100 years of women in FE and skills. An outsider at the heart of the establishment: Margaret Hodge
The latest FETL blog on the women who shaped further education in the UK considers the career of Dame Margaret Hodge, a ‘determined socialist’ and self-confessed ‘outsider’ who, as minister for further education, put access and equality at the heart of her agenda
Margaret Hodge’s story begins in Egypt, where she was born Margaret Eve Oppenheimer in 1944. Her father, Hans Oppenheimer, a German steel entrepreneur, moved to Alexandria in the 1930s to take over his uncle’s metals business. It was there he met and married Austrian-born émigré Lisbeth Hollitscher. As Jews, they were rendered stateless when the Second World War broke out. Unable to return home, they remained in Egypt for the duration for the war. After the war, Hodge’s father became increasingly concerned about the rise of antisemitism in the Arab world. When a rock was thrown through the window of their family home, he decided enough was enough. Requests to settle in the United States, Australia and Canada were turned down before Britain agreed to take them. It was a decision, Hodge remembers, for which her parents were ‘forever grateful’.
They moved to Orpington, London, in 1949, following a stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. One of Hodge’s first memories was of the taste of ‘overcooked cabbage and tasteless porridge’, those dismal staples of life in post-war Britain. The family soon settled and Hodge’s father started a new steel-trading company. British citizenship was not immediately forthcoming, however. Hodge recalls an inspector coming to tea and questioning her – over cucumber sandwiches and fruit cake, the most British things they could think to offer – about her friends, the games she played and the books she read. Britain was, then as now, in many respects a ‘hostile environment’ for those new to the country. British citizenship was finally won in 1954, but the sense of being an outsider stayed with Hodge. Even now, while she feels ‘deeply British, deeply European’, she remains, in her own words, ‘an outsider in the British establishment’.
By the time the family was awarded citizenship, Hodge’s mother was gravely ill with stomach cancer. Hodge was just 10 when she died. With her father struggling to cope alone, Hodge was sent to Oxford High School, a boarding school she quickly came to loathe. It was her first encounter with the British class system and was another formative influence on her politics. Oxford High was a direct grant grammar school, which meant that a proportion of places were funded by government, while the remainder were fee-paying. This meant that girls from working-class backgrounds learned alongside girls from wealthy, professional families. In practice, however, these children formed two discrete groups which had little to do with one another. Observing this as an outsider gave Hodge distaste for the class system, and helped make her a ‘determined socialist’. In 1960, aged 16, she went on her first Aldermaston march with CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Labour Party, she found, was the ‘natural home’ for immigrants, the party of ‘equality, equal rights and internationalism’.
Hodge won a place to study economics and political science at the London School of Economics. She enjoyed her time at university, but was, she later admitted, a ‘terrible student’ who did not take her academic work as seriously as she should have and left with a third-class degree. The ‘missed opportunity’ this came to represent for Hodge gave her a strong sense of the importance of giving people a fair chance at realising their potential, something that would be key to her political career, at both local and national level. After university, she worked at Unilever as an economist but her interest and involvement in community politics was growing. In 1973, while still pregnant with the second of her four children, Hodge was elected as a Labour councillor for the London Borough of Islington. She became chair of the housing committee within two years and oversaw an expansion in housing in the borough, as well as a programme of refurbishment of older buildings. She was appointed leader of the council in 1982, a position she would hold for the next 10 turbulent years. It was a high-profile role. The council was frequently attacked in parts of the press for what were seen as ‘loony left’ policies, though many, such as equal opportunities monitoring and workplace crèches, have since become the norm for local authorities and other organisations. While learning the hard way the costs and compromises of frontline political life, Hodge was also able to substantially increase funding for early years and pre-school education in the borough, a significant achievement that she would later replicate at national level. Listening to people and delivering on their priorities, she learned, was key to winning elections.
Hodge worked as a senior public sector consultant for Price Waterhouse from 1992 to 1994 before being elected Member of Parliament for Barking in a by-election in June 1994. Her committee work as an MP included a stint as chair of the Education and Employment Committee. Her first major ministerial role was as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Equal Opportunities in the Department for Education and Employment. She joined the department in 1998 at a moment when Labour was increasing investment in education across the board, and implementing parts of The Learning Age, David Blunkett’s ambitious Green Paper. She held the post for three years before being promoted to Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in June 2001.
This was an important role in a department charged with delivering Tony Blair’s promise to make ‘education, education, education’ the priority of his government. Hodge put access and equality of opportunity at the heart of her work. In higher education, she made widening access to higher education for working class young people a priority, criticising the poor intake among some elite institutions while also supporting Tony Blair’s controversial tuition fee policy. In further education, she oversaw substantial increases in funding for further education, as Labour began to roll out its ambitious Skills for Life initiative to improve the literacy and numeracy skills of 2.25 million adults in England by 2010. Improving adults’ basic skills was a key policy priority of the Blair government, a focus strengthened by the publication of the 1999 Moser report, which found that there were between 5 and 7 million functionally illiterate and innumerate adults in the UK.
In June 2003, Hodge was appointed Minister of State for Children, a newly created role that included responsibility for the new Sure Start scheme, early-years education and childcare, special educational needs, the Children and Young People’s Unit, teenage pregnancy, the Family Policy Unit, and child welfare. It was, she said at the time, her ‘dream job’, and it was one she set about with commitment and determination, turning the vision of Sure Start into reality for thousands of families. She substantially boosted investment in free childcare and advanced the government’s Every Child Matters agenda, which aimed to ‘to construct and build services around the needs of children and families’. The Sure Start programme resulted in a network of almost 4,000 children’s centres in England, offering not only childcare but also access to health, education, parenting and employability support. It represented an important and serious attempt to put families at the heart of communities and to develop holistic approaches to supporting them. It was also a very successful trial of a new, more integrated approach to policy-making in government; cross-sectoral, cross-departmental and joined-up.
In 2005, Hodge was moved to another new post, as Minister of State in the Department for Work and Pensions with primary responsibility for employment. Other ministerial posts followed, including Minster of State for Culture and Tourism, a role she held from June 2007 to May 2010, when Labour lost power. In the General Election, she comfortably fought off a challenge from Nick Griffin and the British National Party in her constituency – dubbed the ‘battle for Barking’ – doubling her majority to 16,555. In June 2010, Hodge became the first woman chair of the Public Accounts Committee. She brought a passionate commitment to tax justice to her new role, taking on giants such as Google, Amazon and Vodafone and putting tax avoidance on the political agenda. CEOs, bankers and ministers were subjected to her straight-talking, forensic questioning and analysis. ‘I think you do evil!’ she told a Google executive she tackled on tax avoidance. She held the role until 2015, when she announced she would not stand for re-election. She now runs an all-party group on tax-dodging.
Hodge became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in August 2015. She remains a respected and well-liked MP and an energetic and thoughtful contributor to public debate. Her calling out of antisemitism in the Labour party, and her outspoken criticism of its leader’s handling of the issue, has won her new friends and new enemies, within and outwith the party. The sudden death of her daughter-in-law when she was struck by a car in 2017 was a devastating blow to her family. She has coped with the loss, and the new childcare responsibilities it has brought, with typical courage. Hodge’s career has been characterized by a commitment to equality, social justice and inclusion, including in education, and she continues to address these issues with uncompromising frankness and determination, whether they are in fashion or not. It is perhaps her tenacious commitment to these causes, and her willingness to look across party lines in pursuing them, that keeps her on the outside of the establishment, where her sharp mind and critical voice can be of most use.