Ofsted’s chief inspector has written to the education secretary calling for quick “remedial action” in Sunderland council’s children’s services after a damning inspection report.
The watchdog found a corporate failure by senior leaders and managers that left children and young people at risk.
During the inspection, 21 children’s cases were referred back to the local authority by inspectors requesting action be taken to ensure children’s needs were met. This was one out of every 10 children’s cases looked at by inspectors.
Services in Sunderland had “significantly deteriorated” since it was rated good in 2012, inspectors found. Poor practice had been identified by two independent reviews last year and there is a voluntary improvement board and plan in place.
However, the report stated that, “these measures have not had a discernible impact on improving practice or outcomes for children and young people”.
An Ofsted spokesperson said chief inspector Michael Wilshaw’s was so concerned about the report that he wrote to education secretary Nicky Morgan to, “highlight the serious weaknesses in care and protection given to vulnerable children in the area, and to request that swift remedial action be taken”.
Nick Whitfield, chief executive of Achieving for Children, which runs children’s services for Kingston and Richmond, has been appointed by the secretary of state as the children’s commissioner for the council.
Frontline practice was criticised for “fundamental shortfalls” across children’s services and social workers were criticised for not consistently following safeguarding procedures.
“Assessments of children are often absent or incomplete and those seen by inspectors were mostly poor. A ‘Back to Basics’ training programme, introduced to improve front line practice, has only just started and is yet to show impact,” the report said, and it also criticised high caseloads leaving workers unable to provide effective support to children.
The number of unallocated and unworked cases was of serious concern, Ofsted said, as 122 cases were held within the multi-agency safeguarding hub for five months without progressing.
“Children are left in circumstances that are actually or potentially unsafe without their needs or the level of risk being assessed or action taken”, the report said.
Sunderland council is too slow to take appropriate legal action to safeguard children, and once children do become looked after there are further delays in finding permanent homes for them. Care leaver services are “seriously lacking”, Ofsted said, with issues around poor quality planning and a lack of appropriate housing.
Leader of Sunderland council Paul Watson accepted the findings of the report, and said work is underway to improve safeguarding.
“While the report makes for difficult reading, Ofsted have acknowledged our absolute commitment to improve safeguarding and that we had already begun to take action to address many of the issues they have highlighted,” Watson said.
“Despite spending cuts of £170m in the last five years and the need for a further £100m savings in the next three, we have increased the amount we spend on safeguarding and invested a further £5.4m to address some of the concerns we have identified.
“We have also increased the number of social workers significantly to help deal with rising demand and we are investing in training and development so we can recruit and retain the best staff to get the best outcomes for children,” Watson said.