Newsmaker: A duty of care - Norma Brier, Chief executive, Norwood

Joe Gill

When the world was remembering the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last month, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, paid tribute to the huge contribution of Jewish people to British society. "The single best indicator that you are a generous giver to charity is that you are Jewish," he added.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for this statement is Norwood, the Jewish care and special education charity. Its recent annual dinner was a glitzy, high-security affair, which raised the kind of money that would turn many charities green with envy - a cool £1.4m.

Norwood is a medium-sized charity, with ordinary offices in suburban north London, providing residential care, adoption, family support and special education services to 80 local authorities, catering for the cultural and religious needs of Jewish clients.

But it is trying, under its chief executive Norma Brier, to break away from the perception that it is a purely Jewish charity by engaging with the larger non-faith care charities and the Government's policy agenda on learning disabilities. "We've tried recently to be very clear about who we are and what we are, and we've always been very upfront about being a Jewish organisation," says Brier.

"Our unique selling point is wider than Jewish people because we are providers to the wider community, but our services are provided against a Jewish backdrop. So we are appropriate for any member of the Jewish faith, while other faiths are welcome."

Norwood receives two-thirds of its income from providing statutory services and raises the rest of its funding from the Jewish community. Richard Desmond, publisher of the Daily Express and a range of adult TV channels, is a major supporter and has raised £600,000 for a new special school in Hertfordshire.

"We make an appeal as wide as possible when we are fundraising, but the Jewish community supports us because they know we are working towards best practice," says Brier. "Part and parcel of that is that as long as Jewish people have access to them, they are happy for other people to use the facilities as well."

She says it was a great source of pride for the Jewish community when Norwood won the government contract to find adoptive families for people with special needs in 2001: "We went for it and won it because the ideas we were putting forward were best practice. It had nothing to do with us being a Jewish organisation."

But last year it lost the £1.9m contract following widespread criticism of low adoption rates. But as that door closed, another opened - Norwood has recently signed an agreement with the Belarussian government to take children with special needs out of dilapidated state orphanages and give them proper education and care.

Special education remains one of Norwood's main concerns, and Brier disagrees with the official policy of closing all special schools by 2020: "The point is, the words are easy to say. We all agree that we want a reduction in 'disablism', but to do that, substantial changes have to occur in society, and to do that properly, you need a lot of resources, training and people.

"Everybody in this organisation agrees with integration of all children with special needs, but any classroom teacher will tell you that if a child is disruptive, no teaching gets done and it isn't fair to the mainstream class or to the child with special needs.

"The whole area of specialist education needs reviewing," she says. "Far-sighted as the Government's White Paper Valuing People and the learning disability portfolio is, there is no one right way for everybody. There is no one-size-fits-all in this field."

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