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‘You have to prepare very carefully to find the moment’

Sarah Brown, chair of global children’s charity Theirworld – and the wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown – on speaking up for the early years and her unique insight into making a difference.

Whether it’s fleeting moments in the spotlight accompanying her husband Gordon Brown to events of global and historic proportions, or even just speaking for this interview, Sarah Brown cuts a very composed figure. So it seems slightly strange to hear that she wants everybody to have a tantrum.‘

The Global Tantrum is a way of expressing Theirworld’s Act for Early Years campaign,’ Sarah says about her charity’s latest initiative that urges world leaders to invest in early years care and education.

Sarah is a co-founder and chair of trustees at the worldwide children’s charity Theirworld and is executive chair of another Theirworld initiative, the Global Business Coalition for Education.‘

That [tantrum] campaign is on behalf of younger children who don’t have a direct voice,’ explains Sarah. ‘Often, we work with children and young people who can speak up for education and for skills, but the under-fives don’t have quite the same voice. We can take a young person to the United Nations and give them a speaking platform, but we can’t do that with a toddler.’


Theirworld is one of the most prominent in a series of initiatives that Sarah felt compelled to create after Jennifer, her and Gordon’s first child, died tragically young. ‘Through the grief of that experience, I started asking questions about what had happened and why it had happened, and why our daughter had only lived for 10 days,’ says Sarah.

‘There were very few answers – there were no answers really. I couldn’t fault the care that we had from the NHS or say that I hadn’t been well looked after – yet we still ended up with that terrible loss.’

So, Sarah focused on what might be possible. ‘That set me on a path of looking at what charity could do. First, we looked at medical research to unlock better scientific understanding, and the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory [which improves the lives of women and children suffering complications in pregnancy and the newborn period] is still one of the greatest projects that we support and it has achieved some extraordinary things.

‘Secondly, it was about going back and speaking to frontline carers who are right there, learning from their thoughts about ways to provide better care through pregnancy, childbirth and through the early years.

‘Theirworld has grown from very small projects in the UK to being a global charity that focuses on how children can get the best start in life, how they can have a safe place to learn and how they can build skills for the future.’

The charity’s focus evolved as it understood education was key to solving many of the world’s major problems. Theirworld now campaigns to unlock the political will of global leaders to finance education. It also supports projects helping some of the world’s most marginalised children get into formal education: for example, those with disabilities, young girls forced into marriage, and child refugees caught up in humanitarian disasters.


Sarah is also a Global Champion of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and serves on the global board of UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited. Earlier in her career, she was a managing director before leading a global arts PR firm. She’s remained an advocate of women’s leadership. Sarah lives in London and Scotland with her husband Gordon Brown, now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, and their two teenagers.


The honest answer is, imperfectly.


I partly grew up in Tanzania in east Africa and also in north London. I was at school when Margaret Thatcher was in government and saw young people around me who didn’t feel they had hope or opportunity. I see that again today, and I don’t think that’s good enough.


People – always people. I love the opportunity to meet and work with different people.


My family – I think they are amazing and I think my children are my greatest achievement.


Even when things get really hard, if you can get up in the morning and know that what you are doing matters, you can keep going. Life is definitely not a straight line that only goes upwards – it moves up and down.


I spend time with my family, I go for walks with family and friends and I read.


Having lived so many years in and out of the public eye, I doubt I’ve got many surprises left! When you’re in the media a lot, people get to know more than you envisaged you’d share publicly.


‘We thought about what happens when a toddler has something to say but what they’re communicating isn’t heard,’ says Sarah of her charity’s current campaign. ‘Quite often that’s expressed in a tantrum. So that is why we called on a number of well-known faces [including comedian Matt Lucas and singer Kimberly Wyatt]to express their frustration at the lack of investment in early years by having a tantrum. And to then put that out around the world as a “global tantrum”.’

Sarah believes the role that community practitioners play in Theirworld’s aims and beyond for young people cannot be understated. ‘The work that CPs do is amazing,’ she says.

‘Health visitors, community nurses and school nurses are the most remarkable people who do extraordinary work on the frontline. What they are doing is so fundamental to children’s development. It is that community that really understands the difference early years care will have on a child’s life, and they appreciate that investment in those early years is so crucial.

’Having seen government operating from the inside at the very highest level, Sarah has unique insight in to how to influence the decision makers who are key to securing that investment, but she also understands the constraints they face.


‘Looking at the way that government works, what always astonished me is how a decision could be made that will affect many people’s lives, but it is made in such a small period of time,’ explains Sarah.

‘The best example is when I worked on the Maternal Mortality Campaign. I was asked to be the figurehead and attended meetings all over the world, speaking to midwives and community nurses, looking to drive down the number of losses to maternal mortality. The campaigning part was so important and would go on for months – sometimes years – but it all often came down to one top-level meeting where somebody could make a decision in just a matter of minutes that would agree to put the political will behind something.

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‘So, I understand the frustrations with government and I understand the preparation that needs to happen, and I understand how many different things come on to a political leader’s plate at any given moment. But I also know that if you’re on the outside and looking to create change, you have to prepare very carefully to find the moment when they are able to pay attention to your issue and hopefully make the decision in your favour.’

And if you really want them to pay attention, you could always start by having a tantrum.



‘It’s not going to be enough just to invest in childcare, although I think that is a really important part of it because it helps families to work’, says Sarah. ‘What I find heartbreaking is that child poverty is also happening where parents and carers are working. I think we need a more joined-up economic policy that will allow us to invest in people, allowing them to grow, and which will allow paid work to actually reward them as a family.’


‘What we want to do is bring together everyone’s voices,’ Sarah emphasises. ‘We’d love CPs to get involved with our Act for Early Years campaign. You can sign our open letter where we’re calling on G20 leaders around the world to revive a pledge they made five years ago to invest in early years.’ Sarah adds: ‘You can also join the Global Tantrum by filming your own one or getting children to submit posters. ‘Every voice really does count – the louder we shout, the more chance we have of being heard.

Audio Exclusive! Click here to hear more from Sarah in our exclusive audio interview, including her insights into life at No. 10.


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