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Children’s services in Sunderland jump from Inadequate to Outstanding

After an Inadequate Ofsted rating in 2015, children’s services in Sunderland are now rated Outstanding, becoming the first in the country to make the leap.


Children’s services in Sunderland jump from Inadequate to Outstanding

“Tenacious” social workers in Sunderland have been praised by Ofsted inspectors for their persistence in developing powerful relationships with children in their care and for putting their voices at the heart of services.

Children’s services had been deemed ‘inadequate’ by Oftsed since 2015, leading to services being placed into a trust, Together for Children, in April 2017.

The swift improvements have been attributed to an “unstinting commitment” from the trust to tackle entrenched failure, and the “significant cultural change” staff have driven.

The turnaround makes Sunderland the first area to jump straight from failing in its children’s services to the highest rating in just one inspection cycle. This national first makes Sunderland one of only 18 local authorities in England and one of only four local authorities in the North of England to be rated Outstanding by the regulator of children’s services.

During an inspection of services between 28 June and 9 July, Ofsted found that children’s services have been “transformed” and are “making a real difference to children’s lives.”

In a report outlining their findings, Ofsted said inspectors evaluated social work practice to be of “consistently high quality and relentless in significantly improving the experience of children and young people.” They also highlighted that the improvement in quality is even more impressive as it’s been achieved during the pandemic, as workers and leaders have worked “ceaselessly” to improve children’s lives.

The report found that hearing the voice of the child is an “exceptional strength” in Sunderland, that “strong and effective” partnership working helps to better protect children from harm, and that early help is an innovative, multi-agency service that ensures children and families get the right support at the right time.

Ofsted also noted that senior leaders have radically changed the service so that it is now outstanding and that social workers and their managers make decisions that are in the best interests of children to make sure they are safe and have every chance to succeed.

Inspectors praised the implementation and embedding of the Signs of Safety practice model, saying it results in children’s needs being addressed proactively and better supports children, young people, and families to get the right level of help and protection when they need it. They added that because safeguarding thresholds are well understood, children receive the right level of intervention from social workers in a timely way, and out of hours social work services are responsive to risk for children.

Jill Colbert, Chief Executive of Together for Children and Director of Children’s Services for the City Council, said the new rating marked a turning point for children’s services.

“It draws a line under our difficult history and celebrates the incredible work our staff have done to deliver outstanding services to children,” Colbert said, adding: “I hope every member of staff, and all our partners who have offered support, feel rightly proud of what we have achieved together.”

The Outstanding judgement comes less than a month after directors from councils in the North East gave evidence to the ongoing Review of Children’s Social Care, chaired by ex-Frontline chief Josh MacAlister, saying that the numbers of children needing support were “unsustainable”.

The leaders of children’s services said levels of poverty in the region have driven continuing rises in child protection intervention and the number of children in care, alongside cuts to early help.

However, the Outstanding judgement now means six of the 12 local authorities in the northeast of England are now high performing, despite a high rate of children in care (107 per 10,000) and higher than average deprivation levels.

Work is now underway with the Department for Education to explore how leaders in Sunderland and Together for Children can share their experiences with other councils to help make improvements elsewhere in lower performing areas.

The Department will continue working with Sunderland to ensure it stays on track, including through the creation of an ‘Edge of Care’ hub where vulnerable families receive dedicated support, avoiding the need for costly placements and reducing the number of children in care.

It joins North Tyneside in the top judgement category, with Gateshead, South Tyneside, Northumberland, and Hartlepool now rated Good by the inspectorate. North and South Tyneside and Hartlepool are already working with other councils to share learnings as part of the Department for Education’s Sector Led Improvement Partners (SLIP) programme.

Sunderland is one of eight trusts set up since 2010 to run children’s services on behalf of an underperforming council, including Doncaster where, after years of failure services were rated ‘good’ by Ofsted in January 2018 and in Birmingham where services are no longer inadequate after nearly a decade of being so.

Children and Families Minister, Vicky Ford, said the work of Sunderland was particularly impressive as the pressures of the pandemic took hold.

“It is so easy to focus on the challenges facing social workers, councils and children’s services, without taking time to acknowledge or champion success.

“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.

“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.”

Read the full Ofsted judgement:

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