Long improvement journey expected for ‘inadequate’ children’s services, chief executive confirms

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Sunderland’s struggling children’s services agency faces a long journey towards improvement, councillors have heard.

Together for Children (TFC) took over management of Sunderland City Council’s (SCC) children’s services in 2017 after they received an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating in July 2015.

Despite making improvements in three out of five areas in their second government inspection this year, the service failed to shake its overall “inadequate” status.

Now TFC’s newly-appointed chief executive and director of children’s services, Jill Colbert, has revealed her plans to turn the service around.

Speaking at the Children, Education and Skills Scrutiny Committee at Sunderland Civic Centre, she said Ofsted recommends an improvement period of a “minimum of five years” for ‘inadequate’ judgements.

While rising demand for children needing support creates pressure in the system, she explained, “children are better served than they were in 2015”.

This includes adoption services being classed as “good” by inspectors alongside recruiting more staff, an out of hours response service for children and improved work with partners.

Following the recent inspection, “immediate actions” were also taken from boosting training to reviewing TFC’s Integrated Contact and Referral Team.

“While it’s painful to note, in 2015, childrens services were the most inadequate that Ofsted had ever inspected,” Ms Colbert said.

“An inadequate Ofsted judgement is a very difficult message for staff, partners, the council and the community.

“Without a doubt, when we spoke to staff and briefed them the day before the report was published they were very clear, for them, they felt there had been significant improvements made since 2015.”

She added: “Our responsibility is to get in there early and to work with our partners so they understand what good intervention looks like.”

Coun Phil Tye said the committee have “tried their damndest” to raise issues with TFC in the past but repeatedly faced “barriers” in communication.

Calling on the chief executive to act, he said a better “mechanism” should be put in place to provide scrutiny and challenge – including providing more accurate data to councillors.

Several other councillors also raised concerns at the meeting with vice chairman, Coun Bob Francis, asking for more information on service managers and criticising delays in family court cases.

Coun Paula Hunt also asked why social workers failed to identify risks correctly with the recent Ofsted judgement stating  assessments were “overly optimistic”.

Ms Colbert, responding, said that Ofsted monitoring visits between the two full inspections showed a “positive direction of travel” – a message which was passed down to councillors.

She added that staff at the time ‘weren’t given the right conditions to do the right things” and pledged to tackle the issue with a revamped management structure.

Other key pledges included building skills and employment in the city, improving placement choices for children,  improving use of I.T systems for recording cases and protecting vulnerable/missing children. 

Looking forward, TFC will prepare an improvement plan against Ofsted’s recommendations which must be submitted 70 days from the publication of the inspection report.