Penny Dobson

Doctor of Science

16 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Debbie Sharp

Madam Chancellor, Penny Dobson

Penny Dobson is a persevering pioneer who has always pitched her energies against the odds; first as a social worker, and, for the last twenty years, as the creator of ERIC, the only charity for children with the problems of bedwetting, daytime wetting and soiling. But then she comes from a family of innovators – her great grandfather, though a medical missionary in Africa, also worked with Marconi; her uncle designed the “black box” for aircraft and her father, an OBE for services to industry, was, along with Penny’s mother, a founder of the National Autistic Society.

After Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, Penny qualified at Guy’s Hospital as a nurse, where she was considered to be ‘Matron material’, even though she was herself sometimes hauled up in front of Matron for misdemeanours! Penny loved the patient care, but not the military order of hospital life. So after State Registration, she qualified as a social worker, initially in London, and subsequently at the University of Birmingham. She saw life in the raw, but after five years working for a local authority team, she felt that more could be done to prevent catastrophic family situations and so she joined a specialist family orientated social work team.

For the next 8 years, Penny worked on a run-down estate in South Birmingham. She encouraged local people to have a voice in improving their community – the result was a nursery. Harriet Harman, the then Shadow Minister for Social Services, was invited to the estate, and supported by Birmingham’s Director of Social Services, Penny and a colleague raised the money for the first community nursery in Birmingham, managed by local people, but employing paid staff. It still exists today and is a model of parent management.

In 1987, Penny answered an advertisement from the Children’s Society, seeking a director to set up a new national charity, based in Bristol, to support children with bedwetting (or to use its medical term, nocturnal enuresis). The Children’s Society engaged the interest of the late Professor David Baum, Professor of Child Health at the University of Bristol, who took up the cause enthusiastically, perceptively calling enuresis the “cinderella” of child health. Penny was chosen from a field of 120 applicants. She had only three years’ money to set up an independent and self financing charity; a steep hill to climb for any charity, but particularly so for such an unglamorous cause! On day two, she measured her office, and declared to Professor Baum, who had provided University premises, that the room was too small for two people! Professor Baum consequently offered three large rooms on St Michael’s Hill. Penny was in business.

Her first task was to find a name for the new charity. Many ideas were tested out on unsuspecting members of the public (usually on the train between Bristol and London). Should it be called the “Dry Bed Centre” or the “Dry Night Centre”? However such ideas were generally misinterpreted as crash pads for alcoholics. The original suggestion prevailed – the Enuresis Resource and Information Centre, or ERIC for short. It has since been renamed, but the acronym ERIC remains.

Madam Chancellor, three things characterise Penny’s approach to ERIC, from its early beginnings to the present day – now an established, and internationally recognised, award-winning charity, with a staff of 13. They are her clear vision, a keenness to harness the knowledge and energies of others, plus an eye for detail when putting ideas into practice. Early on Penny set up a Research Steering Group, comprising national experts, to guide ERIC’s clinical direction. Professor Baum chaired its first eight years.

Quick to realise the potential of the ALSPAC, or “Children of the 90’s” longitudinal study based at the University of Bristol, Penny persuaded Professor Golding to include questions about bladder and bowel control in their regular questionnaires to families, data that is now being analysed with a Big Lottery Grant, which Penny helped to obtain. The results are of international importance and this work will continue with a committed ERIC-linked ALSPAC Steering Group.

But the major challenge then – and now – is how to raise sufficient funds. Fundraising for bedwetting is daunting so Penny took the decision, very early on, to set up a trading service by mail order (Professor Baum just couldn’t believe that you could make a business out of bedwetting!). In addition to selling ERIC publications, ERIC retails its own label bedding protection, enuresis alarms (a treatment device), and, more recently, swimming costumes and musical potties! Today ERIC has a catalogue with over 200 items and a web-shop which provides over 35% of the charity’s income, as well as providing an important service to families.

ERIC has grown from a team of two to a team of thirteen, but the original template remains: information and support for families, seminars and conferences for professionals, research, fundraising and trading. However there have been some important additions: first, ERIC extended its remit to include children with daytime wetting and soiling, as well as children who have additional special needs; second, five years ago ERIC was able to recruit a deputy director, which enabled Penny to concentrate upon ERIC’s political activities; to focus the government on the needs of this neglected group of children and to implement essential preventive measures.

Madam Chancellor, you might ask, how can you prevent continence problems? One, seemingly contradictory way, is to encourage children to drink more at school. Research found that most water fountains were in the toilet areas! Another is to improve the school toilets so that children actually use them! Over the past eight years, ERIC’s national school campaigns, “Water is Cool in School” and “Bog Standard”, have made lasting changes to water provision and access across the country. And school toilets are also beginning to improve. In June this year, these two campaigns won ERIC the top prize in the Children and Youth category at the Charity Awards 2008, demonstrating once again, ERIC’s position as an exemplar of innovation and best practice in the field. Under Penny’s leadership, as chair of a national lobby group of professionals and parents, the government has responded by including paediatric continence within its National Service Framework for children. Penny also managed to persuade the Healthcare Commission to include continence in its assessments for compliance with the Standards for Better Health.

ERIC’s strong and positive links with the University of Bristol have been further reinforced, when a year ago, Penny managed to persuade our Vice-Chancellor to join the “ERIC force” and to consider becoming Chair of the Board of Trustees. The appointment was confirmed with alacrity. It was a very positive move for the charity, and, with Penny retiring from her role as director in December, Professor Thomas’ lead will enable ERIC to take the next step forward in its development.

The term “punching above its weight” has been used many times to describe the ERIC team. Their work has been recognised by a number of national awards, including Overall Winner of the 2007 GlaxoSmithKline Awards for IMPACT in the healthcare field. As Niall Dickson, Chief Executive of the King’s Fund said “ERIC is a pioneer in so many ways … a beacon of light, speaking out and championing an area that affects so many children and their families”

Madam Chancellor, it has Penny Dobson to thank for its success. Penny’s values, her beliefs and her work ethic, and those of her team, have improved the lives of thousands of young people and their families, with this University providing a positive motif in support of Penny’s work.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Penny Dobson, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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