New children’s services company to start work in Sunderland

Sunderland Civic Centre.
Sunderland Civic Centre.

The company which will take charge of children’s services across Sunderland is making its way to the “starting line.”

Together for Children officially begins work on Saturday as responsibilities for children and young people in care or need to additional support are transferred over by Sunderland City Council.

Commissioner for Children's Services Nick Whitfield

Commissioner for Children's Services Nick Whitfield

It was proposed in the wake of a damming report by Ofsted back in July 2015, which placed the children’s services and safeguarding departments into special measures when they were deemed inadequate.

Since then, follow-up visits have found strides have been taken to improve performance after “serious and widespread” failings were found in regards to its leadership, along with high case loads for social workers, poor information sharing and poorly co-ordinated services for children at risk of sexual exploitation.

In the most recent visit by inspectors this year, praise was directed towards the better relationships children have with social workers and a reduction in the times they change officer and improvements in the timeliness of assessments for court proceedings, despite high demand.

Staff also say they feel better supported by their managers, improving the retention of workers.

I’ve found they have risen to the challenge around the improvements because they are the ones who really want to make a difference.

Councillor Louise Farthing

The launch of the company, which will also handle fostering and adoptions, will see it take charge of 828 staff.

These include social care staff, early years, family support, education and other specialists such as youth offending and substance misuse.

Their workload as it stands sees it take charge of 534 looked after children, which includes foster children, in residential homes and special placements, and 450 youngsters who are subject to child protection plans, where they and their families are given additional support.

Overall, it will be responsible for 57,630 children and young people across Sunderland.

Coun Paul Watson

Coun Paul Watson

Together for Children is the result of a Government decision to push for improvements in the services across the country, with the new set-up in Sunderland announced as the first of its kind by then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

The plans have been put together by the council in partnership with Nick Whitfield, the Government’s Commissioner for Children’s Services and the Department for Education (DfE).

Alex Hopkins is chief executive of Together for Children and director of children’s services for the council.

The council says Mr Hopkins, who joined the Council as Director of Children’s Services from Northamptonshire County Council last July, has a proven record in transforming such services.

Councillor Louise Farthing.

Councillor Louise Farthing.

He said: “What is happening in Sunderland is very unique, because it is the first time a council has voluntarily co-operated with the Government to form an arms length company.

“From an officer’s point of view it’s a very strong and brave decision by it’s political leadership.

“People have been talked about this being a finishing line, but it’s really the starting line and effectively, from April 1, this will be at arms length from the council and will still continue to work on the immediate improvement work which has been going on.

“The staff are brilliant and have been doing a fantastic job in their support for young people and children in the city.

“I’ve found they have risen to the challenge around the improvements because they are the ones who really want to make a difference.”

Councillor Louise Farthing, cabinet member for children’s services, said work has been ongoing to consult with staff as plans move on to establish the company.

Alex Hopkins, chief executive of Together for Children and Sunderland City Council's director for children's services.

Alex Hopkins, chief executive of Together for Children and Sunderland City Council's director for children's services.

“We have seen some real improvements on key measures like the size of caseloads and the number of unallocated cases.

“Significantly we’ve also had social workers reporting that they feel more supported, and children, parents and carers speaking positively about the support they receive from social workers which is a big step forward from where we were in 2015.

“Together for Children will be working to keep up that momentum and build on it to make sure that children and young people get the services they need to live safe, happy, healthy and successful lives.”

Significant improvements since the 2015 Ofsted inspection include:

*A permanent senior management structure in place to support the delivery of safe and effective services

*A reduction in the number of unallocated cases from 269 at the time of the 2015 inspection to just nine at the end of January 2017

*Average caseloads down to 19 in January 2017 compared to between 30 to 40 in 2015

*92% of child protection visits completed in ten working days, compared with 55 per cent completed in 28 days in 2015

*96% of care leavers now have a pathway plan compared to 69 per cent in November 2015

*Ongoing recruitment programme with recruitment and retention targets in place.

The men who pioneered the establishment of the new company have welcomed its launch.

Council leader Paul Watson, who played an instrumental role in the decision to set up the new company, said: “We recognised early on that there was a need for a fundamental change in the way children’s services were delivered to ensure the best possible future for our children and young people.

“There has been a tremendous amount of hard work to improve the service since July 2015, with some significant improvements, and the last three Ofsted monitoring visits have all reported steady progress.

“We believe Together for Children is best placed to build on what has been achieved already and to drive forward the further improvements that are needed.”

The company will be owned by and be accountable to the council, but it will have its own board of directors who will set the direction of the company, supervise the management of the business and hold the management team to account.

Nick Whitfield, the Government’s Commissioner for Children’s Services and the Department for Education (DfE), said: “This is a real opportunity to deliver innovative children’s services that can ensure further improvement and sustained delivery.

“Sunderland is the first council in the country to voluntarily transfer the day to day running of children’s services out of council control in co-operation with the DfE, so Together for Children is unique and I look forward to seeing it continue to build on the steady progress that has been made so far.

“The council deserves the credit for recognising that it needed to do something different to make a difference to children’s lives and for forging ahead with those plans to drive forward further improvements.”

Edward Timpson, Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, said: “All children and young people deserve the very best start in life, and children’s services must be able to deliver this.

“Today marks an important step in the improvement journey of children’s services in this area and is the result of many months of hard work by Sunderland, Together for Children and the Commissioner Nick Whitfield. 
“I look forward to working closely with Together for Children as its work progresses.”