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Sunderland children’s services making progress since ‘inadequate’ rating

Sunderland local authority children’s services have improved in several areas, including ensuring a better future for care leavers, since being rated ‘inadequate’ last year and being taken over by a voluntary trust, Ofsted has said.

An Ofsted inspection in July 2015 said that Sunderland children’s services displayed “widespread and serious failures in the services provided”, with “particularly poor” services for care leavers.

It found that children’s services were failing to support care leavers, who struggled to find jobs and housing. Shortly after the inspection, the government announced a voluntary trust was being formed to run the local authority’s children’s service, which will be called Together for Children Sunderland.

However, Fiona Millns, who led an Ofsted monitoring inspection into children’s services, said: “The new leadership arrangements for Children's Services in Sunderland in respect of services for care leavers demonstrate a strong and appropriate focus. Leaders are committed to developing a performance culture at all levels of service delivery. Improvements are clearly seen in the outcomes for care leavers. Improved performance monitoring and quality assurance processes are key factors in securing this improvement."

The new Ofsted report praised Sunderland children’s services leaders for their commitment to improving services for care leaders.  Care leavers consistently spoke positively about the services, and the percentage of care leavers with a pathway plan had increased from 69% to 82%.

There was a decrease in care leavers who were NEET (not in education, employment or training). Only one care leaver was homeless and they were receiving appropriate support from the council.

The Next Steps programme has now been moved to the city centre, which enables care leavers to meet their support workers more quickly. The Next Steps workforce was also more stable, with lower sickness absence rates and only one vacancy.

There was increased use of staying put arrangements to help care leavers stay in their home, and care leavers could use a new app to help them access services.

Alex Hopkins, the new director of Children's Services at Sunderland City Council, said: "There is still much work to be done but I'm pleased that Ofsted have noted that we are making significant progress.

“This was Ofsted's first monitoring visit since last July's inspection report and although this time they focused specifically on services for care leavers I'd like to think the findings are indicative of the progress we are beginning to make more generally.

“Every young person leaving care deserves to have the same life chances that we all want for our kids. That's what this service is all about. We're now in touch with far more care leavers than we were a year ago and we've done a lot of work to make sure that more of our care leavers are now in work, education or training.

“We've spent a lot of time over the last year listening to care leavers and to the children, young people and families we work with because we very much want them to be involved in helping us shape and improve future services. This has been matched by a lot of work to reduce caseloads and provide staff with the support they need to deliver better services. But we've still got a huge amount to do and a lot of areas where we still need to improve to deliver the services our children and young people deserve.”

The Ofsted inspection also highlighted a number of improvements that still needed to be made to make support for care leavers more consistent. It said care leavers often did not receive adequate needs assessment, personal information plans or information about their medical histories.

In addition, supervision and management oversight was still failing to identify shortfalls in support for care leavers.

Cllr Paul Watson, the leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “We know that we've still got a long way to go and a lot of work to do before services are where they need to be. We won't be happy until services across the board are in a much better place but it's heartening to know we are beginning to make inroads in improving the lives of children and young people.”

Nick Whitfield, Sunderland's commissioner for children’s services, said he was pleased to see such a solid start on the improvement journey. “I believe it gives us a huge amount to build on.”

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