-list for information unlawfully obtained by private investigators. Women’s Aid say that they know of cases “where domestic violence perpetrators have been able to access information held by the Benefit Agency or the Child Support Agency in order to track down their victims.”

Disclosure also happens through carelessness. People nip off to get cups of coffee, leaving confidential files open on their computer, or they give their passwords over the phone to trusted colleagues because they’re away from the office and need urgent information. They get their laptops stolen. They forget to put 6” nails through the hard-drives of redundant computers – eg the
University of Glamorgan retrieved a school’s confidential record system from the hard-drive of a computer they purchased on ebay.

People work on the bus or tube going home, unaware of shoulder-surfers – an ARCH member reported idly obtaining sufficient information from a social worker’s file to engage in some serious blackmail, before she realised in horror that she was viewing a case-conference report. People make mistakes when they send out letters and appointments – we have any number of examples of that.

Truth is, it doesn’t matter how encrypted, fire-walled and multiply-authenticated a system is: when people are involved, stuff happens.

UPDATE 14.55: Ha! Must be something in the air today – B2fxxx has this from Computer Weekly:
The UK's largest NHS trust has discovered endemic sharing of passwords and log-in identifications by staff, recording 70,000 cases of "inappropriate access" to systems, including medical records, in one month.

Tracking fever

An interesting Private Member’s Bill is up for second reading on Friday. The Licensing of Child Location Services Bill stands virtually no chance of getting through (and in our view would need some amendment) but it does raise the visibility of a serious issue: child-tracking.

Over the past couple of years or so, there has been an explosion in the market for gizmos that tell parents the precise location of their child at any time. At the moment, this is done chiefly via mobile phones, but there are also trackable school bags, watches, etc – and even devices that give you the low-down on where your child has been, which seem to us to be a particularly cynical exploitation of a relationship in trouble.

If ever there was a case of ‘technology looking for a market’, these location devices are it. Exploiting the fear that every parent feels for their child (and which parent doesn’t remember the stomach-churning occasion of their child’s first solo flight?) most advertise themselves as some kind of child-protection that offers parents ‘reassurance’.

A second’s thought will tell you how spurious that reassurance is, because the device only tells a parent where it is. It doesn’t say whether a child is in the same place, is safe, has been in an accident (many, many thousand times more likely than abduction by a stranger) or needs some advice – in which case simply ensuring a parent or nominated substitute is always available on the other end of a phone seems a logical solution.

If anyone merely wanted to check up on their teenage daughter, they should be warned: the immediate reaction of some of ARCH’s younger members was “Great! You could make a fortune – round up everyone’s mobiles for the evening, charge them all a quid and go sit in the church youth club.”

There are so many other reasons why this type of technology is a thoroughly bad idea. Children need privacy, independence and the confidence that they can actually manage in the big wide world, and parents have to learn to trust that their children are competent. (If a child isn’t yet reasonably capable, what in heaven’s name is he doing out on his own with a beeping piece of plastic?)

The problem is that, against all logic, parents are buying into tracking-fever and it’s unlikely that they are going to stop. Currently the devices and systems are not regulated, and new ones are pushing into the lucrative market. The whole, messy area of consent needs sorting out. The potential danger of corrupt or careless disclosure of information needs to be recognised – something that happens in any organisation regardless of CRB checks – and dealt with. The advertising standards need to be tightened up to prevent extravagant claims about the efficacy of these rather pointless products in protecting children.

As we say, the chances of a Private Member’s Bill achieving this first time around are slim, but it’s a good start.

Baby care crisis

Some real problems in hospital treatment for newborn babies

At least three premature babies are being transferred between hospitals every day because of severe shortages of beds and nurses, research published today reveals.

The babies are being transported an average of 126 miles, causing distress to their parents and risking their health, according to an annual audit of all neonatal care in England conducted for the premature-baby charity Bliss. It details a deepening crisis in neonatal care.

Journeys of 200 or 250 miles are not infrequent, and one baby was sent to a hospital 286 miles away in the most extreme example in the last year. The audit shows that half of units are being forced to accept babies they are not equipped for, and that only 3% of units provide the recommended standard of one nurse to one baby in intensive care.

What's that about judging a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable members?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fingerprinting Children (2)

We've just been sent this link (thanks, Glyn):

FURY erupted yesterday after it emerged an estimated 700,000 children are being fingerprinted at school.

Systems in 3,500 primary school libraries allow pupils to take out books by scanning their thumb prints instead of using a card. But campaigners warn the technology is a massive invasion of privacy and a step towards a "database state".

