Solid improvements have been made for children in care, children with a plan for adoption and care leavers in Sunderland but there has not been sufficient progress to ensure that the experiences of children who need help and protection have improved, Ofsted has stated.
Children in Sunderland are better served today than they were three years ago, but for children requiring protection, risk is not recognised, or appropriately responded to for too many children.
“The scale of some of the weaknesses in practice found during this inspection were not well understood by managers and leaders,” said the Ofsted inspection report.
Ofsted rated the council as requiring improvement for children looked after and achieving permanence and the experience and progress of care leavers, inadequate for children who need help and protection and leadership, management and governance, with an overall inadequate rating.
The multi-agency improvement board led by a Department for Education commissioner was established to oversee expected improvements in services for children. An alternative delivery model for children’s social care, ‘Together for Children’ (TfC), was created.
However, due to the complexities involved in establishing the company, it did not start to deliver services until April 2017. Several changes in director of children’s services have impeded the pace of change.
The current interim DCS, employed by the council, works closely with the chief executive of TfC and this arrangement, which has been in place since November 2017, has begun to improve some services.
However, actions taken following monitoring visits have not been sufficiently effective in improving social work practice. Senior managers and leaders do not have a good enough understanding of the quality of services being provided in some areas.
Quality assurance systems are not informing senior managers about the quality of children’s and young people’s experiences of services. Audits of the cases of children in need of help and protection are overly optimistic. A consequence of this is that managers are not well informed about the quality of services.
- The thresholds for accessing children’s social care are too high.
- Risk is not recognised or responded to soon enough.
- Screening of contacts in the Integrated Contact and Referral Team (ICRT) is ineffective.
- Statutory guidance is not followed, resulting in delays in protective action being taken.
- Children who go missing and those at risk of child sexual exploitation do not receive a coordinated response to protect them.
- Safeguarding and promoting the well-being of children with a disability remains poor, as many children have not had their needs re-assessed.
- Overall, most children’s assessments are weak with key information missing.
However, Sunderland has made progress in creating and rebuilding the foundations needed to deliver improved services from a low base. This includes: developing services that did not previously exist; improved workforce stability and effectively reduced workloads; strengthened partnership working; and enhancing the voice and influence of children all of which are beginning to improve experiences and outcomes for some children.
Significant progress has been made in adoption services, which is now good. However, not all children benefit from achieving permanence at the earliest opportunity. A combination of factors in pre-proceedings work is resulting in some delay when progressing court applications.
The support and planning for children’s education has improved, including better attendance. The rate of their progress, however, remains an important challenge. The experiences of care leavers has improved from a low base.
Deborah Jenkins, Chair of Together for Children, the company which has run children's services on behalf of the City Council since April 2017, said: “Transformation of this scale and from such a low base takes time and while we are disappointed at the overall judgement, we are encouraged that in three out of the five inspection areas Ofsted have acknowledged the improvements that have been made.”
“Everyone at Together for Children remains steadfastly committed to working tirelessly to quickly address the remaining areas that have been identified by Ofsted as still falling short of where they need to be,” she added.