‘A time to pause, to reflect and celebrate’ as Sunderland’s children services are rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted
Sunderland children’s services bosses were unsure whether they would even be allowed to go from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ in the course of a single Ofsted inspection.
But a new report gives Together for Children (TfC) – the agency set up after services were initially rated as inadequate in 2015 – the highest possible grading.
It comes just three years after a follow-up inspection in 2018 identified improvements, but not enough to change the original ‘inadequate’ grade.
TfC chief executive Jill Colbert, who has overseen the transformation, said the service had made history: “This has never happened before,” she said.
“No other area has gone from inadequate to outstanding in one go and in fact, being candid, we did not even know if it was possible.
"We didn’t know if Ofsted would permit that to happen.
“For all of the staff, it is a time to pause, to reflect and celebrate and draw a line under a difficult past. I hope everyone, regardless of their political persuasion or personal views can recognise this is a good outcome for families in Sunderland."
A number of factors had been crucial, including a change in the approach to recruitment and retention of staff: "The number of social workers we have taken, both as students and and newly-qualified, is unparalleled anywhere else in the region,” she said.
"The investment has been in growing the workforce for the future and we have an ability now to maintain a stable workforce that just was not possible before.
“The other thing is we recruited really tenacious and really skilled managers from the off and they have absolutely had their foot on the gas."
The agency had acted quickly on issues highlighted by Ofsted earlier this year: “They came in March and they gave us some feedback on things we needed to improve, then came back in July and we had addressed them so they have absolute confidence that when we see a problem we deal with it,” said Jill.
Coun Louise Farthing is the council’s Cabinet Member for Children’s Services: “We do have factors in Sunderland with substance misuse, mental health and domestic abuse, so we have got the three evils that we have to deal with day in and day out,” she said.
"To have got this judgement, given that background, is astounding.”
The changes had involved a new way of working, called Signs of Safety: “We needed to do something and that was really turning things around to ensure we worked with families rather than blame them and I think that was the biggest factor that changed the scenario,” said Coun Farthing.
Although the service has been rated ‘outstanding’ overall, there are still areas for improvement: “It will be up to five years before we have a full inspection but Ofsted don’t just walk away and leave you to languish in that period,” said Jill.
"They will come back for regular short visits and we welcome that. We’re actually really good at being inspected now – we’ve had more practice than anyone I know.
“We know we need to continue to strengthen what they call help and protection in the report. I’m confident we would have got a solid outstanding for that but there was just a very small number of cases where they saw a little bit more variability.”
She hoped the public would help: “We don’t want a city full of children’s homes. Living in institutional care is not the right thing for most children. We want to recruit more foster carers, we want children to stay in Sunderland, we want them to learn in Sunderland and we want them to work in Sunderland.
“How do we really get all our vulnerable children into good pathways for careers, so they make the best life they can?”
Coun Farthing echoed her comments: “If people can give a child a loving home by becoming a foster caree, that would be really, really helpful and the other thing would be if you could become a mentor to a young person in Sunderland.
"Everyone has got some skills and experience.”
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