Committee welcomes 'outstanding' Ofsted report for Sunderland's Together for Children
City councillors responsible for scrutinising children’s services on Wearside have welcomed a clean bill of health for the department following an ‘outstanding’ rating from education watchdogs.
The news followed a huge improvement for children’s services in the city following a damning inspection report in 2015, which highlighted problems across the board.
Council bosses later set up agency Together for Children (TfC) to run the service and while a follow-up inspection in 2018 found improvements had been made, they were not enough to justify revising the ‘inadequate’ grading.
In an inspection between June 28 and July 9 this year, Ofsted found children’s services had been “transformed” and was making a “real difference to children’s lives.”
Sunderland City Council has now become one of only 18 local authorities in England – and just four in the North of England – to be rated as outstanding.
This week, the council’s Children, Education and Skills Scrutiny Committee met in public for the first time since the Ofsted report was published.
Alongside giving their thanks, councillors said the improved standards were even more impressive as they were made during the Covid-19 crisis.
Councillor Alex Samuels said: “A huge congratulations to everybody at Together for Children.
“To achieve something so unprecedented would have been fantastic on its own but to do it against the backdrop of a global pandemic […] it’s just such a huge achievement.”
Councillor Paul Gibson said the journey from inadequate to outstanding in six years was “remarkable” and added that the fact most of the work had been done in the last three years was “even more remarkable.”
Councillor Richard Dunn said he was “blown away” by the Ofsted report while vice-chair of the committee, councillor Joshua McKeith, said “every staff member at TfC is a credit to the children in Sunderland.”
Councillor Patricia Smith, who chairs the scrutiny panel, also noted Ofsted’s comments on a “new and vibrant culture” within children’s services and the recruitment of a “permanent and excellent set of social workers.”
Councillors heard that previous issues at TfC, such as a reliance on agency staff, had now been resolved with a team of permanent staff and only one agency worker for the whole of the social work service.
The Ofsted report presented to councillors praised the “tenacious staff working tirelessly to ensure that children are at the centre of all work and interventions,” the leadership of the organisation and the experiences of children.
It also noted the “unstinting commitment” of senior leaders and members of the council to “improving children’s outcomes with sustained and significant investment in children’s services.”
Committee member, councillor Phil Tye, reflected on the improvement journey since 2015 and stressed that the latest inspection result was the result of a “team effort.”
“When you’re working with children, young people and families in the city you’re collectively doing a job to make improvements,” he said.
“It was found last time that we were failing and I think it takes a brave person to put their hands up and say that at some point, we got that wrong.
“I think equally when we’re in a position that we’re in now we should also be able to say collectively, this is what we have done as a team, we have done this as elected members setting strategy and appointing the right people and getting where we are today.
“And absolutely we would not have achieved it without the children and young people of this city as well, who have been absolutely phenomenal in supporting us during this process.”
Jill Colbert, chief executive of Together for Children and director of children’s services for the city council, previously said that the inspection outcome marked a “turning point” for children’s services and families and “drew a line under our difficult history.”
Speaking at a scrutiny panel on September 9, she agreed the achievement was the result of a “collective effort” and assured councillors that standards would be maintained going forward.
The children’s services boss went on to say: “Ofsted were very complimentary about the work we did during Covid, we did not sit back and let Covid dictate how we were going to meet the needs of vulnerable families.
“And again we extend our thanks to all of our partners and the voluntary sector for doing that because clearly that has made a fundamental difference to families in Sunderland.”
The Ofsted report assigned grades in four categories ranking the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers and overall effectiveness as outstanding, and the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection as good.
As an outstanding organisation overall, Sunderland’s children’s services will no longer be subject to a routine inspection cycle.