You can tell a lot about a boss by the way their staff react to
them. Do people jump with fright and grimly nod an acknowledgement
before scuttling off? Not in the sprawling building that houses the
children’s charity Coram Family in central London. Everywhere
Gillian Pugh walks she is met with smiling faces: not forced,
uncomfortable smiles because she is the chief executive but natural
smiles that reach right up into the eyes of the staff who willingly
It almost goes without saying that Pugh will be missed when she
retires on 25 April. She has been at the helm of Coram Family for
seven years, and in that time has made a considerable impact. The
number of children, young people and families with whom Coram
Family works has increased from 300 a year to more than 6,000; its
turnover has risen from about £1m to nearly £8m; and she
has overseen the rebuilding and development of the Coram community
campus into an integrated early childhood service.
Such has been her success that in the new year honours last
month Pugh was made a dame for services to children and families –
impressive for a person who says she “wasn’t particularly driven”
to work in social care.
Although she was surprised when the official letter informing
her of the honour arrived, she enjoyed sharing the news with her
husband and grown-up children. But now that the initial excitement
is over, what are the day-to-day realities of being a dame? For
one, Pugh has had to get used to the numerous people who sing
“There is Nothing Like a Dame” to her, as if they were the first
ones to think of the joke. She has also received many letters and
phone calls from people asking how they should address her, to
which she responds “Gillian will do really well”.
Pugh was born in 1944. She and her two younger siblings were
raised by their mother while their father worked as a head teacher.
The family moved around southern England to fit in with his
teaching posts and Pugh went to boarding school.
It was in 1965, after studying for an English degree at Exeter
University that she began working in children’s education. Her role
as editor for the careers research and advisory centre in Cambridge
sparked her enthusiasm for the subject – and laid the foundations
for what was to become a 40-year devotion to the role of education
in improving the lives of disadvantaged children.
During her career, Pugh has helped to shape government thinking.
In 1997 she was asked to write a paper for the incoming Labour
government’s review of services for under eight year olds – this
became the basis for the Sure Start programme. Her work has also
fed into the green paper Every Child Matters and the Children Act
2004 and the creation of Coram Family’s own children’s centre
contributed to the government’s ambitious plans to open 3,500
centres by 2010.
So how has she persuaded the government to listen when so many
others have failed? She believes it is because she conveys
complicated messages in simple terms. “I always say if you can’t
write it on the back of a postcard then people aren’t going to stop
long enough to listen.”
Coram Family is England’s oldest children’s charity, having
begun in 1739 when Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital
to care for abandoned children. While Pugh is proud of the
charity’s history she thinks that it is today’s work that should
form the basis of its “sales pitch”.
As for what lies ahead for Coram Family, Pugh expects it to face
the same challenges as other voluntary sector agencies: how can it
continue to provide services, at a price that meets its costs,
while potentially becoming involved in commissioning roles.
Although Pugh supports the idea of children’s trusts, she believes
that arranging health, social services and the voluntary sector to
work together may be difficult. “There has got to be an
understanding of the role each sector can play and willingness for
each sector to work out what role it wants to play,” she says.
So why is it now that Pugh is retiring? When she joined the
charity in 1997 her contract stated she should retire at 60 and
now, as she approaches her 61st birthday in May, she feels the time
is right. “When I first came here I thought seven years would be a
good length of time to give to an organisation,” she says.
Although she will miss being at the charity she is “quite ready”
to pass her responsibilities to somebody else. She is also keen to
reclaim her weekends – they were sacrificed to her hectic schedule
– as well as one day a week to indulge her love of gardening.
But Pugh isn’t naive enough to believe that she will be retiring
in the true sense of the word. “Every day I get asked to do
something and the difficulty is saying no,” she says. The chances
of this changing on 26 April are slim. It’s difficult to imagine
Pugh happy pruning rose bushes – not while there are still
vulnerable children and families who need supporting.
1997-present: Chief Executive, Coram Family
1988: Director, early childhood unit, National Children’s
1980: Senior development officer, National Children’s Bureau
<25CF>1978: Development officer, Voluntary Council for
1974: Senior information officer, National Children’s Bureau
1970: Assistant director of information services, Schools
Council for Curriculum and Examinations
1967: Editor, Schools Council and Nuffield Foundation
Humanities Curriculum Project
1966: Editor, Careers Research and Advisory Centre, Cambridge
Gillian Pugh’s roles also include:
2003: Adviser, Children, Young People and Family Directorate,
Department for Education and Skills
2002: Chair, Thomas Coram Research Unit Advisory Group
<25CF>2000: Visiting professional fellow, Institute of
1999: Chair of trustees, Parenting Education and Support
1999: Trustee, National Family and Planning Institute
1998: Chair of governors, Thomas Coram Children’s Centre
1998: Vice-president, Early Childhood Education