Sunderland’s children’s services rating jumps from 'inadequate' to 'outstanding'

Fiona Simpson
Friday, August 20, 2021

Sunderland Council’s children’s services, which was deemed 'inadequate' by Ofsted, has improved so much its rating has jumped straight to 'outstanding' in just three years.

Jill Colbert with Catherine Hearne, board member at Together for Children, Louise Farthing, cabinet member for children’s services and Patrick Melia, chief executive at Sunderland. Picture: Sunderland City Council
Jill Colbert with Catherine Hearne, board member at Together for Children, Louise Farthing, cabinet member for children’s services and Patrick Melia, chief executive at Sunderland. Picture: Sunderland City Council

The service, which is delivered by Together for Children, was handed the lowest rating in 2015 and again, following the trust’s takeover, in 2018.

Inspectors who visited the council last month said it had been “transformed” and is “making a real difference to children’s lives”.

The report notes that “inspectors evaluated social work practice to be of consistently high quality and relentless in significantly improving the experience of children and young people”. It also highlights that the significant improvement is “even more impressive given that it was during a global pandemic”.

Other areas praised by Ofsted include work by the senior leadership team in “radically transforming” the service and reducing the number of agency social workers from 167 in 2016/17 to just one - a move which has saved £7m.

Speaking to CYP Now, Jill Colbert, chief executive of Together for Children and director of children’s services at Sunderland said: “It was plain for all to see that the service didn’t have a stable workforce, the service was heavily reliant on agency staff and they don’t have the same level of investment and commitment that permanent staff do so one of the biggest challenges was creating a workforce that was invested in the future.”

This was done through the “over-recruitment” of newly qualified social workers to increase “home-grown” talent in the city. 

“Many of those newly qualified social workers are some of the most tenacious and talented social workers that I’ve met in my career and they come from all different spheres of social care so it's a really nice blend of experience,” she said. 

Colbert added that the council “needed a management team that could really oversee and grip practice” and hailed the recruitment of “experienced and talented managers” as a “key part” of Sunderland’s success.

Strong and effective partnership working, effective and innovative early help practices and timely decisions made around children’s care were also praised by inspectors.

The report notes a “significant cultural change focused on putting children and their voices central to all their work”.

Colbert said the use of tools including an app called Mind of My Own, which allows young people to connect with social workers directly, has improved services “without a shadow of a doubt”.

Across the service, “children direct the interventions”, she added, “particularly important in that is trying to strategically bring that voice of children up, which is why improving engagement and participation processes driven by care-experienced children are so important”.

“We are an organisation that will one day be led by them,” the chief executive said, adding: “The outcome of this inspection marks a turning point for children’s services and for families in Sunderland. 

“It draws a line under our difficult history and celebrates the incredible work our staff have done to deliver outstanding services to children. I hope every member of staff, and all our partners who have offered support, feel rightly proud of what we have achieved together. The publication of our report provides an opportunity to celebrate our success but more importantly, celebrate the children and families who have been part of driving our improvement journey.”

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