Ofsted has rated children’s services in Sunderland as ‘outstanding’, just three years after judging them ‘inadequate’.
The verdict, which highlighted the quality of leadership and services for care leavers, marks the first time the regulator has reported such a sharp improvement.
Children’s social care in Sunderland is delivered by an independent children’s services trust, Together for Children (TfC). TfC was formed on government orders in the wake of the local authority’s 2015 ‘inadequate’ verdict, after which it was placed under the direction of the Department for Education (DfE).
Due to the complexities involved in establishing the children’s services trust, it did not start to deliver services until April 2017 and Ofsted rated services as inadequate once again in 2018, although it recognised “solid improvements” from three years earlier.
A focused visit last year, on the eve of the pandemic, found services turning a corner thanks to much-improved management oversight.
The DfE said it now hoped the rapid improvement in Sunderland could provide lessons for other local authority areas.
‘Exceptional support’ for care leavers
Ofted’s latest inspection at Sunderland, from 28 June and 9 July this year rated the children’s services’ ‘impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families’ and ‘experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers’ as outstanding.
Inspectors praised “strong focused work” by senior leaders, saying this had “resulted in exceptional improvements being made to the quality of social work support to children and families in Sunderland”.
The “vast majority” of children and their families now receive high-quality support, the report added.
“Tenacious staff work tirelessly to ensure that children are at the centre of all work and interventions,” Ofsted said of services for children in care and care leavers.
The regulator highlighted the quality of decision-making – backed by feedback from local judges – and TfC’s focus on the voice of the child and on young people’s health needs.
“Young people over the age of 18 are exceptionally well supported by children’s services. [Personal advisors] are tenacious at maintaining contact with young people and are aspirational for them to achieve and do well,” inspectors said. “The consistently high-quality work provides a range of support, including for young people with occasional needs for additional help to those with complex histories which, as a result, at times lead to concerning behaviours.”
‘Even more impressive during a pandemic’
Ofsted rated the ‘experiences and progress of children who need help and protection’ as “solidly good”, praising the multi-agency understanding of thresholds, risk assessment and “thorough” s47 enquiries.
“An area of strength is workers’ persistence in developing relationships, which becomes the means for positive change for children and families,” inspectors said. “Strenuous efforts have been made throughout the pandemic to visit children face to face [and] social workers know children and their families well”.
The regulator noted that the consistency of assessments, plans and managerial oversight could still improve but described TfC’s achievements as a “highly impressive” improvement.
“At the Ofsted 2018 inspection, solid improvements were judged to have been made for children in care, children with a plan for adoption and care leavers. However, there had not been sufficient progress made for children who needed help and protection,” Ofsted said.
“Since then, visits have continued to find improvements in Sunderland children’s services, including further building on the progress evident in key areas at the [last] focused visit in March 2021.
“This strong focus on continued improvement is even more impressive given that it was during a global pandemic, which is still having a profound impact on the communities in Sunderland, and on the workforce of the council and of TfC.”
‘Drawing a line under our difficult history’
Jill Colbert, director of children’s services for Sunderland and chief executive of TfC, said Ofsted’s latest inspection “draws a line under our difficult history and celebrates the incredible work our staff have done to deliver outstanding services to children”.
“I hope every member of staff, and all our partners who have offered support, feel rightly proud of what we have achieved together,” she said.“The publication of our report provides an opportunity to celebrate our success but more importantly, celebrate the children and families who have been part of driving our improvement journey.”
Meanwhile the children’s minister Vicky Ford said Sunderland’s improved Ofsted rating showed “the importance of intervening swiftly and decisively where children and families are being failed”.
“I’m enormously proud of the positive change leaders and staff in Sunderland have achieved, working tirelessly to continue raising the bar even as the pressures of the pandemic took hold,” she said.
“I’m also pleased to see the success of its early help and intervention work, meaning more families are supported to stay together safely, breaking the cycle of neglect too many have experienced in the past.”
The DfE will continue working with Sunderland to “ensure it stays on track” and to create an “edge of care” hub to offer early help support to vulnerable families in the city.
The department said work was “underway” to explore how leaders at Sunderland council and within the children’s services trust could share their experiences with other local authorities “to help make improvements elsewhere in lower performing areas”.