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Profile: Government urged by Pre-School Learning Alliance chief to address high levels of 'discontent and anger' in early years sector

Article By: Sue Learner, News Editor

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance is calling on the Government to address the high levels of ‘discontent and anger’ in the early years sector.

Neil Leitch at Ilsington Pre-School in Devon

It has been a busy year for the , with affordable childcare becoming the buzzword for the three main political parties, keen to secure the votes of working parents.

The Government has been the most vocal in its desire to offer more affordable childcare to parents. However Mr Leitch is sceptical of the Government’s motive saying “the Government finally realises that childcare and early education has a value, but the other side of the coin is that we are now seen, to some extent, as collateral.”

His concern is childcare is being “seen predominantly as a mechanism for getting parents back to work and solving the economic crisis that we have. The childcare agenda has gone too far in the direction of a back to work policy instead of a cohesive what-is-best-for-the-family approach.

“If you read between the lines of the Government's reforms in 'More Great Childcare' and 'More Affordable Childcare', the real message is affordability, affordability, and affordability. Good quality childcare costs money and making political gain at the expense of providers is hardly something to be applauded.

“I think it’s fantastic that every political party wants to boost the provision of free childcare, but if they do so on the same underfunded basis that currently exists, the motive is questionable and not necessarily what is in the best interest of the child.

“The rhetoric is about getting parents back into the work environment. The vast majority of parents I have talked to (mainly mums) have said if they had the choice of changing their working pattern so they could spend more time with their children, and it wouldn’t cripple them financially, they would.”

As well as more affordable childcare for parents, the Government has been pushing for a more highly skilled workforce. But Mr Leitch says these things come at a price.

“What we have at the moment is a portfolio of aspirations. It’s easy to talk about creating a highly-skilled and better-recognised workforce, higher earnings for everyone in theory, but we’ve heard nothing whatsoever about how this would work in practice. There are no resources to back up the aspirations of the reforms.”

Mr Leitch, who heads up an organisation which supports over 14,000 early years settings and is the largest early years member organisation representing nurseries, pre-schools, children’s centres and childminders, is very concerned over the lack of investment. “I don’t understand how anybody who has come from a business background could ever expect to achieve the ambition of up-skilling and uplifting the workforce without putting in a penny of investment.”

“If you take the Childcare Commission, it failed to ask the fundamental question the sector has been raising for years – what does it cost you to deliver childcare? It’s geared to get cheaper childcare and greater subsidies going into parents’ pockets however it did absolutely nothing to address the inequity of the underfunded free entitlement.”

“The Labour Party’s pledge to increase the hours of free entitlement is great but nurseries and pre-schools are not going to continue subsidising free childcare.”

Another big childcare reform in ‘More Great Childcare’ published earlier this year is to make it a requirement for all nursery staff to have a C in Maths and English GCSE.

Mr Leitch has reservations about this and says the sector is improving all the time with 86 per cent already qualified up to Level 3. He believes “education is the path to progress but it is also the stumbling block”.

“I speak to nursery managers and when I ask them what qualities they look for in their staff, they don’t say can read a balance sheet, has a high IQ and is really good with a profit and loss account, but they do say they must be ‘gentle, soft and loving’ and these are the qualities I, as a parent, would want for my child. That’s more important than anything else.”

This year, there has been a lot of dissent in the sector, particularly over the plans to change ratios of staff to children in settings.

Mr Leitch was very vocal on this issue and spearheaded a petition, that helped to prevent the ratios proposal becoming a reality.

Over this past year, partly due to the Alliance’s strong campaigning stance, membership of the Alliance has risen.

“We have now widened our membership to include childminders as well as group settings and continue to see our membership grow. I really believe that this is because, over the past year in particular, colleagues in the sector have seen that we are not afraid to speak out and do what is right.”

Mr Leitch joined the Alliance, which is now the largest voluntary sector provider of childcare in England, 12 years ago.

Prior to that he was in banking and was the chair of the Finance Industry Standards Association.

