How will Lord Laming’s 2009 report impact upon a schoo’s information sharing duties and resulting policy? Dai Durbridge discussesses correct information sharing and its role in good child protection practice

Following Lord Laming’s report The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report (published in March 2009), information sharing has been back on the child protection agenda. Of course, it never went away – correct information sharing is one of the cornerstones of good child protection practice and vital for efficient and effective multiagency working. In this issue of Legal Expertise, Dai Durbridge reviews the current guidance and considers how Lord Laming’s most recent report will impact upon a school’s information sharing duties.

1. Does the report criticise schools when looking at information sharing?

Not directly, no. Lord Laming is critical of all child protection organisations, reporting that there remain ‘significant problems in the day-to-day reality’ of working across organisational boundaries. He goes on to say that ‘joint working between children’s social workers, youth workers, schools, early years, police, and health too often depends on the commitment of individual staff and sometimes this happens despite, rather than because of, the organisational arrangements’.

So while Lord Laming is not directly critical of schools, he does expect information sharing between all agencies to improve in order to properly protect children.

2. Do any of Lord Laming’s recommendations impact directly on schools?

Yes. Recommendation 10 says that: ‘Ofsted should revise the inspection and improvement regime for schools giving greater prominence to how well schools are fulfilling their responsibilities for child protection.’

This recommendation was made as Lord Laming believed that the inspection and improvement regime for schools needs to ensure that schools are proactively involved in safeguarding children — for example, by offering multi-agency services on-site and by continuing involvement in supporting children by sharing information where appropriate. He stressed in the report that this is crucial to keeping children safe and in keeping them in education.

3. Does Lord Laming comment on the effectiveness of information sharing guidance?

He does, and he is supportive of it. In paragraph 4.6 of the report, Lord Laming says that ‘despite the fact that the Government gave clear guidance on information sharing in 2006 and updated it in October 2008, there continues to be a real concern across all sectors, but particularly in the health services, about the risk of breaching confidentiality or data protection law by sharing concerns about a child’s safety’. The laws governing data protection and privacy are still not well understood by frontline staff or their managers. It is clear that different agencies (and their legal advisers) often take different approaches.

4. As a result of that, should we expect to see new guidance?

The April 2006 guidance — Information Sharing: Practitioners’ Guide — was updated in October 2008. Helpfully, the DCSF also produced a pocket guide covering the seven golden rules, seven key questions and the colour-coded flow chart to aid decision-making. To complete the set, they also offer a credit card-sized reference card setting out the seven golden rules and the seven key questions.

Having had the opportunity to review the three documents before their release, I was impressed at the government’s efforts to dispel the myths around information sharing.

5. Is the October 2008 guidance significantly different from what went before it?

It is very much an update of the extremely useful April 2006 guidance, but in making it more user-friendly for frontline staff and producing the key messages in new formats, the DCSF have shown that they are keen to ensure that no professional working with children can excuse themselves from knowing the guidance. In fact, the DCSF recently held five seminars around the country aimed at the child protection sector to promote the guidance and clear up popular misconceptions.

The latest instalment of the information-sharing package has been developed recently – an introductory training course has been developed by Barnardo’s in partnership with the DCSF. It is available on CD-Rom and can be used by practitioners as self-study or by trainers as part of a classroom-based course.

6. If I have a child protection concern, will the law protect me if I share information?

As long as you share relevant information appropriately and with the right agencies, you will not fall foul of the law. The law is on the side of a practitioner who seeks to share information regarding a child they believe to be at risk. This has always been the case — a fact that Lord Laming was eager to reiterate in his report.

The 2008 guidance is particularly helpful in providing step by step advice telling you how to share information in the most appropriate and effective way. The seven golden rules (page 11 of the guidance, page 4 of the pocket guide and on the reference card) is the best starting point.

7. Should I keep a record of the information I share?

Definitely. Not only is this is vital for good practice in terms of data protection, but it will also provide an excellent contemporaneous note of your decision making process in the future, should the issue need to be revisited.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2009

About the author: Dai Durbridge is a solicitor for Browne Jacobson specialising in child protection and education.