Pre-school Learning Alliance AGM and Conference 5th June 2015   1 comment

This blog has been written using my new voice activation software – hopefully it will make sense

This was the third Pre-school Learning Alliance national AGM and conference that I have attended, since I renewed my membership in 2012, but the first where I have stayed overnight, the night before the actual event. The reason for doing this was because I planned to spend some time with my colleague Jennifer McQuillan who was attending her first national AGM and conference.

And so on Thursday 4th June, I made arrangements to finish childminding early, it was a bit tight timing wise as I finished work at 4pm and had to get to the train station in time to catch the 4.23pm train – however with the help of my daughter Rosie who gave me a lift, I made it.

Just over an hour later I made it to Birmingham International, and decided to walk to the hotel, passing through the NEC, and once outside, pass the lake, a pleasant walk on a bright sunny day.

I checked into the Hilton Metropole, and made my way through the corridors to my room on the second floor. This is a huge hotel with around 5000 rooms, my room was on the second floor, room number 2025. It turned out to be a large room, more of a suite really, with sofa as well as bed, desk and other usual things.

However, I could not stay and appreciate my room as I had to go back to the reception area, as I had a pre-arranged meeting with a member of Alliance staff, to discuss the ins and outs of a supporting a member group in Worcestershire the following week. To support me in this work which I would be undertaking as a volunteer, I was given some documents and a book, and a bag to carry it all in –oh and a large umbrella for my personal use. I enjoyed having a personal chat with Bridget who is based at National Centre and felt reassured about the piece of work that I would be carrying out on behalf of the Alliance.

My friend Jen was waiting for me in the bar area, so I joined her, as soon as I had finished my informal meeting with Bridget. While Jen had something to eat, and I finished my drink (Items on menu not to my liking, so I did not eat), we chatted about our roles as volunteers.  Jen is a very new Alliance volunteer, while I have been around for …. Well for years, although I did have a break while I worked for Worcestershire LA, and so I am now in my fourth year of volunteering for the Alliance this time around.

One of the topics of conversation was Jen’s appearance on the BBC news during the week about the Government’s intention to increase the number of funded childcare hours for the three and four year olds of working parents. Jen put across the views of many, very well, and it was lovely to have a glimpse inside her setting.

Helen Parker who is another Alliance volunteer, came over to have a quick chat, and mentioned that they could do with some help on the volunteer stand the next day, so I agreed to help.

We then went for a little explore of the hotel to get our bearings, and came across the rooms that were going to be used for the conference being set up –of course we had to have a little peep through the open door.

After that we made our way back to the bar area, and sent a message to Neil Leitch CE of the Pre-school Learning Alliance to tell him where we were, as he had said he would say ‘hello’ at some point during the evening. A bit later on Neil and Sophie Ross who is Chair of the Trustees did find us and we had a quick chat before they  dashed off to get on with the organisation of the conference.

Around 10pm Jen apologised and said she was really tired and needed to head to bed (Jen works incredibly hard with her Jenniflowers childcare business and so not surprised that she was tired). We went for another walk before Jen headed to her room. However, despite being up since just before 4am (trying to ensure all in order at home before my own working day) I was not tired. So I decided to take the bag and umbrella given to me by Bridget that I was still carrying around up to my room, and then to return to the bar area with my Surface to do a bit of work.

I spotted Tracy Seed (who was doing one of the workshops at the conference the next day) at another table with a colleague doing some work as well (so I did not interrupt her).

A bit later on, Lisa who is the vice chair of the Alliance trustees invited me to join a group of Alliance volunteers having a well-deserved drink. I decided that I would take up the offer. The group of people were in good spirits and joking about an event some of them had attended recently, and other past experiences that they had shared. As is often the case if you have not been personally involved, it was difficult to engage in the conversation. However, a bit later on, Neil Leitch and Sophie Ross join us, and the conversation turned to things I could relate to. I could not hear all the conversation due to the general noise level, but did catch some of it and was able to respond once or twice.

I am not very comfortable in social groups, and I think that my Alliance colleagues present that evening may have seen my natural persona for the first time, and may have been a bit surprised (certainly a couple asked if I was Ok, one even commented that I was ‘a bit quiet’). Up to now they have only seen / read about the confident, soapbox shouting persona. It is a constant surprise to me that I can have two such different persona – but I do, and my natural persona is seen at home, when with close friends and in unfamiliar social occasions.

