Creation of ‘Children’s Services Company’ to protect Sunderland youngsters moves a step closer

Sunderland Civic Centre.
Sunderland Civic Centre.
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The creation of a Children’s Services company which will take over the running of social services for youngsters in Sunderland has moved a step closer.

At the city council’s latest cabinet meeting, councillors moved to recommend the creation of the organisation - the first of its kind in the country.

This will be set out in a memorandum of understanding and the Department for Education (DfE) will need to confirm that the new company will comply with it.

Councillor Louise Farthing

It is hoped that the move will help rebuild the reputation of the authority’s children’s services, after a damning Ofsted inspection last summer.

The new company, the establishment of which was agreed by members in principle back in April, will have day-to-day operational freedom in respect of the management and delivery of the services it will be responsible for.

However, in contracting out services, the council will remain statutorily responsible for their performance.

Speaking at the cabinet meeting, Councillor Louise Farthing, cabinet member for children’s services.

“There are further conversations to be had and some legal considerations as well,” said Coun Farthing.

“There are a small number of strategic functions which are to stay within the council in the immediate term.

“This will be set out in a memorandum of understanding and the Department for Education (DfE) will need to confirm that the new company will comply with it.”

The council’s leadership, management and governance was graded as inadequate by Ofsted inspectors, as was its work with children who need help and protection and those who are looked after, from adoption to those leaving its care.

The services recommended to transfer across to the new Children’s Services Company include those currently run under direction of the government; children in need of protection (social care); children that are looked after; and children with disabilities.

The company will be run by a board consisting of a chairman, two executive directors and five non-executive directors, while the Department for Education is expected to provide funding, pending a business case being put forward.

Members are expected to agree to receive a further report in September, when the company will begin to operate in shadow form, until the formal transfer completes in April 2017.

Opposition councillors have called for a strong leadership to run the new Children’s Services Company, as well as assurance of openness, transparency and accountability.

The Cabinet backing is still subject to approval by the Commissioner for Children’s services and the DfE.

It also agreed the process for developing a business case to support the establishment of the new company and a Memorandum of Understanding with the DfE which will support working arrangements between the council and the company going forwards.

The council has been working with Nick Whitfield, the Commissioner for Children’s Services and the Department for Education (DfE) since the Ofsted report to look at how it can do things differently to ensure the best possible services for children and families.

Coun Paul Watson, Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “We’ve seen a significant amount of work over the last year to improve Children’s Services and safeguarding, including £16m of further investment to strengthen management and support and take on additional frontline staff.

“During this time we have worked closely with the Commissioner and the Department for Education to come up with a plan that will help deliver the improvements we need.

“We recognise that there is a need for a fundamental change in the way we deliver services for children to ensure the best possible future for children and young people in the city.

“The new organisation will create fully integrated children’s services covering education, children’s social care and early help services. We believe this is the best way of helping deliver the services children and young people need to live safe, happy, healthy and successful lives.”

Nick Whitfield, the Commissioner for Children’s Services in Sunderland, added: “Sunderland is the first council to look at voluntarily transferring its services out of council control in co-operation with the Department for Education so the new company will be the first of its type in the country.”

“The council has been very co-operative in recognising the need to do something different and that is something it deserves credit for. This is a real opportunity to deliver innovative children’s services that can ensure further improvement and sustained delivery.”