'Considerable work' still needed to improve children's services in Sunderland, inspectors say

Sunderland Civic Centre
Sunderland Civic Centre

'Considerable work' is still needed to ensure children in Sunderland receive the right services, a Government watchdog has said.

The verdict comes after Ofsted inspectors made their latest visit to look at how Sunderland Children's Services is performing.

Back in July 2015, the department and Sunderland City Council's safeguarding section were judged to be inadequate in a damning report.

The monitoring visit, which took place last month, looked at contact, referral and assessment arrangements.

This includes key areas as initial responses to children in need of help and protection, management decision making, oversight and supervision, arrangements in place to respond to children at risk of sexual exploitation and the provision of early help.

During their visit, inspectors met with parents and carers as well as social workers and managers. They also spoke to various partner agencies, including the police, and health and education professionals.

Fiona Millns, who led the inspection team, said in a follow-up letter after the visit: "The evidence gathered during the monitoring visit demonstrated steady progress and improvement from a very low baseline, although considerable work is still required in many areas of practice to ensure that children in Sunderland receive the right services at the right time.

"Importantly, staff within the local authority and partner agencies have increasing confidence in the senior management team, following a period of substantial upheaval following the inspection in 2015."

Findings reported by the inspectors included:

* The number of re-referrals to children’s social care are reducing, but are still too high.

* When required, children's cases are allocated to a social worker within 24 hours.

* Caseloads for social workers have reduced and social workers say that they are manageable.

* Sunderland's multi agency arrangements to respond to children at risk of going missing and being sexually exploited have been strengthened.

* A duty service has been established to meet the emergency needs of children out of hours.

* Arrangements for return interviews for children who have been missing have also been strengthened by commissioning a voluntary agency to carry out this work.

However, also noted a number of areas where there still needs to be further improvement, which included:

* The early help offer not being sufficiently coherent or coordinated to support work with children and families.

* While improvements can be seen in the management oversight of social work assessments, decision making is not always appropriate and management direction is inconsistent.

* Not all partner agencies have a good enough understanding of the thresholds for intervention, and the quality of information provided by referrers is not always detailed enough to ensure an appropriate response by children’s services.

Nick Whitfield, the Government's Commissioner for Children's Services in Sunderland, who has been working closely with the City Council to improve Children's Services since the July 2015 Ofsted report, said: "This is further evidence of the progress that has been made over the last 17 months and although considerable work still needs to be done, it's another positive foundation for us to build on."

Coun Paul Watson, the Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: "We're pleased that following this latest visit, Ofsted have concluded that we are continuing to make steady progress.

"There is still much to do to get services to the level our children and young people deserve but we are continuing to work hard to achieve this and to make a real positive difference to the lives of the families we work with."

Coun Louise Farthing, Portfolio Holder for Children's Services, added: "We have come a long way since July 2015 and we have seen some significant progress, but I am under no illusion that we still have a lot further to go in improving services for the children and young people we work with."

Last month's visit by Ofsted was the second monitoring visit since the July 2015 inspection. At their first visit in August, Ofsted said 'significant progress' had been made in improving services for care leavers

Together for Children, the new company set up to operate Children's Services in Sunderland, is set to become an organisation in its own right next April.