Ofsted’s latest inspection of children’s services in Sunderland, which are now delivered by Together for Children, has found significant progress in areas including adoption and the experience of children leaving care, with other areas still requiring improvement.
The inspection found that three out of the five areas inspected have improved, noting ‘Children in Sunderland are better served today than they were three years ago’ and that ‘solid improvements have been made for children in care, children with a plan for adoption and care leavers’.
Adoption services have climbed two levels to be rated ‘good’, with Ofsted commenting that ‘significant progress has been made’, while both looked after children and the experience of children leaving care are now rated higher than previously.
The full inspection, which took place in May, followed six monitoring visits to the Council and Together for Children, all of which reported ‘steady’ or ‘sustained’ improvements. However despite the progress made, improvements have not yet been enough to lift children’s services as a whole out of their inadequate rating.
Deborah Jenkins, Chair of Together for Children, the company which has run children’s services on behalf of the City Council since April 2017, said:
“Transformation of this scale and from such a low base takes time and while we are disappointed at the overall judgement, we are encouraged that in three out of the five inspection areas Ofsted have acknowledged the improvements that have been made.
“Everyone at Together for Children remains steadfastly committed to working tirelessly to quickly address the remaining areas that have been identified by Ofsted as still falling short of where they need to be.”
Councillor Graeme Miller, Leader of Sunderland City Council, said:
“We always knew it would take time to turn things around, so this is not unexpected in view of the incredibly challenging Ofsted inspection in 2015. While we’re disappointed with the overall rating, what is reassuring is that areas like adoption and services for care leavers have improved and that Ofsted have noted ‘solid improvements’ being made.
“In the last 15 months we have had a major transformation in the way children’s services is managed and run, with Together for Children now delivering children’s services on behalf of the council. This has made significant strides in some areas but we completely accept a much greater pace of improvement is needed in others. This is something we are looking to address.
“We want the very best for our children and young people in Sunderland and we will settle for nothing less than that.”
Following the 2015 Ofsted inspection, the Government appointed Nick Whitfield Commissioner for Children’s Services in Sunderland to oversee safeguarding improvements in the city.
Commenting on today’s report, he said:
“In 2015 Sunderland accepted that there was systemic failure in services and that a new start was needed. The council has worked really hard in a time of rising demand and a tough financial climate to invest in improvement.
“The recent inspection finds that in many areas there is improvement whilst more remains to be done. This pattern has happened elsewhere, and I am confident that the company and council have put in place plans to ensure that improvement is continued.”
In its report Ofsted acknowledges that: ‘Sunderland has made progress in creating and rebuilding the foundations needed to deliver improved services from a low base. This includes developing services that did not previously exist, improved workforce stability and effectively reduced workloads, strengthened partnership working and enhancing the voice and influence of children.’
It adds that the changes are ‘beginning to improve experiences and outcomes’.
Councillor Louise Farthing, Portfolio Holder for Children, Learning and Skills, said:
“The council has been working very hard to improve children’s services from a very low base, against a background of unprecedented demand since 2015. We know there is still a lot to do but we are pleased to see significant progress in adoption and the experience of care leavers.
“Nothing is more important to us than protecting vulnerable children so we will be redoubling our efforts to address those areas where is still more work to be done.”
Statistics show children’s services nationally are increasingly struggling to cope with a rise in demand for children’s social care against a backdrop of cuts, with the Local Government Association warning of a £2bn funding gap in children’s social care nationally by 2020.
According to data published by the Department for Education in January this year, a child is referred to social services every 49 seconds in England and Wales. In Sunderland the number of children requiring support has risen by 25 per cent since 2016 with 3,276 children currently requiring support compared to 2,626 in 2016.
Figures from the Local Government Association show that the number of young people nationally subject to child protection enquires increased by 140 per cent to 170,000 in the past decade. In Sunderland the numbers have risen by 21 per cent since 2016.
Jill Colbert, Sunderland’s newly appointed Chief Executive of Together for Children and Director of Children’s Services, who has started in post this week, is determined to address the issues highlighted by Ofsted as a priority at the same time as building on the improvements made so far.
“While much remains to be done, Together for Children has made significant improvements in the year that the company has been operational as evidenced in this Ofsted report. The report gives clear guidelines as to where improvements need to be made and work is already underway to address this, build on our evident progress, and create a service that fully meets the needs of the children and families in Sunderland.”