Yet another database

It seems we're about to have a national ‘gifted’ database based on Key Stage 2 results (and presumably courtesy of the National Pupil Database):
A new national register will track secondary school pupils who come in the top five per cent in England for academic test results.
Since when were key stage results a reliable indication of exceptional ability? The CE of the National Association for Gifted Children points out:
"You can't make a proper judgment purely on a child's performance, as many gifted children are known to underachieve at school. Gifted children often recognise they are different from other kids and try to play down the differences, while others may have their talents concealed by dyslexia and dyscalcula."
We know there are plenty of home educators who will second that.

It's official: young people can talk in public

A hat-tip to the Magistrates’ Blog for this story:

The High Court has criticised the way anti-social behaviour laws were used to prosecute a 17-year-old schoolboy. The boy and his friends were talking peacefully at a south-west London shopping centre when they were told to leave by a policeman, two judges heard.

The police officer made the order because of a persistent problem with anti-social behaviour in the area, though the group was well-behaved.

The boy was convicted for not leaving, but that was overturned by judges. The two High Court judges said the police officer's direction was "not a proportionate response".

Well, quite. We'd call it 'discrimination'.

That pesky IT again

The Government's shining example of an IT project that has worked seems to have run into trouble again:
The Home Office's Passport Service has trumpeted its 99.9% performance record for processing passports on time but later conceded that it has hit major problems with a new online service, and is asking people to revert to paper for making passport applications.

Delays in issuing passports, arising from problems with EPA2, a new electronic passport application service, were confirmed by the Home Office only after Computer Weekly presented officials with detailed information on the difficulties.

Initially, when asked about its performance on issuing passports, the Passport Service told Computer Weekly that its target for processing 99.5% of applications within 10 days was "actually currently being exceeded" at 99.9%.

But it failed to mention until pressed that the online service had problems, that staff had reverted to using EPA1 - the system EPA2 was supposed to replace - or that some applicants were in danger of having to cancel holidays.
Oh, and another quick one:

The Youth Opportunity Card, which will give teenagers across the country access to various discounts and services, could be delayed. The scheme was announced by chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown in March. Mr Brown said that he wanted to give 13 to 19-year-olds access to services and discounts on the high street...

However, the pilot scheme, which is due to begin in September, may not start on time because local councils don't have the technology to implement it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

IT Apoplexy

During the last four weeks alone, we’ve had news of the IT fiascos that are the CSA and the Libra courts systems, learned that ID Cards are heading for the rocks, the NHS debacle continues, and that there are even problems with vaccination records.

When Tony Blair was asked whether he could: “tell the House of any major government IT project that has been delivered on budget or on time, or which works?” the best he could think of was the Passport Office – which Channel 4’s
FactCheck describe as: “an odd example of success for Blair to choose”.

This is the same government that is proposing to build an
information-sharing database containing the details of every child in England, and a second, parallel database that holds their entire social care record.

How is it remotely acceptable that, having failed time and again, the government is now allowed to indulge its ‘modern’ fantasy of being down there with the IT crowd, at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society?

Fact-checking Sure Start

Channel 4’s FactCheck has taken a look at the conflicting stories about Sure Start, and delivers the following verdict:
Tony Blair's comments are a reasonable reflection of the findings of government-sponsored research into Sure Start. But he's probably guilty of overstating the effects of Sure Start. It's a long-term programme, and the truth is, we won't know how well it works for a generation. Like David Cameron's speech and, in fact, much discussion of Sure Start, his remarks are potentially misleading because they don't make this important point.
It's worth reading the whole thing because it pulls together the various strands of research and discussion.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Gagging the Messengers

The Government is threatening to stifle the independence of the prisons inspectorate:
A battery of former cabinet ministers, including an ex-home secretary, have accused the government of wanting to abolish the independent post of chief inspector of prisons simply to remove "a thorn in the ample flesh" of successive home secretaries.Under the police and justice bill going through parliament the chief inspector of prisons is to be merged with those responsible for monitoring the police, the courts, crown prosecution and probation services into a single criminal justice inspectorate.

The new chief inspector of justice, community safety and custody who is to take over in March 2008 is to be subject for the first time to the directions of ministers and will be charged with ensuring the criminal justice system operates effectively. The move is part of a wider Treasury-led cull to reduce the number of public sector regulators from 11 to four.

The current chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, has warned that the new role of the merged inspectorate clashes with her duty to inspect conditions of detention and the treatment of prisoners. It will also mean that the "sharp focus and direct voice of prisons' inspection will be lost or muffled", she has told the Guardian.

Her predecessor, Lord Ramsbotham, who is leading a parliamentary revolt to block the move, described it as "a wilful act of extreme folly". He said the independent inspectorate had played a key role in exposing pregnant women in chains in Holloway, assaults and outrageus behaviour in the segregation units at Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs, and that conditions were so bad at Woodhill that the governor had to be changed.
Both Anne Owers and Rambo have also shouted from the rooftops to improve the appalling treatment of vulnerable young offenders in prison, and to end the detention of children and babies in asylum detention centres. Although Home Secretaries have tried to keep their fingers firmly in their ears, the independence of the inspectorate does ensure that the truth comes out.