I stayed with the group of my colleagues until around 12.30, before I headed to my room. However, I still not sleepy, so messed around doing some work, unpacking the clothes I wanted to wear the next day, and generally waiting to feel tired. This happened at around 3am, 23 hours after I had woken up the day before.

I fell asleep but was woken by a text just over an hour later. Being a mother, grandmother and foster carer, my first thought was one of panic, so I jumped out of bed and went over to the desk where my phone was charging. I have to admit, I was annoyed to find it was a text not from a family member, but from my service provider telling me I had run out of data. Of course by now I was wide awake again, so after an hour of tossing and turning, I decided to get up and have a drink. I then got dressed and went for a walk going part way round the lake, and spending some time sitting watching the ducks and listening to the birds. There was a constant ‘hum’ from the motorway, but after a while it was possible to block that sound out.

I really enjoyed my walk and sit by the lake, I then went back into the hotel, and waited for Jen, who I had arranged to meet at 7am so we could have breakfast together. We had a lovely relaxed breakfast, chatting about a range of things. Several members of Alliance staff and Tracy Seed came over and spoke to us, which was lovely. Before we knew it time had rushed passed and we had to go and get ready for the day ahead.

After showering (and unusually for me deciding to wear a dress), I made my way to the reception area to meet with Jen. We booked out and left our bags with the concierge, before heading to the conference rooms. We collected our badges, goody bag and voting cards. We had a chat with Lisa the vice chair of the Trustees, and then I spotted Raj Babber –and she me, we hugged and greeted each other. I had a confession to make – Raj is leaving the Alliance and I had arrange for the members of the Worcestershire subcommittee to sign a card for her BUT I had left it at home! Therefore I apologised and promised to post it. I then checked in at the volunteer stand, so that Helen and Yvonne (another volunteer) could brief me about my duties. My most important task was to take charge of the first prize for the raffle once conference started, and second most important task was to try to get people to fill in the volunteer questionnaires.

That done, Jen and I went for a wander, and bumped into Ann Whitby, who sits on the Worcestershire subcommittee (that I chair), after introductions, we chatted and then parted to look around. I was on strict personal orders from myself not to buy anything, not because I don’t need anything, but because like many early years settings times are financially very tight and so having to manage with what have, and not buy anything else. I wonder what the impact of these budget restraints are on the exhibitors because it is a big commitment for to have a stand and man it for the day. I also wonder if this is why year on year I have noticed less stands, and smaller stands (and not just at the Alliance conference)

I went back to volunteer stand to give a hand, and while doing so, I noticed Dr. Richard House arrive, and as he is one of my Save Childhood Movement colleagues I excused myself and went to welcome him.

Richard and I hugged warmly, and we had a little chat about the Pre-school Learning Alliance and the number of people attending the conference. Richard also gave me a hint about his presentation and the ending he had planned. He then had to go and prepare so I went back to the volunteer stand and was busy getting people to fill in the questionnaires and prize draw forms.

My colleagues Jen and Ann went into the conference hall with promises to save me a place. I was one of the last to go into the hall (and I had that first prize safely tucked in my handbag). After a bit of searching I found my colleagues sat on the second row from the front, I noticed Tracy Seed and her colleague were sat just in front of us and after a little bit of discussion, Jen, Ann, myself and another colleague Simona all moved to the front row to sit by Tracy and her colleague.

This proved to be a sensible decision as had an uninterrupted view of the speakers and as a bonus could stretch our legs.

The title of the conference was Every Child Still Matters’, which I think says it all as every child does indeed still matter-and in fact will always matter. Graham McMillan who is one of the trustees open the conference and as is his way had a few jokes to tell, and mentioned that in the last couple of weeks it had been hard to avoid hearing the voice of Neil Leach the Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive on TV and radio. Graham also mentioned that this year there were no members of Parliament speaking.

Graham introduced Neil Leach who confirmed that this year the conference was not going to be about funding, ratios or even OFSTED but was going to be about the children. Neil also had a joke to tell, however he claims that the joke was not his, but one told by his young son at school. Neil had a few other personal stories to tell to illustrate the points he wanted to make. Although some in the room including myself had already seen the illustration from the baseline test, Neil retold the story the benefit of those who had not heard it before. Neil reiterated the reasons behind the government baseline testing ideas and emphasised that they were not about meeting children’s needs, they were about gathering data about the success of schools.

