Our people

Boy looking up

We are the largest and most representative early years membership organisation in England and we employ more than 2,000 people. 

Our national centre is based in London supported by a network across the country that delivers a range of services for our members locally.

We are dedicated to our members and their interests inform everything we do.

Every year, we are supported by around 750 volunteers who give an estimated 30,000 hours of support annually.

Our volunteers play a vital part in our work – supporting families, carrying out practical tasks such as improving outdoor spaces, organising outings, joining parent-run committees and campaigning to protect the interests of families.


Our Operational Management Group

Neil Leitch – Chief Executive

Neil LeitchI was first introduced to the Early Years Alliance, then known as the Pre-School Learning Alliance, in 2000 when the organisation asked me to volunteer my communications skills. Prior to this, I held a career in finance which culminated in being chair of the Finance Industry Standards Association. I was immediately drawn to the Alliance’s ethos and dedication to the lives of young children and in 2008 was appointed CEO.  

I am particularly passionate about challenging injustices, which mirrors the work of the Alliance perfectly. During my time as CEO, I have fronted numerous sector campaigns ranging from fair funding and mental health to our 2013 Rewind on Ratios campaign in which we successfully reversed government plans to relax adult-to-child ratios in early years settings. 

Away from the Alliance, I like to watch and play football and have a keen interest in interior architectural styling – more commonly known as hands-on building projects. 

Katharine Heeps – Director of Finance

Kathy HeepsEver since qualifying as an accountant I have worked in the non-profit sector. As the Alliance’s finance director, most of my days are spent scrutinising the charity’s finances and making sure we set a viable budget. In addition to this, I also support colleagues with a range of funding bids. 

At the Alliance I really appreciate the fact my work supports colleagues who are delivering vital work to children and families. A work day can range from anything from working on our annual audit to visiting settings.  

An accountant at heart, a stand-out passion has to be a beautifully balanced set of accounts each year!

That said, our annual accounts form part of our trustee report which sets our achievements and plans, so working with colleagues to bring that report together is very fulfilling.  

When I’m not balancing the Alliance’s books, I can be found at my allotment. If the weather and slugs are kind to me, I can enjoy a constant supply of seasonal fruit and vegetables. 

Sarah Ellis – Business Development Director

Sarah EllisI began my career as a pre-school manager in a voluntary setting before joining the Alliance as a pre-school development worker where I gave advice, support and guidance to early years providers. Now, more than two decades later, I lead the business development team as a business development director.  

Children and families are at the heart of everything I do.

During my time at the organisation, supporting the development and progressions of colleagues as they deliver key services to the early years sectors has continued to be a key highlight for me. 

In my free time, I enjoy walking, swimming, reading and spending time with my family. 


Claire Reid – Children’s Services Director

Claire ReidI started my career as an assistant nursery nurse, progressing to nursery nurse before moving to manage nurseries and services for families, including children's centres and support for disabled children and young people.    

At the Alliance, I lead on our early years settings, ensuring we offer high quality early years care and education. Central to this is offering the best start for our children and supporting parents and carers. 

I really enjoy being part of an organisation that has children at its heart and I love spending time with the children and our early years team. I am passionate about encouraging creativity, imagination and outdoor play and exploration throughout our early years settings.  

Outside of work I like to spend time with my family and, when I get the opportunity, I love live music and seeing different bands. 

Jennifer Rutzler — Membership and Customer Services Director

Jen RutzlerPrior to joining the Early Years Alliance I worked within sports sponsorship, hospitality and premium membership, primarily across football, but also on the Olympics. 

Central to my role as membership and customer services director is supporting existing members as well as welcoming new ones to the Alliance. I also work to ensure our insurance offer supports our members’ needs.  

Coming from a background very different to that of early years, I have really enjoyed working with great people and learning more about the sector each day. 

Outside work, I enjoy reading, going to the cinema and on nature walks, spending time with my family and friends and shopping for things for my house. But with two small children, my time is not my own!  

Shannon Pite – Communications and External Affairs Director

ShannonAfter training and working as a journalist, in 2012 I joined the Alliance as editor of Under 5 magazine, before moving into the organisation’s press and public affairs team and later, leading on communications and external affairs.  

My role incorporates everything from campaigns and government engagement to social media to print and digital communications, as well as leading on our press and media work and ensuring that our members and the wider sector are kept up to date on all government guidance changes.  

Working for an organisation committed to empowering the early years workforce, supporting families and, above all else, ensuring that the needs of the child are always put first, is a real privilege and I’m very proud to be a part of the Alliance family.  

Outside of work, as the mother of a young daughter, I’m also getting to watch the magic that is early development happening in real time as well, which is brilliant and exhausting in equal measures! 

