Tags: Child Protection & Safeguarding | SEN – Special Educational Needs | SENCO | SENCOs

The Department for Education and Skills has launched a consultation seeking views on the draft of the first cross-government guidance on information sharing in respect of children and young people.

Most practitioners in children’s services understand that they have a duty to share information when they or others have evidence that a child is being, or is at risk of being, abused or neglected (ie child protection) but managers of children’s services, and representatives of practitioners, have reported that practitioners are often uncertain about when and how they can or should share information. The consequences can be that important information, which should be shared is not, or, in some cases, that information may be shared inappropriately.

Worries about children at risk This is a matter of concern to SENCOs, because they may often be in the situation which the guidance recognises where, ‘there is little or no clear evidence, but you or others have a “niggling worry” that the child may be at risk of abuse or neglect; the concern is not about abuse or neglect, but about other aspects of a child’s welfare or wellbeing, such as a health issue, their attendance and performance at school, or their propensity to become involved in offending.’

The guidance notes that it is increasingly recognised in practice that a failure to share information, even at a level of a ‘niggling worry’, may have serious consequences for the welfare of a child or young person, or for others. Often it is not until information is shared and understood, that a clearer picture emerges, which may confirm or allay concerns about a child or young person’s safety and welfare. The law is often cited as a barrier to sharing information in these situations and the following advice from the draft guidance is relevant to SENCOs.

Difficult issues in sharing information You may be uncertain about the legal or ethical issues about sharing information, particularly with other agencies. You may be anxious about sharing information, for example where:

  • you worry that you may have misjudged the situation and you will be blamed, disciplined or even sued
  • you are uncertain about how you tell a parent that you are concerned about how they are caring for their child
  • you are concerned that you may harm your relationship with your patient or client if you voice your concerns
  • you are concerned that other practitioners will not treat the child and family sympathetically, if you share your concerns with them
  • you are concerned that other practitioners will not treat the information confidentially
  • you are concerned that other practitioners will make things worse and possibly break up a family
  • you suspect there may be violence in the family and you could make things worse for a child, young person or partner in the family and
  • you are frightened that you will be attacked either verbally or physically.

These are real and very common worries that apply to most practitioners working with children, young people and families and are not easy to deal with. Without relevant information practitioners cannot form sound judgements, assess needs or decide on the appropriate services to meet needs. Lack of information increases the risk of children ‘slipping through the net’. You should not be deterred from sharing information by the feeling that there are legal hurdles nor should you assume that the ‘safer’ course is not to share information. In most situations you will need to make a professional judgement about whether to seek consent to share information.

To inform that judgement you need a basic understanding of the law. Section 4 of this guidance and appendix 1 aim to provide that. You should also be aware of any code of conduct or other guidance applicable to your profession or agency. The law and these codes of conduct almost always permit information to be disclosed with consent. When deciding whether to share confidential information without consent, you also need to make a judgement as to whether the public interest in sharing the information, for example to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child or young person or in preventing or detecting crime, overrides the public interest in maintaining confidentiality. Wherever possible you should explain the issue, seek agreement and if you decide to act against a parent, young person or child’s wishes, explain the reasons for doing so.

In order to make soundly-based decisions practitioners need to understand the general principles of sharing information

Key principles of information sharing Another particularly relevant section of the guidance sets out principles for information sharing. This may be helpful, in developing the multiagency teamwork, which is likely to be crucial for achieving the aims of Every Child Matters. In order to make soundly-based decisions practitioners need to understand the general principles of sharing information identifiable to a child, young person or their parent/carers.

  • The safety and welfare of a child or young person must be the first consideration when making decisions about sharing information about them.
  • There must be a legal basis for sharing information and a legitimate purpose for doing so.
  • When dealing with confidential information you will need to be satisfied that there is either a statutory obligation to disclose, express or implied consent from the persons involved or an overriding public interest in disclosing information.
  • You must consider the significance, or the potential significance of the information you hold. The information you share should be relevant to the purpose for which you are sharing it and you should only share information with those practitioners or agencies that ‘need to know’.
  • You should be open and honest with children, young people and their families about the reasons why information needs to be shared and why particular actions need to be taken, unless to do so would adversely affect the purpose for which the information is to be shared.
  • You should gain consent to share information unless it is not safe or possible to do so, or if it would undermine the prevention or detection of a crime.
  • Information should be accurate, held securely and kept for no longer than necessary.
  • Whenever information is shared, with or without consent, the information shared, when, with whom and for what purpose, should be recorded. Similarly, if a decision is taken not to share information, this should also be recorded.

Reasons for this new guidance This is the first cross-government guidance on information sharing in respect of children and young people which covers all services including: health; education; early years and childcare; social care; youth offending; police; advisory and support services, and leisure. The guidance is aimed at all practitioners who work with children and young people whether they are employed or volunteers, working in the public, private or voluntary sectors. It recognises that most decisions to share information require professional judgement, whilst aiming to provide the knowledge and understanding practitioners need to inform these decisions. The guidance covers the main reasons why practitioners may want or need to share information:

  • to help children or young people achieve the key outcomes of the Every Child Matters strategy for all to: be healthy, stay safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and achieving economic wellbeing.
  • to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people, by protecting them from maltreatment, preventing impairment of their health or development, or ensuring they grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care and
  • to prevent children and young people from committing crime.

Cross-government Guidance; Sharing Information on Children and Young People can be downloaded from www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations

What is in the draft guidance?

This guidance:

  • sets out key principles of information sharing
  • highlights the difficult issues practitioners sometimes face in sharing information
  • sets out core guidance for all practitioners on information sharing issues and a generic checklist and flowchart
  • summarises good practice in involving children, young people and parents in discussions on information sharing
  • gives detailed examples of how information can or should be shared in specific situations affecting different services
  • summarises the key things practitioners should know about the Common Law Duty of Confidence, the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act
  • provides further information about the legislation which provides a legal basis for information collection, use and sharing
  • lists where to find out more about information sharing.

This article first appeared in SENCO Update – Oct 2005

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