Update: just noticed more about this on Spyblog

Friday, July 07, 2006

Fingerprinting children

We've had scores of complaints about the growing use of children's biometrics at school. In particular the Microlib Junior Librarian system has worried many parents. This stores each child's thumbprint as an algorithm on the school library system and when the child wants to take books out, she simply puts her thumb on a scanner and the computer does the rest.

There's now a website containing everything you need to know about the Microlib system and the worry surrounding it. Go read, and scroll down to the bottom of the front page to vote in the poll.

Why privacy matters

Just spotted this over on Bruce Schneier’s blog. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has warned that Canadians are facing unprecedented threats to their privacy:
A popular response is: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." By that reasoning, of course, we shouldn't mind if the police were free to come into our homes at any time just to look around, if all our telephone conversations were monitored, if all our mail were read, if all the protections developed over centuries were swept away. It's only a difference of degree from the intrusions already being implemented or considered.

The truth is that we all do have something to hide, not because it's criminal or even shameful, but simply because it's private. We carefully calibrate what we reveal about ourselves to others. Most of us are only willing to have a few things known about us by a stranger, more by an acquaintance, and the most by a very close friend or a romantic partner. The right not to be known against our will - indeed, the right to be anonymous except when we choose to identify ourselves - is at the very core of human dignity, autonomy and freedom.

If we allow the state to sweep away the normal walls of privacy that protect the details of our lives, we will consign ourselves psychologically to living in a fishbowl. Even if we suffered no other specific harm as a result, that alone would profoundly change how we feel.

A lovely piece of writing. Something that has always worried us about the whole children's database shebang is the effects of constant surveillance on children's development. If privacy is the way that we draw our personal boundaries, how do you develop a robust sense of self when your privacy is constantly under threat? Just remembered that ARCH said something along those lines some time back, so if the thought interests you, take a look.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

SENs: Select Committee report

We've just started reading the Education and Skills Committee report on Special Educational Needs which came out today. Once it has been duly digested we'll take a closer look at the issues around inclusive education and SEN policy, but so far the opening paragraphs of the summary look pretty damning:

The Government's policy of inclusion has come under criticism recently [] for its confused and changing definition which is reported to be causing the closure of special schools and "forcing" some children into mainstream schools when it is not in their best interests to be there, resulting in distress for pupils and parents.

Inclusion is a broad concept that covers a wide range of issues both within and between schools—and interpretations of the concept vary greatly—but, with specific regard to special schools, the Government has told this inquiry that it does not hold a policy of inclusion that is resulting in the closure of special schools...

In the 2004 SEN Strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement, however, which aims to "set out the Government's vision on SEN," guidance to local authorities unmistakably says that "the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time" and there should be a "reduced reliance on statements".

Another jigsaw piece for you

John Clare has given a neat summary of the Common Assessment Framework in his column:
Any child up to the age of 19 who is thought by someone in the public, private or voluntary sectors not to be meeting Government targets in respect of education, health or "lifestyle" is liable to find himself/herself the subject of a "common assessment".

The computerised form, which may be filled in by anyone working with children, young people and families ("You do not have to be an expert"), asks more than 150 questions covering such matters as educational achievement, behaviour in class, access to books, quality of parenting, diet, obesity, sexual activity, excessive use of expletives, personal and dental hygiene, the interior and exterior of the home, how the family's income is used - and so on, and on.
So how does this fit in with the Children's Index?
Access to the information will be available via the index to every official agency (on) more than four million individuals.
[NB there's a misprint in the online version. It says 'and' where we've replaced it with 'on'. The Government reckons that around 4 million children need 'additional services' and will therefore require a common assessment]

There's a lot more about the Common Assessment Framework over on our other blog (database masterclass)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Are you disrespecting my family?

Recess Monkey has given the latest bit of ‘antisocial behaviour’ spin the treatment it deserves. For the past few years, we bleeding-heart types have been told that we’re completely out of touch with what’s really happening in the grim, wide world and should accordingly button it. Imagine our surprise, then, when John Reid chose Leytonstone as the launch pad for his crack team of ‘respect’ commandos.

Personally, up until now I’ve felt occasional twinges of doubt as to whether I’m qualified to comment on the Great Asbo Project, living (as I thought) in a rather pleasant, friendly bit of London. I’m actually very pleased to have brought my children up as fifth-generation Leytonstonians, just like my parents, grandparents etc. etc.

It seems, though, that my qualifications are far better than I thought: without realising it, I’ve been living in a hellhole so antisocial that the Home Secretary himself felt moved to come and make a pronouncement against the backdrop of our pitted roads and bullet-raddled walls.

