It was a huge injection of resources for children in care: £20m to improve their access to information technology and so widen their opportunities and enhance their lives.
In 2001, the minister of state for social care, announcing the funding, spoke of ICT’s potential to inform “all aspects of care, health and well-being along with supporting their education.” The guidance issued urged local authorities to be “as innovative as possible”.
Similarly, both the Welsh assembly’s Children First Initiative, and the Scottish executive’s grant of £10m to raise educational attainment, stressed the importance of ICT. So, two years on, have local authorities delivered?
In Scotland, approximately half of the money went on technology projects. According to the executive’s report, most simply gave it to carers to purchase PCs, with a minority investing in “tracking” software to monitor attendance, attainment and exclusions.
Many London boroughs have adopted a similar approach and it would be no surprise to discover comparably unimaginative schemes predominating elsewhere. But are council’s really to blame for this? Certainly, you would be forgiven for thinking social services departments around the country have swallowed a New Labour-speak dictionary.
The education of the care population is about “enhanced self esteem”, according to Devon county council, accessing “other worlds” and learning new skills.
Not education then. When you consider that only just over a third are achieving at least one GNVQ or GCSE, and less than 1 in 10 attain five good GCSE’s, you can only wonder at the thinking of policy wonks and educationalists working with young people in the care system. In 2002, well over half left without any qualifications at all, not to mention the numbers that are excluded from school or who will go on to offend or sleep rough.
Back to Devon. Education is also about “building friendships and developing positive relationships”. I wonder whether they are considering rewriting this bit. Barely into the New Year and those young people daring to venture into cyberspace are met with a health warning, part of the £3m Home Office campaign aimed at countering predatory paedophiles.
Indeed as one child abduction case follows hot on the heals of another, further implicating the new villain of the piece – the chatroom – children’s services are hurriedly introducing new codes and regulations, if not to protect young people from “grooming” then at least to cover themselves if anything untoward should occur.
Unsurprisingly, children’s charity The Who Cares? Trust boasts that 60 local authorities have already signed up to their Department of Health-sponsored interactive CareZone – to be “accessed through the highest levels of security: including biometrics and smartcard technology” and featuring “developmentally appropriate” content. Such is the promise of a wired-up care system as envisioned by its architects.
These technologies are not going to make looked after children’s lives any better, especially if this amounts to little more than writing a cheque for a trip to the local branch of PC World. Neither will it reduce the sense of isolation that living in care often entails.
Approaching new technologies as a panacea for improving the outlook for looked after children on the one hand, and an inherent danger on the other, is a distraction from the real work that local authorities need to do if they are to address the profound disadvantages these young people face. Equally, the potential of IT to enrich their lives, and the quality of the care experience, is both wasted and distorted by its fetishisation.