Paul Curno obituary

Other lives: Influential and respected figure in British social welfare

My friend and colleague Paul Curno, who has died aged 80, was an influential and respected figure in British social welfare. His career encompassed the inner cities, the settlement movement and grant-giving, the last at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Born in Plymouth, Devon, to John, an interpreter, and his wife, Olga (nee O’Brien), a dental receptionist, he was raised by his grandmother, for whom he was sometimes a carer. He went to Kelly college (now Mount Kelly school) in Tavistock, which was followed by stints as a Franciscan novitiate at Cerne Abbas Friary, now Hilfield Friary, in Dorset, a youth worker in New York and a house father in a remand centre in Hammersmith, west London. He then took a two-year course at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University) to qualify as a social worker.

In 1966 he became director of the Albany, a community centre in Deptford, south-east London. He helped local residents work together on issues that were important to them and established facilities for children and young people, housing schemes, advice services and an arts programme. 

After five years as a social work education adviser at the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, Paul joined the Gulbenkian Foundation’s inner cities programme in 1978, before becoming the foundation’s director of social welfare. Under his guidance the foundation funded community businesses, co-operatives and other local ventures in areas of need.

It also provided a grant to establish the Children’s Rights Development Unit, an advocacy group for children, and made major grants to Childline, the Scottish Child Law Centre and the Anti-Bullying Campaign, as well as funding research into children’s rights in hospitals and residential care. Gulbenkian support was crucial, too, in defining the need for a Children’s Commissioner.

One of his favourite personal projects was Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, east London. He commissioned a 1998 report on the value of children’s museums and was key in instigating a national network of support for children’s hands-on learning centres. Discover came into being in 2003, two years after his retirement.

Paul was chairman at Blackfriars Settlement, the Soho Project and Voluntary Action Lewisham. He also edited two books on community work. Quiet, reflective and an engaging listener, he was impatient for change, but patient enough to go at the pace of those who came up with ideas for improving their local community. Modest and self-deprecating, he was a modern social reformer of the most effective kind.

He is survived by his wife, Ann (nee Gallagher), whom he married in 1977, and their daughters, Tamsin and Olivia; by Sass and Dominic, the children from his first marriage to Gillian Elinor, which ended in divorce, and by his sisters, Mischa and Zondra.

David Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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