Here's to the early years: The Pre-school Learning Alliance's playgroups are facing an uncertain future

By rights, it should have been Belle Tutaev's three-year-old daughter, Mary, who was credited with the founding of the pre-school playgroup movement. "She wanted friends," her mother, now aged 81, recalls. "We lived in central London in a flat. We only saw children going past our window and on to school." Her elder brother, Christopher, aged seven, was already at school and Mary felt left out. "I tried to find out if there was anything available but I was told that because we were not in a needy family, there would not be much support for us."

Undaunted by put-downs, she and a small group of other mothers started looking for premises where their children could get together and play with their toys. "We lived in Cavendish Mews just behind the BBC and the area was all flats. In the end, we got a little hall and took our children there with their toys."

From this small acorn of just six children, the large oak tree now known as the Pre-school Learning Alliance (PLA), whose membership now caters for around 800,000 under-fives in various different settings, was born.

"It was just two hours a day at first," says Belle, who now lives in Bristol, where – for the last part of her career – she spent her time as an infants' school head teacher.

Back to the early 1960s (the PLA is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year), though. Belle recalls there were many stumbling blocks as she tried to get her new Pre-school Playgroups Association (PPA) off the ground. "We were trying to get more nursery education because that was what was needed," she said. "It was hard work achieving anything because all the government ministers I met were men. All the politicians I met were men, all the vicars who had the church halls were men, too. They seemed to be saying: 'Why do you need this? Can't your children just play at home like everybody else?' We did persuade a vicar to let us use the church hall, though."

Belle decided to test the water nationally on the need to set up more nursery education and playgroups for the under-fives and wrote a letter to a national newspaper outlining her aims. Within a week, she had received 250 letters in reply and the birth of a new movement had been launched. "We started by asking people to send us stamps so we could reply to them."

At that time, she was married to a journalist, who allowed her to use his Gestetner to reply to correspondents. "By about the second year, we had about 2,000 members."

Belle became the first president of the Pre-school Playgroups Association but relinquished her post after a couple of years. She became divorced from her husband and decided to train as a teacher. "I had been a nurse beforehand," she said, "but you couldn't go part time. You had to be either a day or a night worker." Because of the two young children she had, she decided she would have to give up her full-time job.

"Things are a bit different now," she said. "There was quite a lot of antagonism then. It has changed now. I think men have learnt by seeing what happened that provision can be good for them as well."

The PPA, later the PLA, gained in national standing, too. It was in the 1990s that the campaign to provide more nursery education and pre-school playgroup provision for the under-fives really took off. Labour, when it came to power in 1997, pledged to provide a nursery place for every three- and four-year-old whose parents wanted them to have one.

The Coalition Government has also taken on this mantle, with the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, agreeing to extend provision to two-year-olds from disadvantaged homes whose parents want places for them.

Belle had moved on from her position as president of the PPA by the mid-1960s, though. "I decided I wanted to be independent and that I would go on from the playgroups and train as a teacher for two years," she said. "I ended up in a local infants' school as a reception class teacher. I then got the headship of a nursery and infants' school in Bristol."

The Pre-school Learning Alliance realises the debt of gratitude it owes to Belle and people like her who have fought for better provision for the under-fives over the decades. But there will be plenty of battles ahead, too. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the PLA, has serious concerns as the charity celebrates its 50th anniversary. "The sector is now experiencing on a daily basis the withdrawal of funding," he says. "This position is set to worsen as cash-strapped authorities are faced with choosing to repair holes in the road over support for less visible needs."

The charity has received more than 1,500 responses to a survey of its members' needs. "The message was clear," Leitch says. "They expressed real concern over the significant decline in support from local authorities."

Earlier this autumn, Prime Minister David Cameron pleaded with councils not to "do the easy thing" by cutting support for voluntary bodies. Since then, the PLA has witnessed cuts of up to 60 per cent in support for early-years settings. "If the Prime Minister hoped his statement might bring some stability to the voluntary sector, I should tell you that for the early-years sector, he has failed miserably," Leitch says. "For over 50 years, the alliance and its members have delivered services in areas of deprivation. This now runs the risk of being dismantled, along with the support we provide to local settings in respect of safeguarding, parental involvement and improving the overall quality of child care."

He adds: "When it comes to David Cameron's Big Society, the alliance is by far the best-placed early-years organisation to deliver on the agenda. "We have never strayed from the principles set out all those years ago by Belle Tutaev of delivering services for the community by the community. No one doubts the next few years are going to be difficult... I would like to remain positive and move into 2011 not only celebrating the enormous social movement that Belle brought about but also recognising its relevance today. Over the past 50 years, this organisation has empowered thousands of adults and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, so the best birthday present we could ask from the Government is long-term commitment."

While the pre-school movement may have to take up the cudgels again and battle for provision, perhaps it is worth asking what the effect has been on children who have used early-years services – particularly the child whose need for friends sparked it all off? "Mary loved it," Belle says. "She loved playing alongside the other children. She says how she enjoyed it and she didn't realise how extraordinary it was at that time to have that kind of provision."

Let us hope provision never becomes extraordinary again.

Five years of playgroups

* The Pre-school Learning Alliance was founded as the Pre-school Playgroups Association in 1961 after Belle Tutaev started up a playgroup with just six children in central London.

* After two years, its membership had grown to 2,500. It has been influential in bringing about a series of improvements to pre-school provision over the years.

* One of the biggest expansion plans came when the Major government, in its dying years, introduced nursery vouchers for parents seeking a nursery place for their offspring.

* This was scrapped by Labour in 1997 on the grounds it was too bureaucratic and led to schools threatening to withhold places for children when they reached the age of compulsory schooling if their parents did not spend their voucher at their nursery.

* Instead, Labour gradually increased provision to ensure that every three- and four-year-old whose parents wanted them to have a place could have one.

* The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has announced he is expanding provision to include two-year-olds from the country's most disadvantaged homes – an idea floated by Gordon Brown when he was prime minister...

* By 2010, the PLA had grown so that it now provides places in a range of different settings for 800,000 youngsters from 600,000 families. These places are provided in 14,000 different settings.

* The alliance is a volunteer-led organisation. Every setting promotes a parents' forum where parents are encouraged to have their say in the way the setting is run.

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