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As Children’s Commissioner, I have seen how important good and consistent data sharing is for improving children’s outcomes in life. But sadly, too often children fall through the gaps due to a lack of knowledge sharing between children’s services.  

This was most apparent earlier this year, when I conducted regional roundtables in areas with some of the most challenging school attendance rates. I invited professionals from education, health, social care, youth justice and parental groups, to interrogate the reasons for increased school absences and to examine how local agencies can work together to improve attendance.

What struck me most was how few agencies outside of the education sector knew about the attendance crisis or understood the role they could play in getting children back to school. Health professionals, for example, were unaware that the Department for Education publishes fortnightly attendance data.

A lack of knowledge and data sharing across services was also something that came to light during my work on the independent Family Review. Time and again, children and families across the country told me that they wanted the services they access to talk to each other. Often, this is because they don’t want to have to repeat their stories – which can be both frustrating and distressing. It was clear to me that a lack of data sharing leaves families feeling unclear about what professionals do and do not know, and can make it harder to access the support they need.

Too often, the potential benefits of data sharing are going unrealised because it isn’t happening. Recent research shows that there is limited linking of health, educational and social care data on children by local authorities in England.[1] Indeed, fewer than half of local authorities reported that they were linking data on all children in the local authority area.

Data sharing shouldn’t only be seen as a safeguarding issue. Secure, planned and routine sharing of data on groups of children can improve services by better understanding user needs and journeys through health, education and other services.

That’s why I have previously recommended that the NHS number, assigned to all children registered with an NHS health service, be adopted as a consistent unique identifier. The Department for Education has said that using the NHS number as a consistent child identifier is part of the solution to improving data sharing across services in health and social care.2

I welcome this but I believe the Department could be more ambitious and move quickly to support a wider range of services including education to introduce the use of NHS number in this way. It could be rolled out across education and child protection services and would ensure that no child slips through the gap. Currently, other identifiers such as the UPN exist, but they only cover an individual during a limited age range, and do not cover the early years, which is a crucial data gap.

Having one consistent child ID would also help national organisations to understand and address system-wide issues. For example, most of the Department for Education’s analysis uses only the Department’s own data, because of the effort to access and join in other data. This means that in areas like SEND, the critical context which could be provided by health data is not used, leaving blind spots in the government’s understanding.

I have seen good examples of data sharing, such as Liverpool’s Family Build System[2] which combines data, currently mostly on adults, to help social workers to judge a child’s level of risk. The data comes from various sources, from the Department for Work and Pensions to health, police, education, and early help. The system uses NHS number together with other IDs, including the Unique Pupil Numbers used by schools. However, while examples like this are encouraging, they are local, and so children remain at risk of falling out of view when they move between areas, without a fixed ID following them wherever they go.

As Children’s Commissioner, I will continue calling for a consistent unique identifier to be implemented and rolled-out widely as soon as possible, to protect and support children and their families. We must prioritise their needs.

[1] Martin-Denham, S. Scott, N., Horridge, K., and Pinney, A. 2023. Putting together the data jigsaw: The extent of the linking of administrative datasets on children by local authorities in England. Responses to a Freedom of Information request. University of Sunderland.

[2] Department for Education, 20923. Improving multi-agency information sharing Government policy on information sharing and the use of a consistent child identifier. Available at:

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