Michael Freeston – Director of Quality Improvement

Michael FreestonEducation has been a running theme throughout my career. Before joining the Alliance, I worked as a further education lecturer and then at the Workers Educational Association where I developed adult education policies and programmes.  

At the Alliance I oversee the organisation’s qualification training programme and any other aspects that impact on the quality of early years provision. I also lead on the delivery of national and international projects and represent the Alliance across a range of external partnerships and groups.  

I am particularly interested in spreading the word of the significance of early years – frustratingly, early years learning and development is often overlooked by policy makers and funders! 

In my free time I enjoy playing a wide range of sports: from tennis to dinghy sailing and triathlons. 

Paul Donaldson – Director of People and Technology

Paul DBefore joining the Alliance, I worked in people management in the NHS and local government.  

As director of people and technology, I support the development and implementation of the Alliance’s policies and programmes, particularly relating to human resources, IT and legal services.

I also contribute to the implementation of the Alliance’s strategic and operations goals and plans.  

A standout element of working at the Alliance has to be working with amazing colleagues who are always working hard to deliver our vision. I am especially passionate about doing what I can to ensure the Alliance promotes health, wellbeing and engagement throughout the workplace.  

Outside of work, I regularly cycle which has given me a unique and interesting way to explore London. 


Our Trustees

Sophie Ross – Chair

Sophie RossMy involvement in the early years sector began when I was persuaded to join a pre-school committee as treasurer when my eldest child started at the setting. As a parent-run charitable setting, we had had some involvement with the Alliance, so once my stint as treasurer was over, it seemed a natural progression to become more involved with the Alliance: at first locally and then as a member of the audit committee.   

I really enjoy meeting other members of the sector and hearing about their settings. It's always a boost when they tell us how the work of the Alliance has benefited them and their setting, especially if there is a direct benefit to children and families. 

I have quite an eclectic background ranging from accountancy and finance to working in libraries. At the moment, on the trustee board, we're very focused on improving the financial situation for the sector but I'm always keen to champion initiatives that improve literacy and communication skills too. 

David Gilbert – Vice-chair

David GilertAs a qualified teacher, education has always been a passion of mine. I have expertise in paediatric first aid and safeguarding and I’ve worked in a small private nursery. 

I have more than six decades’ experience as a volunteer and when I won a Volunteer of the Year Award, it encouraged me to think that I might have more to give to the sector than I thought. I then joined the Alliance’s local and regional forums and decided to throw my hat into the trustee ring and was delighted when I was successful. 

I am a firm believer that every member should have the opportunity to better themselves by undertaking good quality training programmes. One of the highlights of my time as a trustee has been the introduction of the EduCare programme. 

Lisa Maidment 

Lisa MI applied to become a trustee when I was working as a manager of a committee-run pre-school. The role, alongside the experience I had built up over my career in Ofsted inspection, teaching, learning and leadership gave me a great understanding of the workings of early years settings. As a trustee I have really enjoyed discussing high-level policy decisions and the comradery of my fellow trustees has prompted interesting discussions and helped us to set a clear vision for the Alliance.   

I’m passionate about ensuring all young children, especially those going through the SEND diagnosis process, can easily access the same opportunities without discrimination or prejudice. 

As a trustee, I relish working with an organisation who advocates to prioritise children’s education and ensure that their voices are not left ignored. 

Graham McMillan

GrahamI first came across the Alliance when I was three or four years old when I was part of a playgroup that was a member of the Alliance. I even remember my mother holding the group’s AGM at our house! 

Decades later, in the late 1990’s, I was reunited with the organisation during its campaign highlighting the issues and setting closures caused by John Major’s nursery vouchers scheme. At the time, I was a public affairs and communication consultant and worked with the Alliance to persuade the government to take action to repair the damage and support the sector.  

I have 30 years of experience as a consultant in public affairs, government relations, corporate communications, corporate responsibility and sustainability. I have worked for three of the most successful consultancies in the UK and set up my own award-winning consultancy in 2007 which was sold to a larger firm in 2014. 

As a trustee, I am especially passionate about ensuring that the role of volunteers is cherished and enhanced, highlighting the role of parental involvement wherever possible, supporting everything the Alliance does for disadvantaged groups and lobbying the government to prioritise the early years. 

Lorna Pendred

LornaI started as a volunteer at my local playgroup whilst on study leave for exams, then, years later, became a parent helper at my daughter’s playgroup which inspired me to learn more about the early years.  

I have now volunteered at the Alliance for more than thirty years, most recently as an elected trustee. I feel privileged to represent early years educators and to be involved in high-level decisions.  

I have a keen interest in education inclusion and I believe that fair and equal opportunities should be accessible for everyone. I am passionate about community and the wide-reaching benefits this can offer for children and their families. 

