'Give us a year,' says Labour

16th December 1994 at 00:00
Margaret Hodge, head of Blair's early-years team, talks to Linda Blackburne.

The TES reports as the Government and Opposition seek policies to flesh out their commitments to pre-school expansion.

Margaret Hodge is typical of Tony Blair's New Labour; a middle-class professional whose children have attended inner London state schools. As a neighbour and personal friend of the party leader, it's perhaps not surprising that she firmly backs his controversial wish to send his son eight miles across London to attend a grant-maintained Catholic school.

Like Blair a product of a public school, Ms Hodge is passionate about education. It was her own schooling which turned her into a socialist. The narrow curriculum provided by the girls' public day school and the boarding school she attended, plus the elitism she met at Oxford, leads her to say today: "I would never deny my children the privilege of state education. "

Of the row over Tony Blair's decision to send his son to the grant-maintained London Oratory school, she says: "There is some thinking in the Labour party that uniformity equals quality. That is just wrong. We are obsessed by achieving quality by limiting choice. I want quality. It is what happens in the school rather than which school. People have always chosen."

Another influential political associate is David Blunkett, the party's new education spokesman, with whom she shares a mutual background in local government, going back 12 years.

Since winning her Barking seat in a by-election six months ago, she has been identified as a potential rising star in the party and, six weeks into her appointment as chair of Blunkett's task force on the under-fives, she is busy meeting early-years experts, children's organisations and LEAs.

In an interview with The TES this week, she outlined her high hopes for a Labour government's first term. "I am very ambitious. The National Children's Bureau and the Royal Society of Arts have costed (under-fives) expansion and they do not talk about big amounts. It is not that horrendous. I think it is achievable. The education of the under-fives is seen as such a high priority across the shadow Cabinet and by the leader that I hope it will be converted to a real promise."

These words bode well from a woman, who, when leader of the London Borough of Islington, had a reputation for getting what she wanted even if it meant sacking key personnel.

When pushed on a timetable for under-fives' expansion, she said: "If I fail to answer this question in a year's time, probably then I have failed."

Ms Hodge, 50, whose four children, Nick, 23, Lizzi, 21, Anna 15, and Amy, 13, went to Kate Greenaway nursery school in Islington, and Camden comprehensives, speaks fluent French, German and Italian and is married to Henry Hodge, a radical lawyer, who will be the next president of the Law Society. Prior to her election as an MP she worked for Price Waterhouse as a public sector consultant.

She believes government is about choices. It was "pretty obscene" to spend Pounds 700 million on railway privatisation when Britain only spent 4 per cent of its education budget on the early years, she argued. France spent 10 per cent and Norway 11 per cent.

The education budget, she argued, needs to be refocused so more money is spent at the bottom, and resources for the grant-maintained school system and assisted places in independent schools should be redistributed.

Part of Labour's policy will be to create an under-fives education system which is served by integrated government departments. So a key role for Ms Hodge is liaison with Labour MPs responsible for young children - Llin Golding on families and children; Harriet Harman on employment; and the Treasury and women's teams.

Her model of good practice in integrating education and care for the under-fives is the Margaret McMillan nursery school in Islington which, as leader, she helped to set up. The purpose-built nursery in Hornsey Rise brought together an Inner London Education Authority nursery school and an Islington social services day nursery, with a qualified head in charge. It is open 48 weeks a year from 8am to 6pm, with hours divided into four sessions a day, starting early morning. There are 200 children aged between six months and five years on roll (or 150 full-time equivalent places) and about 40 staff including eight qualified teachers.

A three-year-old is entitled to a free half day and a four-year-old a free full day. After that, sessions are paid for on a means-tested basis.

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