AN EDUCATION watchdog has found widespread and serious failings Sunderland City Council’s services for children and young people.

Ofsted has today released a report into the council’s Children’s Services and Local guarding Children Board (LSCB) following an inspection carried out in May this year.

It finds the council to be inadequate across a range of services including child protection, adoption, and children in care.

The inspection pointed to corporate failure by senior leaders and managers that leaves children and young people potentially at risk. During the inspection, 21 children’s cases were referred back to the local authority by inspectors to request that action be taken to ensure children’s needs were met. This is one out of every ten children’s cases looked at by inspectors.

Following the inspection, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wrote to Secretary of State Nicky Morgan to express his concern over the inspection findings and to recommend remedial action be taken at the earliest opportunity.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Today’s report highlights widespread and serious failings in Sunderland City Council’s services for children and young people. As a result, children are potentially at risk of harm.

“Inspectors identified serious weaknesses in basic child protection practice and oversight of services for care leavers, alongside poor leadership at all levels.

“In addition, the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB) is failing in its statutory duty to effectively monitor how well local agencies are safeguarding the welfare of children."

Such was his concern, Sir Michael wrote to the Secretary of State to highlight the serious weaknesses in care and protection given to vulnerable children in the area, and to request that swift remedial action be taken.

Examples of serious weaknesses in basic child protection practice in the report include high caseloads - meaning that workers are unable to undertake key tasks to provide effective support to children.

The report also highlights a high number of unallocated cases where the extent and seriousness of the issues affecting children are not known, while services for children missing from home, care, education or at risk of child sexual exploitation are insufficient and poorly co-ordinated.

There are also “particularly poor services for care leavers, which mean that some care leavers are living in unsatisfactory and sometimes unsafe circumstances without adequate help or support”.

Sir Michael will also be writing to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to express his concerns over the contribution of Northumbria Police to child protection and safeguarding in Sunderland.

Inspectors found that information sharing between police and children’s services is poor, and that police representatives do not consistently attend core group meetings and child protection conferences.

Councillor Paul Watson, Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: "We completely accept the findings of the report and take on board what Ofsted have said.

“While the report makes for difficult reading, Ofsted have acknowledged our absolute commitment to improve safeguarding and that we had already begun to take action to address many of the issues they have highlighted.

"Safeguarding is a very complex and challenging area and in common with other authorities we've seen a growing demand on our services in the last few years with a 26 per cent rise in the number of children with child protection plans in the last year and an 18 per cent rise in the number of children in need. The number of looked after children has also risen from 491 to 570.”

He added: "We first began work to turn things around last September after commissioning our own review of services which confirmed concerns that had been raised around safeguarding.

"A significant amount of work has been done since then including a root and branch overhaul of our structure, which has affected all levels of management and employees, to address the issues but it's going to take time for the changes we have made to come to fruition.

“All the evidence available nationally suggests that issues may well continue to emerge as we carry on the work already underway to get back to a position of being good."

Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, has appointed Nick Whitfield, chief executive and Director of Children's Services for Achieving for Children at Kingston and Richmond on Thames to work with the council as an improvement partner who will oversee safeguarding improvement work in Sunderland.

Welcoming the appointment of an improvement partner, Cllr Watson said: "We are very much looking forward to working with the improvement partner appointed by the Secretary of State for Education as we continue to make the improvements we need to make. The safety of children and young people is our number one priority and there's a huge commitment within the council and from partners to making this work.”

Colin Morris, Independent chair of Sunderland Safeguarding Children Board, said: "Ofsted have recognised that there has been a root and branch overhaul of the Safeguarding Board supported by partners in the police, health and other safeguarding agencies and early improvements to the board's performance management. They also acknowledge that there is a clear commitment at senior leadership level to improving the effectiveness of the board."

Northumbria Police Assistant Chief Constable Debbie Ford said:

"We acknowledge the findings of the OFSTED report and we will continue to do all we can to protect young people and children in our region.

"As part of their inspection programme HMIC recently inspected Northumbria Police focusing on vulnerability and how we work with our partners.

"As a force we always welcome any scrutiny around our working practices and how we can improve them.

"We work successfully with a number of local authorities and partners across the force area and we are very much committed to protecting young people and children.  

"We are currently working with partners on Operation Sanctuary which is helping both young people and vulnerable adults who are being exploited. This operation continues to be a success in giving victims the confidence to come forward, identifying perpetrators and ensuring action is taken against them.

"That said, as a force we always look for ways to improve our working practices and to learn by example. We will of course take on board the comments from the HMIC report.

"As the report highlights there are clearly areas in which we can improve our joint partnership working in Sunderland. This is a two way process and we are working together with all members of the Local Safeguarding Children Board to implement changes and improve the protection of young people.

"Moving forward we will seek to improve our working relationship with Sunderland City Council and together ensure we deliver the best possible service to the public and protect young people."