Nursery World Awards 2020 - Lifetime achievement

By Mike Thompson, Chairman of Childbase Partnership
Friday, February 5, 2021

Neil Leitch, chief executive, the Early Years Alliance

In many ways I feel extremely flattered to write a story of praise about someone for whom I have the upmost respect. Having been in the sector for too long, I have had the privilege of meeting many very talented individuals. There are only two who have really stood out in terms of their selfless commitment to support our cause. One sadly is no longer with us and Neil is the other.

I first met Neil when he was on the Board of the Pre-school Learning Alliance (PLA). It was at a meeting organised by another extraordinary colleague to try to galvanise the sector into actually having some collaborative approach to the many challenges we faced.

Neil sat by me and made contributions at appropriate moments. When he spoke, we listened. Among so many opinionated individuals, that was an achievement. He laid the foundations for his role going forward, he commanded that quiet admiration. He was already someone with whom I knew I would share many challenges ahead.

When he became chief executive of the PLA, now the Early Years Alliance, when the previous chief executive retired for health reasons, Neil was the natural candidate to fill the shoes.

His journey in the sector began. I think it is sad that many do not fully appreciate the difference he has made during his tenure in charge. While he has an impossible mission in trying to represent a sector, which to a large extent is frustratingly ignored, he has done a remarkable job. His advice is sought by many, not least in the political world.

The papers he has produced support our concerns in respect of, for example, funding. They are always concise, factually correct and give clear objectives to resolve the issues. He is a firm believer that you can’t simply object to policy unless you have a well-supported argument about the solution.

It is not my place, in such public recognition, to comment on his own life and upbringing, but it is a remarkable story. I have often thought, and tried, to persuade him, that he should tell that road in the written word for others to share. Many of the experiences on that journey contributed to making him the individual he has become.

He is never public, other than when presenting a case on our behalf, never seeks recognition and never trumpets the success or progress he’s made on our behalf. His relentless pursuits of government funding, policy and ill-considered initiatives makes him worthy of any lifetime achievement award.

While I am delighted Nursery World has selected him for this honour, it was inevitable this moment would arrive.

He is a man whom I consider a close friend, and the most valuable source of representing us with those in charge. He has an ability to contain and moderate his frustrations with his lack of progress at times. Always holding the belief that the long term will provide what he seeks. He’s seldom wrong. That is the nature of the beast, that is Neil Leitch.

Few are more worthy and few are less recognised.


Neil was in semi-retirement from a successful career in finance, where he was a leading voice on second mortgage regulation, chairing the Finance Industry Standards Association. In 2000, he was asked to volunteer his skills in business to what was then the Pre-school Learning Alliance.

Finding its ethos and dedication to the lives of young children chimed deeply with his values, within three years Neil had become its director of communications. In 2008, he was appointed chief executive and since then has been a strident leader of the largest early years membership organisation in the country, overseeing its rebrand to the Early Years Alliance in 2019 – a reflection of its ambition to give a united voice to all involved in educating and caring for young children.

Neil has fronted numerous sector campaigns, on fair funding, mental health and notably, ‘Rewind on Ratios’, which successfully protected adult-to-child ratios in settings. He has provided evidence to multiple government inquiries and played a pivotal role in developing the two-year-old free childcare entitlement offer.

Neil’s membership of the DIT Education Sector Advisory Group has given his work international reach, particularly in China and the rest of Asia. He is a founding member of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Childcare and Education and has received extensive praise from senior figures in both government and Ofsted.

He continues to be a powerful voice for the sector as it calls on government for support in facing the coronavirus crisis.

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