Neil Leitch

CEO, Early Years Alliance

What was a typical work day like before the corona crisis?
I always thought that I was busy but in comparison to my current long weekdays and weekends working – let’s just say, I now have a better appreciation of what BUSY really means!

When the outbreak started, what was your initial reaction?
Disbelief, really, like many people I’ve spoken with. I hadn’t initially appreciated how devastating this would be – for our sector which, in part, was already on its knees but also for those people that have lost loved ones, something that has happened on a scale I have never witnessed before in my lifetime.

What impact did this have on your day job and how did you adapt?
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the Alliance worked hard to put the needs of members first. I, alongside a number of colleagues, continued to work at our National Centre in London until we were able to put in place all the practical changes needed – for example, the transfer of phone calls – to ensure we would be able to continue to provide as normal a service as possible for members working from our respective homes.

It took until a week after lockdown to have everything in place and for colleagues to feel they could continue to support members remotely, but we knew this would be an incredibly worrying time for providers and we were determined we would do everything possible to keep the wheels turning.

What are the big challenges you have faced / are facing as the pandemic continues?
The shifting sands of government policy. Members rely on us for fast, accurate information and advice, but the guidance coming out from government has been piecemeal, constantly changing, and in some cases, self-contradictory so trying to get some clarity on government policy as it was rolled out was, and still is, a real challenge.

The tendency to publish new information late in evenings with no warning hasn’t helped and colleagues and I have spent many evening and weekends working through complex government guidance to try and ensure that members are kept up-to-date as soon as possible on the latest changes.

In the case of the issues around the funded entitlement and Job Retention Scheme in particular, the length of time it took for government to confirm how the policy would be applied to the sector was incredibly difficult for us as an organisation, as it meant we couldn’t advise our members definitively about crucial information we knew they needed to plan and budget for their businesses for the better part of a month – and in the time since, there have still been delays in getting important information on the details of the scheme.

More broadly, we’ve had a lot of rhetoric from politicians about how valued the sector is, but this has yet to convert into adequate tangible support, though this is something we are directly challenging in our ongoing discussions with both the Department for Education and the Treasury.

How have you kept going through the tough times?
I have a wonderful family to be in lockdown with; I have some wonderful friends who have lifted my spirit and I have dear work colleagues that simply want to do the best for others. Not a bad antidote!

What acts of kindness have you seen or shown that have made you smile recently?
Some lovely messages from colleagues in the sector – within and outside of the Alliance – that have lifted me in a weak moment. I have always felt in life that I should be the one to remain strong and every now and again, I detect someone sees that’s impossible and endeavours to ease the burden.

What has this crisis taught you – both professionally and on a personal level?Professionally, how important it is that we fight and battle for our members, and that we don’t fall short when we are most needed.

Personally, I have witnessed that adversity can bring out the worst in people but also often brings out the best (I prefer the latter!).

How are you trying to stay happy and healthy?
Happy is a bit of a struggle when time is at a premium, but I have my loved ones at home and I have the odd chat with good friends where I am able to curse a lot!

As for healthy… next question!

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