sccOFSTED inspectors have noted ‘significant progress’ is being made by Sunderland Children’s Services in their first monitoring visit since services were judged to be ‘inadequate’ last year.

The visit in early August focussed on the progress in improving services for care leavers which was one of the areas criticised in last July’s Ofsted report.

During their visit inspectors spoke to care leavers and staff, including social workers, managers and housing providers. They also examined a range of evidence including electronic case records, supervision records, observation of social work practice, performance data and young people’s case file audit findings.

In her follow-up letter, Ofsted inspector Fiona Millns who led the visit, said: “The local authority is making significant progress to improve services for care leavers.”

Councillor Paul Watson, the Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “The City Council has worked very hard since last July’s Ofsted report to transform Children’s Services, working closely with Nick Whitfield, who was appointed Sunderland’s Commissioner for Children’s Services last July and the Department for Education.

“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 added: I’m pleased to see such a solid start on the improvement journey. I believe it gives us a huge amount to build on.”

Among the findings from her visit, Ms Millns reports:
• Senior managers in children’s services responding determinedly to the areas of improvement identified in relation to care leavers
• A sound understanding among senior managers of the key priorities for improvement in services for care leavers
• Workers at all levels in the ‘Next Steps’ service for care leavers reporting feeling more confident and supported by senior managers
• Manageable case loads and improved performance management, including data collection and quality auditing
• New policies, procedures, documents and accompanying training supporting workers to improve the quality of practice and recording.
• Care leavers feeling safe and well supported where they are living.
• A good range of housing options available including newly commissioned accommodation and increased use of ‘staying put’, which allows young people to stay with their foster parents once they reach 18, and supported lodgings.
• An increase from 69 per cent in November 2015 to 89 per cent in June 2016 in the number of care leavers with pathway plans setting out how the council will support them when they leave care and move towards independent living
• An increase from 30 per cent to 82 per cent in the number of care leavers staying in touch with the Next Steps service once they leave care

But she also noted some areas where there is still room for further improvement. These include:

• The quality of case recording which is not consistently good
• The quality of pathway plans, particularly in terms of chronologies and assessment of need
• Supervision of social work and personal advisors
• Management oversight, including challenge from independent reviewing officers (IROs)
• Care leavers receiving information about their medical histories.

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 focussed 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.”

Ms Millns praised changes in leadership in Children’s Services, saying: “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.”

She also noted that workers in the ‘Next Steps’ service had reported ‘a change in culture, with clear direction and openness’, which is engendering confidence among staff.

Today’s Ofsted letter comes just weeks before the new company set up to steer forward Children’s Services in Sunderland begins operating in shadow form.

The company, which will be responsible for delivering high quality, fully integrated Children’s Services covering education, children’s social care and early help services, becomes an organisation in its own right next April.