The search for solutions at Sunderland children's services

Nick Whitfield is overseeing changes to children's services in Sunderland. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The man leading the overhaul of children's services in Sunderland spoke to us today to outline how the city's most vulnerable youngsters will get help in future.

In his first interview, the Children's Commissioner for Sunderland Nick Whitfield:

  • insisted it was Sunderland City Council - and not the government - which decided to set up a new organisation to run children's services in the city

  • set out how the new organisation will be similar to the social enterprise, Achieving for Children, he runs in London

  • revealed the management team who had been running children's services have already been moved to other roles within the local authority

Children's services in the city have been in the spotlight, after serious case reviews found the deaths of several vulnerable youngsters may have been prevented, if mistakes had not been made.

In July, Ofsted rated the department as 'inadequate' - finding "serious and widespread failings."

Read More: Damning Ofsted report into Sunderland children's services

At that point, Mr Whitfield was drafted in as the Commissioner for Children's Services to analyse what needed to change.

Yesterday, the government announced Sunderland's children's services was to become a voluntary trust, taking immediate action to improve performance - as part of radical reforms to tackle failing services around England.

Read More: Sunderland children's services to become voluntary trust

Today, though, Mr Whitfield insisted to me that the council had been proactive in its drive to make improvements, and "voluntarily agreed" to set up a new organisation to run children's services, without pressure from the government.

The local authority will continue to commission children's services, and hold the new organisation to account.

What that organisation will look like is currently being worked out.

Mr Whitfield said it would not be a trust - but rather a body similar to the social enterprise, Achieving for Children, he runs in London.

As for powers to remove staff who had been underperforming, Mr Whitfield told me that was not necessary - but revealed the management team previously running children's services had been moved to other roles within the local authority.

Several senior new officials are already in place - and other roles are being advertised at the moment.

While the government yesterday announced that high performing local authorities, experts in child protection and charities could be used to turn children’s services around - in Sunderland, the commissioner told me "it is unlikely" they would be brought in as a major partner.

He did however, stress the importance of changing perceptions of the service for recruitment - both of senior officials, and of social workers.

Successive reports have detailed how Sunderland's social workers have often been overstretched, with excess caseloads to deal with - and Mr Whitfield said efforts are underway to boost their numbers, and improve their workloads.

He insisted improvements have already been made since July.

If they can continue, he today gave me a 'realistic' target of two years to get Sunderland children's services up to scratch - to better protect the city's vulnerable young people.

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