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Case study: Sunderland City Council and Together for Children

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Client: Sunderland City Council

Date: February 2016 – April 2017

Challenges faced by the client: In July 2015, the Council received a highly critical report from Ofsted citing “widespread and serious failures” in children’s service. The Department for Education stepped in, placing Sunderland under notice to improve and appointed a Commissioner to spearhead the improvement.

The Commissioner recommended that children’s services – including social care, early help and education services – be transferred to a new company, with day-to-day independence from the Council under its own governance and management structure.

Despite having been through a difficult experience, members and officers supported the new direction and recognised the imperative to improve. The leader of the council was adamant there was “nothing more important than looking after our children” and that the council would do “whatever it takes”. As one of the first company of its kind, the project was high profile, required careful stakeholder management and a clear vision from the start.

Our support: Mutual Ventures was appointed by the Council to support the design and implementation of the new company and its relationship with the council and its partners. The goal was to create an organisation capable of delivering high quality services for children and their families in Sunderland.

We were responsible for the overall management of the project, working closely with the council and delivery partners to direct tasks, produce deliverables and manage stakeholders. The project was covered critical areas of company development including legal, finance, HR, property, governance and commissioning, and support services.

Key tasks included selecting the right model for the new company, developing a contract (with service specification, performance management framework and financial mechanism), setting the budget for the new company, recruiting board of directors and leadership team, and ensuring the effective transfer of staff and assets. To achieve this, we worked alongside other advisors to provide specific advice on legal and VAT issues.

Alongside technical tasks, the success of the project hinged on effective communication between stakeholders, including the DfE, the Council, and local partners. Overall, our approach was to work with the council and be sensitive to local circumstances, whilst ensure effective and timely delivery.

Outcome achieved: On 1st April 2017, the doors opened on Together for Children – Sunderland, at that time one of only two ‘full service’ children’s service companies in England. Wholly-owned by the local authority, it is run by an independent board and management team whose mission it is to deliver a full suite of children’s services in the city. The new organisation provides approximately £200m of services and employs 700 staff.

After a bumpy road, and initial instability in the senior team, children’s services in Sunderland are on the road to improvement. An Ofsted inspection held a year after the company’s establishment showed improvement in services for children looked after and achieving permanence, including a ‘good’ rating for adoption. Since then, successive monitoring visits have showed further improvement.


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