Mutual Ventures

Sunderland City Council – Children’s Services

Sunderland City Council received a highly critical report from Ofsted citing ‘widespread and serious failures’ following its inspection of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers in June 2015. The Department for Education placed Sunderland under notice to improve and appointed a Commissioner to spearhead the improvement. This role was taken up by Nick Whitfield, Chief Executive, of the Achieving for Children in Kingston and Richmond.

Following a detailed review, 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 Commissioner also recommended that the council include education services in the new company to ensure that schools’ role in spotting neglect and abuse was embedded within a full service, and to encourage relationships between the parts of the system necessary to keep children safe. The recommendations were accepted.

Members and officers of the Council supported the new direction, recognising the imperative to improve, and agreed that it would provide a new start for improvement of outcomes for children and young people across the city.

MV was appointed by the Council to support the development of the new organisation, including advising on business development and strategic marketing, and helping the new leadership team design and implement new staff engagement practices. A legal partner provided advice on the legal establishment and governance arrangements of Together for Children, and the commissioning and transfer agreements with the commissioning Council.

With the entirety of Children’s Services across the city in scope, MV supported negotiations between the Council and its partners to ensure the design met the national and local priorities. Together we had to overcome the challenge of removing statutory functions and duties from the local authorities and transferring these safely and securely into a new delivery model. The success of the project hinged on effective communication between the DfE, Members and officers of the Council, and key stakeholders, and establishing a clear and consistent vision and mission from the start.  

On 1 April 2017, the doors opened on Together for Children – Sunderland, 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.

Alex Hopkins, Former Chief Executive of Together for Children: “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. 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.”

Nick Whitfield, DfE appointed Commissioner: “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. This makes the development of Together for Children – Sunderland unique and the pioneering approach to service improvement has created 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.”

Read our article on Together for Children – Sunderland published in the Local Government Chronicle – click here.