'Steady progress but still a long way to go' - how children's services in Sunderland are performing

Inspectors say "steady progress" is being made to improve children's services in Sunderland - but civic chiefs admit "there is still a long way to go".

Ofsted inspectors have now made three monitoring visits to Sunderland since children's services in the city were judged inadequate back in July 2015.

Sunderland Civic Centre

Sunderland Civic Centre

The latest visit, which took place last month, looked at what progress was being made in improving services for looked after children and finding permanent places for them.

Inspectors met with parents, carers and children, as well as a range of staff, including managers, social workers and independent reviewing officers (IROs). They also looked at case and supervision records as well as observing social work practice.

Today's publication comes just a month before Together for Children, the new company set up to lead Children's Services in Sunderland, becomes an organisation in its own right.

In her follow up letter, Ofsted inspector Fiona Millns, said: "The evidence gathered during this third monitoring visit demonstrated steady progress and improvement from a very low baseline.

"The senior management team has a clear focus on the key priorities for improvement in delivering services for children looked after in Sunderland. The self-assessment identifies the key issues and actions required to ensure and sustain improvement.

"Importantly, the local authority recognises the need to improve the quality of social work practice, through consistent and rigorous auditing with regard to the recording of statutory visits, effectiveness of assessments and rigour of plans.

"Consequently, the local authority has introduced additional performance indicators within the improvement board data set. Audits submitted as part of the monitoring visit overall highlighted the key issues on children’s case files and provided a good balance between quality of practice and outcomes for children."

Coun Paul Watson, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: "We know there is still a long way to go, but it's heartening that Ofsted have reported the steady progress being made after each of their three monitoring visits.

"Children's Services are in a much better place now than they were in 2015 and we're continuing to work hard to make a positive difference to their lives of the children and families we work with."

Reporting on their findings, inspectors said they noted improved performance in many areas of practice for looked after children and that the number of children who have had a change in social worker has "appreciably reduced" since the Ofsted inspection.

They also said caseloads for social workers had reduced and that, overall, children, parents and carers "spoke positively" about the support they receive from social workers.

Nick Whitfield, the Government's Commissioner for Children's Services in Sunderland, said: "I'm pleased to see Sunderland making steady progress as it continues to rebuild and improve its services for children. The council has worked hard to make improvements and although there is still a significant way to go, this is further evidence that things are getting better."

Inspectors did note some areas for further improvement, including:

• Improvements in the quality of auditing
• More rigour and consistency in management oversight
• More consistent recording of decision making, staff supervision and the reason for delays where these occur

The report added: "Staff morale in Sunderland is good and there are reduced sickness levels and stability within teams, which help to support good practice of social workers and to build relationships with children and carers.

"Staff with whom inspectors spoke feel well supported through more structured supervision and report that senior management direction is much clearer. Overall, children, parents and carers spoke positively about the support that they receive and welcome the stability and consistency of having the same worker. Statutory social work visits are timely overall."

Coun Louise Farthing, Portfolio Holder for Children's Services, said: "We are continuing to work hard to make the improvements needed at the same time as recognising the progress that has been made. We are also very much aware of how much more we need to do to get services to the level our children and young people deserve."