Analysis: Pre-School Learning Alliance - Happy birthday, PLA!

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It's been a long journey from a network of small local playgroups to a united national body that is a leading provider of childcare and training. Katy Morton talks to the latest chief executive.

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The Pre-School Learning Alliance, one of the largest providers of quality childcare in England, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Founded in 1961 by single mother Belle Tutaev, who was looking for playmates for her three-year-old daughter, the movement has transformed itself from a small group of isolated mothers and their children, meeting for two hours a day, into a charitable organisation that has helped shape nursery education in the UK. Today it supports some 800,000 children and their families.

The main aim of the movement, originally known as the Pre-school Playgroup Association, was to offer support to those running their own groups and lobby the Government on the importance of pre-school provision. These aspects still remain at the forefront of the Alliance (News, 6 October 2010), as does the key role that volunteers play in the life of settings, whether running management committees, helping on rotas or fundraising.

'We've adapted well to the changing early years environment,' says Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch, who took over from Steve Alexander last autumn. 'We've had to become more business-like in our approach and in the way we deal with things. But we still hold true to our core values of supporting the community and helping members deliver the childcare that parents and children deserve.'

 

LABOUR GOVERNMENT

It was under the 1997-2010 Labour administration that the Alliance really expanded, thanks to the Government's offer of a free nursery place for all four-year-olds and later three-year-olds.

'The Blair/Brown era was one of unprecedented levels of investment that elevated the status of the under-fives,' says Mr Leitch. 'And we will always be grateful for that.'

But with investment came a drive to formalise education, along with a drift of ever-younger children into school as they tried to access the new revenue streams for free places for threeand four-year-olds.

'That was an awful period for the Alliance, because parents were torn,' says Mr Leitch. 'Schools would say or imply to them that they should register for a school place at the earliest opportunity or face the possibility of not having anywhere to send their child. Often the transition was poorly managed and the receiving environment was wholly inappropriate. Many felt that children became a secondary consideration as a result of the money following the child. We were greatly affected by the large number of pre-schools that closed. However, although our membership has decreased, in recent years our market share overall has improved.'

Between 1997 and 2000, the number of pre-schools and playgroups fell by 1,500 - almost 10 per cent. However, says Mr Leitch, 'Government figures show that by 2000, on average each remaining pre-school or playgroup was providing more places and running more sessions than the year before. Settings were not necessarily closing. Rather, many extended their provision and were reclassified as full daycare.'

In 2000 the Alliance was encouraged by the Government to set up pre-schools under the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative, a scheme meant to create more early years provision in deprived areas. It threw the charity 'into the premier league of childcare operators', but the initiative's diminishing stream of revenue funding created problems with sustainability.

'At the time, we were right to do it, particularly as we were able to provide services in extremely deprived areas,' says Mr Leitch. 'Looking back, there are things the Alliance would have done differently.'

Mr Leitch recalls a conversation with Margaret Hodge, then children's minister. 'I remember saying, "While I accept there is upfront funding, I can't see many areas where the formula will make these sustainable in the long term." Her answer was, "Neil, let's just build the things and we will worry about that later." I said, "But that's going to be difficult to explain to the bank manager."

'It's taken a lot of work and disproportionate support to try to keep settings going. The reality is that the need still exists but there aren't the funds. We certainly learned a sharp lesson in not relying on others' words.'

Of the Alliance's 30 neighbourhood nurseries, 28 were turned into children's centres as funding dried up after three years. However, Mr Leitch admits he has mixed feelings about the current political focus on Sure Start children's centres.

'Of course I think children's centres are a vital part of delivering support to the neediest families. But the view I have is that if you came down from planet Mars and you read the newspapers and listened to the rhetoric that is out there, you would think they are the only vehicle for providing support to disadvantaged communities. They are only a small part of the offer, and it seems that this disproportionate emphasis on Sure Start diverts attention from the far more extensive work that is already undertaken by the private and voluntary sectors.'

Throughout the Labour Government years, Mr Leitch argues that the different approaches of prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created problems. 'The Blair/Brown era highlighted the tensions about what early years provision is for. For some, it was for providing parents with childcare that allowed them to go out and work, while for others it was a school preparation period meant to ensure that children can sit up straight and hold a pen. But for us, it has always been an essential ingredient in every child's learning and development.'