Sarah Presswood

Sarah P

The Alliance has supported me as parent, practitioner and nursery manager for nearly thirty years, so when the opportunity came to give back to the Alliance as a trustee, I couldn’t say no. 

In recent years I have been  a member of Birmingham City Council’s Provider Consultative Group and contributed to SEND improvement workstreams. Working as a founding member of Birmingham PVI Support Association helped me to understand the important role that membership organisations play in supporting others. I have also sat on West Midlands OBC Steering Group. 

As a trustee, I am eager to use my voice and expertise to influence policy makers to support the early years sector. I connect closely with the aims of the Alliance and want to support an agenda that puts children at the heart of policy.

My fundamental passion is giving all children, especially those termed ‘vulnerable’, the very best start in life. I also really enjoy meeting other early years professionals from a range of backgrounds and settings, it gives us the opportunity to learn from each other's experiences.

Raymond Smith

Ray SmithMy interest in the early years sector began 35 years ago when my wife started managing a local nursery. I was a regularly volunteer at nursery events when I became passionate about its ethos and commitment to providing high quality, affordable pre-school provision for the local community, as well as its focus on parental involvement. In 2010 I became trustee and secretary at the pre-school where I was introduced to the Alliance. I was immediately impressed by the organisation's commitment to training, its support of local settings and their staff and its campaigning for better provision for children, parents and staff. 

I am also a member of the local authority’s early years sub-group and I represent the PVI pre-school sector at my LA’s School Forum.  

I’m especially passionate about the vital role played by parents in their children’s learning, the need for more affordable provision, the importance of child-centred learning through play and value of the sector in building local communities. 

Christine Cheshire

ChristineWhen I applied to become a trustee, I wanted to give something back to the Alliance after it supported me for over 25 years – from a parent, student and nursery manager, to more recently, as a proud grandparent. When I was a new parent, toddler groups and playgroups were a lifeline for me, I made lifelong friends, gained confidence and felt supported – it even inspired me to retrain and join the sector. 

I have worked in the early years sector for over thirty years, spending more than two decades working in a nursery setting before I retired in 2018. My roles have ranged from nursery assistant to manager. I used to be a qualified accreditation assessor and NVQ assessor and these roles gave me lots of insight into early years settings.

I’m really passionate about the early years and over the years I’ve witnessed, firsthand, the impact that policy changes and a lack of funding can have on hardworking settings and I feel privileged to play a role in supporting the development of young children and families.  

In particular I’m interested in how the Alliance’s work can help support families and children, as well as the early years sector. All families should be able to access the excellent support I was able to, and ensure they get the best start in life. 

Jo Blank

Sandra Jo BlankThroughout my career in the early years sector, the Alliance has always been close to my heart. My core belief is that children’s movement and physical development is fundamental to their healthy growth and learning, and this ethos within a setting drives improvements. I am passionate about improving the quality of provision in early years and improving the overall national status and level of qualifications.  

Over the years I have worked as an additional inspector for Ofsted, led early years training, and supported settings as a local authority adviser. I have also authored three books for Practical Pre-School. I now run a baby and toddler group which has helped me to understand the crucial importance of parents and carers supporting each other, and the importance of their babies and young children learning through play. 

I am passionate about early years training and improving everyday practice within settings in order to improve children’s earliest experiences. As a trustee, I feel privileged to be part of the big national picture of the organisation and see how the Alliance influences government policy. 

Keith Appleyard

keithI have been an active member of the Alliance for over thirty years and joined as a trustee shortly after my retirement when I realised I was not ready to leave the early years just yet! 

My interest in early years education was sparked after I joined the parent committee of Fiveways Playgroup in Brighton in 1985 as treasurer. In 2012 Fiveways became the first nursery in the UK to be certified by the Living wage foundation as paying the ‘Real’ Living Wage. 

Over the years I have lobbied the government on a range of early years topics. This has included submitting evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare in 2014, the House of Commons Treasury Committee on Childcare in 2018 and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childcare and Early Education. I also provide practical business support to settings and support early years campaigning.  

Being a trustee enables me to gain a broader picture of some of the prevailing issues in the sector whilst also offering me the chance to hear other people's perspective. 

Claire Stebbings

My involvement at the Early Years Alliance began in 1991 when I was working as a practitioner and tutor in the sector. Over the years I built up my experience by taking on roles including those on the divisional, country and executive committees. Currently I am a pre-school manager which offers me the chance to share an on-the-ground perspective of the sector with fellow trustees.   

Keeping people informed and engaged at a local level is really important to me. On top of this I really enjoy meeting and networking with fellow trustees and continually building on my working knowledge of the active.  

I have really enjoyed, and look forward to supporting, the future direction of the Alliance in years to come.   


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