Looking at the current status of ContactPoint, its timescale and the effect it is likely to have on schools

Education Questions and Answers

What is ContactPoint?

The implementation of ContactPoint is a key element of the Every Child Matters programme. Previously known as the ‘information sharing index’ (and before that ‘the children’s database’), its purpose is to enable practitioners across education, health, social care, youth justice and the voluntary sector to find out who else is working with a child so that they can work together to deliver coordinated support. It is intended to assist practitioners who are subject to the duties set out in Sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004 — the duty to cooperate to improve a child’s wellbeing and the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children.

What children are on it and what information is held?

The short answer is all children in England. Anyone under the age of 18 at the end of 2008 and ordinarily resident in England is to be added to the system. Consent of the individual is not required.

ContactPoint will hold nothing more than basic identifying information. This includes the child’s name, address, gender, date of birth and a unique identifying number based on the existing Child Reference Number or National Insurance Number. The system will also include basic identifying information about the child’s parents or carers, limited to their name and contact details and a note of all services involved with the child. As a minimum, each child’s school and GP practice will be included on their record. Finally, each record will allow a means to indicate that a practitioner is the ‘lead professional’ for that particular child.

How does that information get there?

Exactly how each child’s personal information finds its way on to the system remains unclear. The ContactPoint Policy Statement, issued in June 2007, stressed that the double inputting of data will be avoided and that some of the required information will be drawn from existing national and local systems, which are likely to include those used by schools.

While the merging of information from existing systems will take the bulk of the workload, that information will need to be checked for accuracy and duplication. You will know from experience that dates of birth, addresses and the spelling of names can differ between agencies. If multiple records are created, thus allowing different agencies to enter information on different records, the system will fail before it begins.

Who has access to it and why?

According to the draft guidance, access will be restricted to ‘authorised users’ who require access as part of their work. Authorised users include those working in education, health, social care, youth offending and some voluntary organisations. All users will have to go through appropriate security checks, including enhanced CRB checks and be members of the Vetting and Barring Scheme, when introduced.

ContactPoint will not be a tool for practitioners to check on the progress of any child with whom they do not have a professional involvement, including their own children and friends of their children. To deter misuse, a detailed audit trail will identify each access to a child’s record and regular checks will be made to confirm the legitimacy of access. Misuse of the system will be punishable under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and/or the Data Protection Act 1998, which may lead to fines or custodial sentences.

How secure is it?

As one would expect, the government is keen to point out that the security of the information contained within ContactPoint is of paramount importance. A significant slice of the £224m three-year implementation costs and of the £41m annual operating costs is to be spent on security.

Numerous measures have been introduced, including the audit trail mentioned above and ensuring that access to ContactPoint is limited to two methods: through a secure weblink or through existing case management systems. Even then, entry can only be gained through a two-stage authentication process, unique to each user, which is likely to be similar to that used by internet banking systems.

However, in February a government-ordered report identified ‘a significant risk’ to ContactPoint from the security procedures of local councils and other organisations with access to it.

Will school records be available on ContactPoint?

No, the database is nothing more than a signpost system. The school attended by a child will be recorded on their ContactPoint file, but no other information such as educational attainment, attendance or special educational needs.

When will we know more?

The details of all children in England are due to be on the system by the end of this year. However, with the recent media reports on the government’s inability to hold and transfer personal information (see Legal Expertise, issues 4 and 8), coupled with the findings of the February 2008 report, it is highly unlikely that this ambitious deadline will be met. It is more likely that we will receive an update from the government later this year.

Do schools need to take any steps in the meantime?

As usual, it is important that you keep the personal information you hold accurate, up to date and secure. With the current doubts surrounding the implementation of ContactPoint, there is little more you can do to prepare at this time.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2008

About the author: Dai Durbridge is the author of this week’s Legal Expertise. Dai is a solicitor with the firm at its Nottingham office. He joined in 1999 and is ‘home-grown’ talent having joined the trainee programme in 2001, qualifying in 2003. Dai specialises in social services, education and the care sector and his experience includes handling a variety of high profile claims.