From shaky beginnings to Sure Start

4th July 2003 at 01:00
MARGARET Hodge has had a bad start as minister for children. Her leadership of Islington council in the 1980s and early 1990s has returned to haunt her. The media has revisited the cases of some children abused by Islington care workers, and interviewed whistleblowers whose worries were initially ignored.

The Independent suggested that Mrs Hodge's appointment is the latest mistake of the "botched" reshuffle. The Tories are calling on Tony Blair to sack her.

Mrs Hodge has wisely taken the charges head on. She told Radio 4's Today programme that she "deeply regretted" what had happened and said that the 12 years since have been a learning curve for her, something which was ridiculed by the Sun and Daily Mail.

Yet she has spent the past decade developing thoughtful approaches to children's services - and has been more successful than many ministerial colleagues.

Most newspaper timelines jumped from Islington in 1992 to 2003, when Mrs Hodge was made children's minister. Yet as early years minister from 1998-2001 she achieved free nursery education for all, something originally promised by Margaret Thatcher 25 years before. Her foundation curriculum struck a sensible balance between social and educational skills.

And her promotion of all-in creches and nursery education in opposition became the model for Sure Start, the health and education programme for disadvantaged toddlers and their parents, which is generally acknowledged as a real success.

Within the Department for Education and Employment, she pulled off the tricky task of merging the education people in nursery education with their employment colleagues in childcare. All this bodes well for her new job.

Margaret Hodge was too ready to believe her senior social services staff in Islington over individual social workers. She was wrong to attack the Evening Standard for uncovering the child abuse scandal. And an experiment with neighbourhood offices, designed to bring the council closer to residents, was unwise in social services.

But she has since gained a credible reputation as a champion of younger children's education and care. And she should be judged as much on her record as a minister as on her leadership in Islington.

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