True, a few youth clubs and a park or two wouldn’t go amiss, and neither would a crackdown on some of the more antisocial residents whose lives are devoted to persecuting any child with the temerity to play in the street. Apart from that, I felt pretty content living here. Now, though, I've been given
something to worry about: will my teenaged sons be tackled to the ground SAS-style the next time they venture out of doors after dark?

I'm left with a distinctly ‘King is in the altogether’ feeling about this antisocial behaviour malarkey. I'm also rather insulted that some politician should swan into my patch and make rude remarks about it. The nerve of it! Hasn’t he got a ministry somewhere that needs sorting out?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Recommended reading

It's good to see some thoughtful blogging on the subject of sharing children's information. Dave Hill has been taking the time to get to grips with the nexus of children's databases and assessment systems to arrive at a deeper understanding of the issues involved.

Amid the protests about the 'nanny state' and the potentially harmful effects of intrusion into the private lives of families who are getting along just fine, it's easy to overlook another very important point: a few hundred children are killed, injured or dangerously neglected by their parents every year; a few thousand more are living in lower-grade, chronic misery. Children on Child Protection Registers may account for less than half a percent of all children, but that doesn't mean we can or should ignore them.

It is vital that we have good child protection services and reasonably reliable means of finding and monitoring the children who need those services. The nub of the problem is, as Dave Hill says so succinctly:

Concern about the nature, extent, usefulness, reliability and security of information being held about children and their families is becoming more apparent almost daily. Knee-jerk "nanny state" rhetoric aside there are legitimate fears that this trend will do very little for children at risk and instead result in child protection professionals wasting their time making innocent parents' lives hell on the strength of indicators flagged up on computer screens.
As the Information Commissioner has said, you don't find a needle in a haystack by building a bigger haystack. Of major concern to large numbers of practitioners is that it will become far more difficult to find those children who need to be found if an already understaffed and poorly-resourced system is over-burdened with alarms and excursions about children who are not in any danger. Child protection is a deadly serious business, and is in no way the same as 'child welfare'. It deserves a great deal more than relegation to just one possible category in a large-scale tracking project.

Equally worrying is the potentially deterrent effect of information-sharing on children and parents who need services. If we reach a situation where families are reluctant to approach agencies until crisis forces them to do so, we won't be doing the most vulnerable children any favours at all.

Get back in that box!

Apparently a 16-year-old was warned by her school that she should avoid giving signs of original thought in her GCSEs. The Guardian carries an interview with her headteacher, Richard Cairns:

Speaking today, Mr Cairns said examiners often marked papers in subjects they knew little about and that he warned his pupils they would often know more about the subject than the marker. He said: "The very brightest are definitely constrained by the exam marking schemes."

He said exam boards awarded the highest marks for prescriptive answers containing key words, meaning a pupil who displayed originality was penalised. Mr Cairns said the problem affected all exam boards. He said markers rewarded children for thinking "mechanistically" rather than "outside of the box".

Monday, July 03, 2006

Children's rights and 'childism'

Excellent comment today from Libby Brooks:
To suggest that there is such a thing as "childism" is to risk ridicule. The notion of children's rights is inevitably greeted with hostility in a political climate where young people are most often maligned for their lack of respect for the rights of others. But lately, as the government's authoritarian stance on childhood proves unworkable and, in some cases, fatal, while public opinion shifts significantly on the treatment of children within the home, there is a change in the mood music. Could children's rights finally be coming of age?
Well, we can only hope so. Perhaps one day, future generations will regard our easy disparagement of children in the same way as we now view sexism and racism: a defensive strategy to bolster fragile self-definition, and a shocking waste of the talents and energy of a large chunk of our society.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The betrayal of children with SENs

The Education and Skills Committee report on special needs education is expected this week and it won't make pretty reading, according to the Observer:
A damning report will raise serious questions this week over the way children with special needs are educated, highlighting 'significant cracks' in an underfunded system that leaves desperate parents without sufficient support.
Bearing in mind that the Education and Inspections Bill, with its draconian powers to prevent children excluded from school from going out, is due for comittee stage in the Lords this week, this paragraph makes us particularly angry:
The report will also say that children are being needlessly excluded from school because of behaviour associated with learning difficulties, while teachers are not trained to cope. Families face a 'postcode lottery' where 'good practice is the exception rather than the rule'. SEN must be 'radically improved' or society will face heavy costs in terms of exclusions and youth crime, it will argue. At present 87 per cent of exclusions in primary schools involve children with SEN and 60 per cent at secondary.
We'll say it again: what kind of a system reduces provision for children with SENs in the name of inclusion, and then punishes those children (and their parents) when it doesn't work?