The next speaker was Dr Richard House who has I have already explained is one of my colleagues from Save Childhood Movement, but also from the Too Much Too Soon campaign. Richard is an educational consultant and like myself a campaigner. Richard did not have a PowerPoint to show us but spoke from the heart and with passion about all the reasons why children should not start formal learning early, should not be subjected to testing and should be allowed in the most simplistic terms to be children and to have a childhood where they learnt through play supported by knowledgeable and caring adults. Throughout his presentation Richard made reference to books which he showed by waving around, and to research. It may have surprised some that Richard urged caution with regard to research saying that everyone should ensure research they referred to was in-depth, current, and relevant. Richard was so engaged with his subject that he went slightly over time, but still had time for his surprise ending that he had mentioned to me when he first arrived in the conference hall. Richard announced that he was going to end with a striptease which in fact was just the unbuttoning of his shirt to reveal a T-shirt underneath which said ‘four is too young to test’ as used in the NUT campaign against baseline testing. If you want to find out more about the Too Much Too Soon Campaign you can via the Save Childhood Movement Website link here Save Childhood Movement Website

The next speaker was Suzanne Zeedyk, who is an honorary fellow of the school psychology at University of Dundee. Suzanne is a research scientist who carries out research into babies inborn capacity to communicate. However since 2011 she spends most of her time speaking in public about humans needs for emotional and physiological connection.

I have not personally heard Suzanne speak before but within five minutes of  starting her presentation I was hooked, and listening to every word. Suzanne introduced herself and explained why she had given up a well-paid job and associated pension, and why she was now not following the path she expected to follow when she gave up that job. Instead she was going around talking to groups of people about issues within early years.

As always I’m not going to be repeating Suzanne’s presentation word for word because that is how she makes her living, however I am going to give an overview of my personal opinion about Susanne’s presentation. The first thing I have to say is Suzanne went back into the history of the United Kingdom under policy that when implemented people had thought was in the best interests of children. Things like the Industrial Revolution when children were sent to work up chimneys and machinery in factories, things like when parents were not allowed to stay in hospitals when their children were ill, things like when children were sent away during the war, and why these things had ceased to happen. Suzanne explained that it was not because the stopped following a natural course but because individuals and groups of people had thought this can’t be right and had done something about it. Changes had taken time to be implemented, but changes had been made.

Suzanne made the links to the campaigning carried out by the Preschool Learning Alliance, and in particular the voice of Neil Leach CE of the Preschool Learning Alliance because he is prepared to speak out and stand up for the rights of the children. As is my way I sat there listening and reflecting about my own campaigning and my frustrations of not making much progress despite over three years of writing blogs, attended meetings and generally standing on my soapbox telling anyone who would listen what was wrong with the policies and procedures of our government. Suzanne made me realise that although I personally am frustrated at lack of progress, it is small steps taken that do make a difference in the long run. The thing I liked most was Suzanne spoke about revolutions those in the past and those still to come, I couldn’t help thinking that the revolution still to come was just around the corner, as many in the room and indeed in the wider early years sector are beginning to be more vocal and to come together to express their shared concerns. There was of course a lot more to Suzanne’s presentation and if you want to find out more please follow the link to her website. Suzanne Zeedyk Website

The next part of the morning session was dedicated to the volunteer awards, as in the previous few years these were presented by Amanda Lamb who is a TV personality and broadcaster. As a previous AGMs I have been amazed at the dedication and professionalism shown by the volunteers who were being  presented awards. The work they do often goes unrecognised and yet the work of volunteers is essential in many preschool groups and organisations. As always the children chosen to help present the awards stole the show as everyone in the audience and on the stage could not help but be drawn to the personalities of the children on the stage. Although all the winners are worthy of mention here, I just want to mention one of them who stood out to me as a shining example of someone who has overcome barriers to become a volunteer. The young lady in question is called Sarah and is from a Traveller community and had broken with tradition not only to volunteer outside the community, but had also ensured that the traveller community were able to benefit from the activities of the Preschool Learning Alliance member group. Not only that she had also broken with tradition by undertaking a formal qualification. When accepting her award she spoke from the heart and said that her volunteering gave her so much personally. As I say all the winners of the volunteers awards inspirational and thoroughly  deserved their awards and information about the more can be found by following this link Alliance Volunteer award winners 2015

As the last award winners were receiving their award, I had to leave the conference hall to go and man the volunteer stand. After replacing the first prize back on the table, I set about ensuring the table was tidy and the clipboards were restocked with questionnaires. Not many people came to the stand as everyone was busy getting lunch and networking, my colleagues Jen and Ann came over to say they were getting lunch and where they would be sitting. After a while I was able to lead the volunteer stand in the capable hands of a colleague, while I went to get my own lunch.

