• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 03rd February, 2011

"I've always been about joining things up"

A revised fourth edition of Dame Gillian Pugh's Contemporary Issues in the Early Years, encapsulates many of the considerable achievements of her own long career as parent and political persuader. Reflecting on the sizable changes that have swept through UK children’s services in the last decade, the new edition includes sections on the integration of children’s services and the improving relationship between research, policy and practice. She is modest about her own part in transforming the tunnel vision of the 1980s to the wider screen.  “I am not a political person with a big ‘P’,” she says, “I just want to make things better for children.” But the former chief executive of the UK children’s charity, Coram, has been a key figure since the mid-1970s when she took charge of library and information services at the National Children’s Bureau (NCB). She stayed there for two decades but in the midst of them, "two life changing things happened. First I gave birth to my daughter, then, two years later, my husband died.” Calamity and upheaval drove a radical change in her professional life. She moved from communications, to research and development; as a working single mother she discovered an enduring cause in the needs of parents and the complexities of parenting, and, no doubt as a result of this combination of professional interest and personal conviction, she began to be noticed. The culmination of this first phase of her R&D work was The Needs of Parents: Practice and policy in parent education (1984), the first national study on the subject. It was her first concerted attempt to sway government policy, and she still considers it to be one of the most influential. “It was the first time that anyone had pointed out to government that parenting was important, and that it’s quite hard work, so we ought to be doing something to support it,” she explains.Gillian Pugh’s influence has not been confined to parenting. In the late 1980s, she was the driving force in setting up the Early Childhood Unit at the NCB. “The focus on the early years seems obvious now,” she says, “but at that time there was no universal nursery education; kids were just plonked at school aged five with no preparation.” Immersion in these two parallel areas of expertise helped her to make connections, and see how much better they might work in combination. At the time, she says, almost everyone involved in UK children’s services seemed to be at odds. She saw researchers doing their thing, government studiously avoiding taking any notice and the private and voluntary sectors pulling in opposite directions. “I’ve always been about joining things up, right the way through my career,” she says. Making connections has taken many forms. Beginning with her early dissemination work, she has been committed to creating a synergy between research, policy and practice, as well as integrating the opinions of children and parents.  She has also worked hard to make services efficient and manageable so that they make more sense to the people who use them. She believes this principle has been at the heart of the Sure Start initiative – providing open access, community-based services, with specialist help embedded in the structures. Sure Start is another example of where her influence has shaped government policy, showing a tenacity that has been a feature of her career from the outset beginning with the Humanities Curriculum Project which was instrumental in raising the school leaving age. She was a central figure in the reforms surrounding Every Child Matters, and also introduced to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) Mark Friedman’s Results-based Accountability outcomes framework. But her role has not only been about urging other people to do things better. At Coram between 1997-2005 she labored to put her principles into practice. She says she relished the opportunity to implement the best in existing services, as well as promoting new departures. As an independent consultant in her semi-retirement, she is an adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee for the DCSF, president of the National Child Minders Association, chair of the National Children’s Bureau and a visiting professor at the Institute of Education. Between meetings she finds time to sing in her local choir and play golf.   See: Pugh G and Duffy B (2009) Contemporary Issues in the Early Years - Working Collaboratively for Children, 4th Edition, London, Sage

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