Sunderland’s failing children’s services to be boosted by 93 new social workers

Steve Walker, who has joined Sunderland City Council as interim director of children's services.
Steve Walker, who has joined Sunderland City Council as interim director of children's services.
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More than 90 new social workers will be recruited as part of a £6million investment into slated children’s services.

Sunderland City Council was slammed by Ofsted, which rated its children’s services and safeguarding board as inadequate, putting children at risk.

Nothing is more important than keeping our children and young people safe and there is a huge commitment from partners and the council to making this work.

Council leader Paul Watson

As part of the July report, it stated senior managers and members at the highest levels of the council did not ensure youngsters get the service they need to be kept safe.

A series of “widespread and serious failures” were highlighted, with the Government drafting in addition support to the department to ensure the work of the failing units is turned around.

In the aftermath of its release, council chiefs said staff members not up to the task had left of their own accord, had faced difficulties recruiting social workers and Government cuts to support services had been at the root of issues.

Better pay through agencies was also cited as a reason why agency staff were drafted in to boost numbers.

Now 93 new frontline social workers will be recruited to the ranks as part of an action plan to get to the root of the problems, with includes a cash package of an estimated £6million.

An interim director of children’s service has also been appointed, who will work with the Government commissioner appointed to over see the work.

The council has said it has tried to safeguard budgets, with the pot standing at £31.6million – back in 2011/11, it was £30.1million.

Council leader Paul Watson said: “Work has continued apace to improve safeguarding in Sunderland since we received the directions notice from the Secretary of State for Education in July.

“Throughout this period we have been working closely with Nick Whitfield, the commissioner for children’s services to meet the requirements set out in the notice.

“A draft single improvement plan has been developed to address all the recommendations in the Ofsted report and the final version of this is due to be signed off at the improvement board to be chaired by the Commissioner in October.

“As we said at the time of the publication of the Ofsted report, it’s going to take time for the changes we had made ourselves prior to the inspection and those made since with the commissioner to come to fruition.

“Nothing is more important than keeping our children and young people safe and there is a huge commitment from partners and the council to making this work.

“This commitment is something that has been recognised by the commissioner.”

Steve Walker, has joined Sunderland City Council as interim director of children’s services.

He took up his post earlier this month and has previously worked in Leeds, where as deputy director he led much of its required improvement work.

He was also previously involved in improving services for children in Swansea, with the council adding “he brings a lot of valuable experience to the role.”

Union chiefs have said the work to improve the departments are a step in the right direction.

Urgent changes were put in place after problems were hightlighted by Ofsted, which graded the services as good when they carried out their last check three years ago.

Budget cuts and the number of caseloads, along with recruitment problems in the search for social workers, were listed as issues facing the departments, which are tasked with dealing with the most vulnerable children in Wearside’s communities.

Almost 40 per cent of the 481-strong workforce in children’s services were agency staff when the report was issued, while 49 employees - 10% - had left between April last year and this March.

Councillor Paul Watson, who leads the council, has said he would personally monitor improvements, which include setting up a team to tackle workloads.

Pat Smith, the cabinet member for children’s services, refuse to bow to calls for her to step down when the report was published, stating: “I have overseen steady improvements in education, such as GCSE results and SATs during my time in post and I believe I am very well placed to lead the recovery as we continue to make the changes we need to improve children’s safeguarding to at least its previous good rating.”

John McDade, Unison regional organiser, has welcomed the latest efforts by the council.

He said: “We are aware of some proposals which will increase social workers.

“We’re in support of them as they improve services for vulnerable children in the city and welcome the fact it’s not a cut in jobs, but that there will be more jobs.

“I think it’s interesting that recently Sunderland and Darlington have been given poor Ofsted reports and we cannot escape the fact there have been austerity measures.

“I don’t think it can all fall to Sunderland City Council, but a reduction in public spending has had a knock on affect with them.”

Among the issues raised in the Ofsted report were:

• Cases involving those missing from home, care or education or at risk of sexual exploitation are “insufficient and poorly coordinated.”

• The council is slow to take legal action to safeguard children

• At one point 122 cases had been held for five months without progress - one social worker had 45 assessments to complete and enter on the system

• The out-of-hours service is not fit for purpose, with tired workers not updating records with essential details

• The number of children in protection has risen, with 86 per cent of those subject to plans for neglect, but the reasons have not been analysed

• Other agencies have a “loss of confidence” in the service, causing delays and refusals of help

• A total of 21 - one in 10 - cases were handed back to the council by inspectors asking for action to be taken

• A lack of homes for children in care means they sometimes have to move out of the city, change schools and are unable to keep in touch with family and friends

• It takes too long to find children who need a new permanent home somewhere to live.