COALITION GOVERNMENT

So, what are his thoughts on the Coalition Government? 'It's still early days, but the current initiatives appear to be a continuation from the Blair/Brown era.'

Mr Leitch is reassured by the Coalition Government's decision to continue with the funding for threeand four-year-olds and the extension for disadvantaged two-year-olds. But, he says, providers feel incredibly let down by the unprecedented run on cuts, along with pre-election promises in relation to the Early Years Single Funding Formula, 'which have simply vanished'.

He adds, 'It would be highly misleading to say the signs are encouraging for the voluntary sector. Of course we appreciate that we are not immune from cuts, but the level and pace at which this is happening is of great concern. Should this continue, the Coalition Government runs the risk of dismantling much of the early years infrastructure. If the Coalition Government is not careful, it could take us 20 to 30 years to recover.'

ResPublica think-tank director Philip Blond, who is credited with coining the idea of the Big Society, spoke for many, Mr Leitch believes, when he told The Times on 24 January that cutbacks were happening faster than voluntary sector groups could fill the gaps.

THE FUTURE

Despite all the cuts, Mr Leitch says, 'I know there is no better-placed organisation to take us through David Cameron's Big Society agenda than the Pre-school Learning Alliance. The charity was formed by parents for parents, and that's no different now.

'Although we have not experienced anything like this before, we do have 50 years of expertise, and this will stand us in good stead. We are going to hold firm to our core values in supporting the community. We've increased the level of parental involvement in our settings and we will endeavour to continue to operate on a business as usual basis.'

As an organisation, the Alliance is stepping up its efforts to lobby the Government to make sure its 14,000 members' voices don't go unheard, after Alliance surveys have found that many settings feel abandoned by policymakers.

'In this very special year,' he says, 'the best birthday present would be the Government's long-term commitment and support for the work we and our members do.'

 

TIMELINE: A HISTORY OF THE PRE-SCHOOL LEARNING ALLIANCE

1961: The movement is founded by London single mother Belle Tutaev

August 1962: 150 members attend the first AGM of the Pre-school Playgroups Association

1966: Membership increases to 1,300 and the organisation opens its first office

1973: The reputation of pre-schools grows, with Sir Keith Joseph describing the family support they offer as 'an essential social service'

1978: Membership reaches 13,500

1982: HRH the Princess of Wales becomes the charity's patron. By now its 17,000 members are supported by a network of local branches, a nucleus of field staff and a head office in a London youth centre

1985: Margaret Lochrie becomes chief executive

1987: The charity embarks on a far-reaching review of its services

1991: The previously autonomous branches are united to form a single national organisation

1995: The Pre-school Playgroups Association is renamed the Pre-School Learning Alliance

1997: Introduction of Nursery Vouchers by the Conservative Government brings much-needed funding for groups. However, schools attracted by the additional funds often lower their admission age or open a nursery, forcing many pre-schools to close

1998: Alliance members hit a record high, with over 17,000 pre-school and playgroup members

1999: The National Childcare Strategy and the Sure Start Initiative are introduced, while the Pre-Schools Matter Campaign seeks to reverse the trend of closures, which sees 1,500 pre-schools and playgroups close in three years

2000: The Alliance gets involved in the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative, with plans to open 30 settings in some of the most deprived areas in the country

2003: The Alliance opens its first neighbourhood nursery, and becomes the largest voluntary sector provider of childcare in England

2003-04: The Alliance is commended by the Chief Inspector for Adult Learning as one of the top training providers in England

2004: Steve Alexander becomes chief executive

2008: The charity introduces a new divisional structure, creating dedicated teams of staff to represent the Alliance

2009: Board of Trustees elected

2010: Neil Leitch becomes chief executive

 

TIME TO CELEBRATE

The Pre-school Learning Alliance has organised a programme of celebratory events throughout 2011, including a roadshow hosted by children's TV presenter Dave Benson Philips and an interactive mosaic that children can contribute to. Members will receive Golden Ticket birthday cheque books with discounts for parents and a special DVD featuring an interview with Belle Tutaev.

Next month, the Alliance will also publish a book called Changing Lives, Changing Life, which outlines how the movement helped shaped the Alliance into what it is today, and its principles and core values.

For more information, visit www.pre-school.org.uk.

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