In the heart of the city;Early years;Profile;Thomas Coram Foundation

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
The Thomas Coram Foundation was once deeply unpopular with the London residents it was supposed to support. But things are changing, reports Virginia Makins

Maggie Bishop was taken by surprise after being made development officer for the 250-year-old Thomas Coram Foundation. People at local meetings were barracking and heckling her. The foundation was deeply unpopular. It was seen as a bad landlord, toffee-nosed and out of touch, and more interested in its art collection than in the needs of children on its doorstep, a stone's throw from London's King's Cross. That was five years ago.

But last week Margaret Hodge, the education minister, opened the new Coram Community Campus in the London borough of Camden and announced its new status as one of the Government's Early Excellence centres. Even the most hostile of critics has had to admit that Coram is changing.

The foundation has a new name - "Coram Family". There's a new building, with a parents' centre providing for local families, and a new 108-place all-day nursery for children aged from six months to five. And there is a developing spirit of co-operation between the statutory and voluntary agencies based on Coram's leafy site, with the clear aim of meeting the needs of local families and children in one of London's most deprived areas.

Thomas Coram was a sea captain who was determined to help the neglected children he saw on London streets. In 1739, he had raised enough attention and money to secure a Royal Charter to start a hospital for "the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children". His friends helped with the fundraising. William Hogarth donated a magnificent portrait of the captain to the foundation, and persuaded fellow artists to give paintings. Soon the Foundling Hospital doubled as the first London public art gallery. Handel conducted the first Messiah at a benefit for the foundlings.

When the Foundling Hospital closed in 1926, and the children were moved to a boarding school in the country, part of the London building was rented by an independent nursery, St Leonards. The war interrupted more extensive plans for the site, but in 1974, the governors started a trailblazing children's centre, inspired by the vision of Professor Jack Tizard. St Leonards decided not to join in, and was taken over by the Inner London Education Authority and then Camden.

Tizard, a psychologist interested in child development, saw the potential of friendly open-access centres within pram-pushing distance of home, where health, social services and education professionals would come together to provide informal support, care and education for parents and young children. It was a forerunner to the early excellence centres now being promoted by the Government.

But in 1991, the foundation closed the delapidated children's centre. There was much local outrage and by way of compensation, the foundation helped parents set up the independent Coram Community Nursery Association - housed in a portable building.

Two years later, Coram closed another project, this time for the homeless. And some independent enterprises on the site felt mistreated by their famous landlord. The community could not forgive the foundation, which seemed to be all talk and no action.

Maggie Bishop arrived and started building bridges. Then Coram began three innovative national projects designed to help children in care - particularly the most difficult and damaged - to add to the national work it already did in adoption and fostering.

Consultants were hired, local needs were researched, and Coram put in a big City Challenge bid for funding from the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) for a new parents' centre. Vague plans were mooted for some kind of "Coram campus".

In 1997, with educational psychologist Carolyn Steen as new chairman of the governors, everything started to change.

In January, the foundation won a seven-year SRB grant for a new parents' centre, offering drop-in services, advice, education and training, with space for health and social services on the premises. And Dr Gillian Pugh from the National Children's Bureau's early childhood unit became the new chief executive, bringing with her an international reputation.

She immediately put flesh on the "campus" idea. Independently-run services on the site, some statutory and some voluntary, would all sign up to a set of principles, and co-operate to provide high-quality, innovative and replicable services for families with children. All local agencies, including social services, health and education, would work and train together, using the open-access campus as a child and parent-friendly base. Coram's special tradition would be reflected in a strong strand of creative arts work.

After the children's centre closed, Coram's work had been about provision for children in crisis. Now there would be an equally important focus on prevention. The central aim would be to spot difficulties early, and to foster emotional resilience in young children to help them cope better with the challenges of poverty and family stress. The whole enterprise would be underpinned by research and evaluation, and would be a powerful centre for multi-professional training.

The Coram governors acted fast. With the stock market high, they realised nearly pound;2 million of their investments to rebuild the old nursery.

Fundraising brought in anotherpound;1 million, with contributions from charitable trusts and the Department for Education. The new building would house the parents' centre, the Coram Community and the Camden council nurseries, a compatible independent project and the foundation offices - leaving its elegant Georgian house to be developed as a separate museum.

Camden council became very positive about the developments. Its under-eights committee, social services, and education departments all gave strong support. The Camden and Islington Community Health Trust was also closely involved. And, at the 11th hour, the two fiercely individual nurseries agreed to join forces to form the Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre. Camden social services funded one of the deputy headships, and 20 per cent of the nursery places were reserved for children with special needs.

Last year there was another key appointment. Bernadette Duffy came to head the new nursery, fresh from building another London nursery into one of Labour's first centres of excellence. Like Pugh, she had a formidable track record and a national reputation.

As building work ran over time and over budget, it was November before the nurseries could move in, and January this year before the parents' centre could come in from its portable home.

Camden inspectors arrived the week before Easter and OFSTED the week after that. Both found evidence of very good practice in the nursery, with excellent work with babies and older children often performing above national expectations. The nursery - unlike the former St Leonards - is already over-subscribed.

The inspectors were also enthusiastic about the parents' centre, which now had two big playrooms and a parents' room for the drop-in and creche, space for health and social workers, a computer room, another room for groups and classes and excellent training facilities for professionals.

Lucy Draper, who came from a local voluntary sector family project to head the parents' centre, was well placed to build links with other groups. Tasneem Khan, who runs the adult courses, persuaded local Bangladeshi families that Coram was a safe and suitable place. They now come in considerable numbers to sewing mornings and to learn English. Their children attend the nursery, the holiday playschemes and after-school activities groups, which offer classes in Bengali as well as arts, computers and sports.

Three hundred families a week already use the parents' centre - grannies, nannies and minders as well as parents. The creche makes it easy for people to go to groups and classes, or to see a social worker or child psychologist with no stigma attached. And the centre has arranged outreach parenting courses in two local primary schools and a community centre.

Although Coram runs the parents' centre and Camden runs the nursery, the two ventures share a large governing body, chaired by Gillian Pugh. Camden councillors and professionals are represented, as are parents andrepresentatives of the other indepen-dent voluntary sector projects who are tenants.

KIDS London, based in the new building, provides services for families with children who have special needs. Beverley Dawkins, its joint director, says they are firm believers in the inclusion of children with severe disabilities into the mainstream. Successful links with the parents' centre and with the nursery are already making it possible to try out good ways of supporting the families and the nursery staff. "We've been listened to," she says.

The Field Lane homeless centre has set up home here too, running a drop-in and outreach project for parents and children, as well as advice, support groups and classes. Manager Georgie Anderson says their transience often makes it very difficult for homeless people to meet the take up criteria forservices.

In response to her advocacy, the nursery has agreed that two places will always be available for children from homeless families. "The conceptof the campus excites me, if we can pull it off. I'm very impressed with Gillian and what she has already achieved,"she says.

The development of the project is being closely studied by independent researchers. The campus has attracted other research projects, such as one with Great Ormond Street hospital to investigate the root of behavioural difficulties in young children.

While it is too early to assess the success of the campus, it is astonishing what has been achieved so far. The full potential for multi-professional training has yet to be realised, and millions of pounds still need to be raised for the museum and other buildings.

The parents' centre is an excellent lynchpin for all the other services, with its range of open access and drop-in opportunities for parents and children. The new campus already looks set to fulfil many of its ambitious aims and to model new ways of delivering friendly and preventive social, health and educational services to families.

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