Unfortunately all the main courses were not to my personal taste, therefore I had to settle for a bowl of fruit salad and a glass of water. I bumped into Dr Richard House who was also getting his lunch and we decided that we would eat lunch together. I tried  to find my colleagues Jen and Ann, but as I couldn’t see them Richard and myself found space at a table as spent the next 30 minutes or so engaged in conversation about our shared campaigning, and my degree studies. Richard then went to get his desert and I got a cup of coffee before returning to our table to continue our discussion. It was lovely to spend time talking with Richard because although we have met a couple of times before we haven’t really had time for an in-depth conversation.

I returned to the volunteer stand for a short while before making my way back into the conference hall for the Annual General Meeting. I handed my voting cards over at the door so that my votes would be counted. I made my way back to the front row where in due course I was joined by Jen, Ann, and Simona.

The annual general meeting was interesting and I took an active part in seconding a couple of the proposals, and of course in actively voting. I thought the annual report is presented by Sophie Ross chair of the trustees was very interesting, and I like the fact that she gave detail about what volunteers were doing in each area. As with all charities there are concerns about where funding will come from over the next year, and a prediction that the reserves would fall unless things changed. However the trustees are confident that despite this the Pre – school Learning Alliance would remain in a strong position.

We then returned to the exhibitor’s hall for a final tea and coffee break, where I had conversations with several members of staff, including Neil Leach who came over to talk to Jen, Ann, Richard and myself.

Next on the agenda were the afternoon workshops which were spread out in various rooms over the hotel. Jen, Ann and myself had all booked on to the same workshop which was the one led by the morning presenter Suzanne Zeedyk. I was really looking forward to this workshop as Suzanne had really inspired me drawing her presentation that morning.

I was not disappointed because Suzanne decided not to run her PowerPoint or even to set the agenda for the workshop, but instead decided to hand it over to those in the room and in her words ‘to see how it went’.

Well I can say it went really well and the discussions were in-depth, reflective, and inspiring. The discussions covered a variety of connected topics, with many of them actually having their roots in fear; fear of the unknown, fear of those in power, fear of OFSTED downgrading, fear of losing job, and therefore fear speaking up. I did raise my hand and mention that I was no longer doing things that I did not consider to be in the best interests of children and was therefore practicing Principle Non-Compliance. I also mentioned my colleagues in save childhood movement and the too much too soon campaign, including the March in London and the presentation of the Too Much Too Soon petition to number 10 Downing Street. Suzanne descried me as a stroppy woman but said we need more stroppy women and indeed stroppy men, to stamp our feet and say ‘No, not doing that’. However she pointed out that there are other more subtle ways of making a point and the not everyone would be comfortable stamping their feet or standing on a soapbox.

The conference then came to a close, I had a discussion with Mel who is a member of the alliance staff and who will be attending the Worcestershire annual general meeting in October. As there was time before trains home Jen and myself enjoyed some refreshments before getting the courtesy bus to the train station (with Richard house and Simona) and then all heading our separate ways home.

All in all a fantastic conference with inspiring and thought-provoking presentations and workshops, great networking and a chance to catch up with friends.

One response to “Pre-school Learning Alliance AGM and Conference 5th June 2015

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  1. A really lovely read my friend – I loved our time together xxx

    Many thanks, Jennifer McQuillan Principal

    t: @Jenniflowers_CT e: w:

    Our ethos > play . discover . recycle . create . laugh . learn . nature . outdoors

    > SW18 Day Nursery Annex (1-2 yrs), Pre-School (2-5 yrs), After School Club (4-11 yrs), Rest & Play SEND Playgroup (0-5 yrs) . 0208 871 4632 . 0773 432 2917 . . OFSTED Good (May 2014) > SW19 Home Nursery (6-15 months) . 0208 780 3099 . 0772 574 0743 . . OFSTED Outstanding (July 2008 & March 2012) Facebook: ~ Please consider the environment – do you really need to print this email?

    Jennifer Mcquillan

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