Wearside leads the way with a new generation of children’s service
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Sunderland City Council has developed an innovative new model for children’s services, supported by Mutual Ventures, writes John Copps. This article was originally published in the LGC – click here.
The city of Sunderland has barely been out of the news over the last twelve months – from the first area to declare its support for Brexit, the decision by Nissan to keep its car plant, and the ups and downs of its beloved football club. Now it is also in the spotlight for being at the cutting of edge public service reform.
On 1 April, the doors opened on Together for Children – Sunderland, the north east’s newest business and 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 safeguarding, education and early help services on behalf of the council, and ensure all children in the city fulfil their potential.
To understand how children’s services in Sunderland got to this point, you need to understand the recent history. Back in July 2015, the local authority-run services received a highly critical report from Ofsted citing ‘widespread and serious failures’. The Department for Education stepped in, placing Sunderland under the direction of a Commissioner to spearhead the improvement. This role was taken up by Nick Whitfield, chief executive of the ground-breaking Achieving for Children in Kingston and Richmond. As mandated, he established an improvement board and began the process of reforming services.
Six months after his appointment, the Commissioner wrote to the Secretary of State to recommend that children’s services in Sunderland be transferred to a new company, with day-to-day independence from the council under its own governance and management structure. The recommendation was accepted.
The Commissioner also recommended that the council include education services in the new company. This was to ensure that schools’ role in spotting neglect and abuse was embedded within a full service, and encouraging relationships between parts of the system necessary to keep children safe.
Doing ‘whatever it takes’
Despite what had been a difficult experience, members and officers of the council supported the new direction. They recognised the imperative to improve, respected the Commissioner’s judgment, and saw that it was right for a new start. The Leader of the Council was adamant that there is ‘nothing more important than looking after our children’ and that they would do ‘whatever it takes’.
The council’s response makes Sunderland stand out from examples of failing children’s services elsewhere in the country. As a result, the set-up of Together for Children – Sunderland was never ‘forced’. Instead it was adopted a voluntary development, without the need for further intervention from the Secretary of State.
Much of the credit for this goes to the Leader of the Council. Throughout the process, Cllr Paul Watson stood tall, with an unwavering focus on ensuring outcomes for children remained top of the agenda. Working hard to develop a strong relationship with the Commissioner, helped members and officers to maintain a genuinely shared vision.
Politically, it has never been an easy road. An ex-ship building and colliery city, and staunch labour heartland, moving services out of the control of Sunderland City Council was never a natural choice. Add to this the backdrop of national political upheaval and financial challenge, the local politicians had to stick their necks out. Added to the mix, the council already has experience of the benefits and challenges of delivering services through arms-length companies and joint ventures in adult social care, social housing, and leisure and culture.
Leading improvement – the Together for Children senior management team. From left to right: Debra Patterson, Director of Safeguarding; Alex Hopkins, Chief Executive; David May, Director of Finance; Sue Carty, Director of Performance and Quality; Simon Marshall, Director of Education; Karen Davison, Director of Early Help.
The road to improvement
One of the clear benefits of the new arrangement is that Together for Children can maintain a single focus on children’s services, without other distractions. Day-to-day independence is carefully balanced with democratic accountability through its ongoing contractual relationship with the council and openness to scrutiny.
Part of the deal is also that the company must save money, contributing to the council-wide budget reduction of £74m by 2020. How it does this is not prescribed – an outcomes-based specification and single contract price mean the board of directors are free to make their own decisions about spending and how they organise services. Alongside this, the company is able to seek alternative sources of income, for example by growing traded services or pursuing funds from charitable trusts. Any profit will be shared between the company and council to reinvest in services.
Now that Together for Children – Sunderland is up and running, what lessons have we learnt from the process?
Firstly, for all the cooperation and consensus about what was needed, this doesn’t remove the need for difficult conversations. Re-organising a large part of council services, and ensuring the necessary back office support functions are available, is a tough task. As always, the devil is in the detail. Questions need to be considered around the ongoing impact on the council and understanding the dependencies that continue to exist.
Second, establish key principles as early as possible. The council agreed with the Commissioner that the company would have ‘day-to-day operational independence’ from the council. This underpinned many of the subsequent discussions, and the practical measures of an outcomes-based contract and full budgetary control.
Third, invest in relationships with an eye on the future. Under the new arrangements, senior officers on the council and the company side will continue to work together. Elected members retain their statutory responsibility for the safety of children but need to understand how their relationship with children’s services will change. Spend time understanding both sides of the equation – if it ever gets to a point where the two parties are waving the contract at each other, that isn’t conducive to a successful service.
The development of Together for Children – Sunderland is a unique and pioneering approach to service improvement and one of the north east’s beacons of public service reform. The roots of the company may lie in adversity, but its future is bright and one in which its partners share an important stake.
More about Together for Children – Sunderland
It is a company limited by guarantee, wholly-owned by Sunderland City Council
It is a full service children’s company, providing social care, education and early help services under contract with the council
The chair of the board is appointed by the Department for Education,
The other nine members of the board are appointed by the council, including two council officers
The company has day-to-day independence from the council, with full budgetary control
For more see www.togetherforchildren.org.uk
To download a PDF version of this article click here.