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In memory of: Belle Tutaev, founder of the Alliance
OnFeb 4, 2019
In memory of: Belle Tutaev, founder, Pre-school Learning Alliance
1929 – 2019
Born in New York, US and raised in a small village in Jamaica, Belle Tutaev enjoyed a childhood that was, in her own words, “idyllic”. With aunts and uncles all nearby, she had lots of children to play with and lots of space to enjoy, and at age 11, she won a scholarship to study at Wolmer's Girls School in Kingston.
At 17, Belle’s mother needed to tend to a sick relative in England, where she was originally from. Belle decided to go with her, and soon got a job as a psychiatric nurse in Bristol. During a break between training courses, she took a trip back to New York and while she was travelling, met her future husband, who was living in London at the time. Belle eventually moved to join him, leaving her training programme so that she could care for him while he dealt with health issues. The couple later had two children together: Christopher and Mary.
It was while trying to organise a birthday party for Mary that Belle noticed a problem that would change her life.
Because her daughter was only three-years-old, and hadn’t started school, Mary hadn’t made any young friends to invite. With little support available elsewhere, and no local nursery place available for her daughter, Belle formed a group with some other local mothers and began looking for somewhere for them to meet regularly where their children could play. After speaking with other parents at her son’s school, she met a qualified nursery nurse who offered to work with her. They soon set up at a local church hall in Marylebone, with a playgroup that was initially attended by just six children for two hours a day.
As the group expanded, they frequently ran into difficulties with funding, legislation and other red tape. Belle said: “It was difficult to get a place that would accept children en masse. The halls, all the places they went made up every excuse under the sun.”
Letter to The Guardian
It was in August 1961 that Belle wrote a letter to The Guardian titled “Do-It-Yourself Nurseries”. In it, she asked the government for more facilities for children under five and encouraged other parents to set up their own provision where possible. “Inquiries are welcomed (particularly from those enclosing a stamped-addressed envelope) from mothers and teachers who would like to create their own solutions to their problems,” the letter said.
The response from other parents was overwhelming. Many were having similar problems with finding nursery spaces and had also set up their own groups in response. Within a year, Belle had organised the first Annual General Meeting of what was then known as the Pre-school Playgroups Association, having amassed 150 members.
By May 1963, the organisation was recognised as an official charity and by 1966, it had more than 1,300 members, opening its first office in Toynbee Hall, London.
Belle was the first President of the charity, a role she held until 1966, after which she spent two years retraining as a teacher, before going on to work in a local infants school in the reception class. She then became headteacher at a nursery school in Bristol.
In 1982, HRH the Princess of Wales became the organisation’s first patron as it continued to grow. In 2011, the Pre-school Learning Alliance, as the organisation was now known, published 50 Favourite Stories and Rhymes in collaboration with Ladybird books to mark its 50th birthday, which included the story of the how Belle founded the Alliance, titled “Belle’s Big Idea!” The following year, Belle was awarded an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for services to children and families in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, said: "Belle's contribution to early years childcare cannot be overstated.
"Childcare has changed enormously since the Alliance was founded almost 60 years ago, but it is testament to the strength of Belle's original vision that our founding principles have remained constant. Belle understood instinctively that young children benefit enormously from playing and learning alongside their peers – and that government has a responsibility to support and enable this.
"At a time when children, families and early years providers are continuing to face significant challenges, our work is just as vital as ever. We will continue to battle for these essential services and ensure that we do justive to her incredible legacy. She was a remarkable woman and a cherished friend."
Mary Tutaev, one of Belle's two children, said: "I am so proud of Belle: a woman who created such an important movement at a time when many women and children weren't regarded with much importance or relevance.
"Belle was a force of nature who never accepted restrictions or setbacks – and her strongly held beliefs and convictions helped develop and change the lives of so many men, women and children. Let her tenacity, strength and pure conviction encourage future generations of adults and children to continue and build on such a fine organisation as the Alliance."
Today, the Pre-school Learning Alliance is the most representative early years organisation in England. It represents 14,000 members who deliver care and education to more than 800,000 families in England every year as pre-schools, parent and toddler groups and childminders.