“I felt this sector was different and really had purpose, and that’s what really got me interested in working in the sector. All of a sudden I had come across a group of people who were clearly not motivated by money, and were probably overworked but were still so passionate about the work they did. It was so different from my previous experiences in the financial industry where we would, for example, chair a panel looking at brokers who were trying to defraud lenders, or lenders with dubious practices who weren’t acting in the best interests of consumers.

“The Alliance was a different culture, a different world and I found myself gradually getting more and more drawn to the organisation. Being surrounded by so many inspirational people reignited my desire to do something that would effective positive change; it made me feel revitalised.”

He has found his role has become increasingly combative as he has become a voice for the sector and the Alliance has been forced to increase the support it gives to early years providers.

“We are not going to sit on the fence and keep quiet on important issues affecting our members and the families they support. The sector needs a clear voice to represent their interests and support them to continually raise their quality and standards. We are committed to supporting our members to do this. We now offer free online CPD-approved staff development and training to every member as we recognise how many settings are struggling to manage their services in the current funding environment.”

The Pre-School Learning Alliance's main focus in terms of its own childcare services is supporting disadvantaged children living in deprived areas of England.

It currently has 114 nurseries in areas of deprivation in England and it is Mr Leitch’s passion to try and change the outcomes of vulnerable children. He understands some of their struggles through his own personal experience as a child.

“I have been fortunate throughout my adult life so I would never claim to know what it’s like for those living in real poverty today. That said I am one of six children and came from a single parent family; my father was an alcoholic and violent towards my mother, and as children, we spent a few years in children’s homes.

“But I have had a lot of luck in my life and good people around me who gave me chances.

“Children don’t choose to be born into economic disadvantage. It’s worrying that society doesn’t view a commitment to the wellbeing of children as everybody’s responsibility.”

Mr Leitch’s current battle is with Ofsted. He claims a downgrading of settings by Ofsted could lead to areas of deprivation losing proportionately more settings than other areas due to lack of funding. Under new directives which come into force from this November, settings rated inadequate or requiring improvement will not be able to offer the free funding for three to four-year-olds.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, has himself admitted that in areas of deprivation it is harder to have a good or outstanding inspection as these settings have less money as practitioners need more time to work with vulnerable children and time and a higher ratio of staff to children costs more money.

“If you operate in an area of deprivation, you will have a greater number of children with special educational needs, greater numbers of children on the at-risk register, greater numbers of children with care plans, greater numbers with single and unemployed parents and greater number of children with parents who have alcohol or drug dependencies etc.”

“You need time to work with vulnerable families, and time means money. The reason why we were so opposed to the ratio move is that it was based on the perfect scenario in the perfect town or village.

“Even highly practitioners will tell you that there’s a limit to what you can do. If Ofsted continue to downgrade those settings in deprived areas without investment, they run the risk of wiping out services to the very families that society should be giving greatest support to.

“You run the risk of providers like us and others saying we can no longer do it and then those parents in those areas lose their services. In one of our nurseries, 45 children out of 46 have a special educational or additional need of some kind. Is anyone seriously suggesting that this can be managed without additional support?”

The Pre-School Learning Alliance chief says he has never witnessed so much discontent and anger over Government reforms.

“The stance taken by those responsible for the early years in Government is the most damning that the sector has ever witnessed. So much harm has been done in the last 12 months that respect for policy makers has virtually all but vanished.

“With the ratios issue, it was fantastic that the sector came together, spoke out and achieved something that had previously seemed impossible.”

Yet despite being a prominent voice in the sector, he is amazed that Government ministers at the moment seem to avoid meeting with the Alliance.

“Why would you not speak to the biggest representative early years membership organisation out there?

“The one thing this Government has done is mobilised us as a sector to want to have a voice.”

Interesting facts

First job: Electronic communication engineer

Favourite book: A Child Called 'It' – by Dave Pelzer

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption

Favourite piece of music: Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’ and Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni

Last holiday: Portugal


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