George Hodgson (Class of 1999)
George left City of London School in 1999 and, after studying at Oxford, joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2002. He has had postings to Kabul, Brussels, Islamabad and Washington and achieved a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University. Since 2015, he has been British ambassador to Senegal.
What does being British Ambassador to Senegal involve?
I look after the relationship between our two countries. It goes beyond government-to-government relations – it’s about the whole of what the UK can offer Senegal and vice versa.
This is actually my last week in post, so I have paid a farewell call on the President and the Foreign Minister. We’ve organised a cricket event for a special school in Dakar which works with street children, to mark the ICC Cricket World Cup. ‘ve made a brief trip to Guinea Bissau – to which I am also Ambassador. It’s not a country that often hits the headlines in the UK but as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have an important role in helping to bring stability there.
We’re also, screening the film ‘A Private War’, about the journalist Marie Colvin, to highlight the importance of media freedom, a priority for the Foreign Secretary.
You have been in Senegal for four years. What have been the key themes of your work?
Our relationship with Senegal has grown a lot. The UK will soon be the biggest international investor in the country. Promoting investment in Africa is really important because through that you create jobs and growth in both the UK and Africa. We want to see our African partners like Senegal succeed, and to create opportunities for British companies in the process.
More generally, beyond Senegal, the Sahel region presents a growing number of threats – terrorism, organised crime and issues around irregular migration – so the job has grown a lot over the last four years as the UK does more to respond to those problems.
Would you say the British public doesn’t understand our relationship with Africa?
It’s an interesting question. We, the government, need to do a better job of communicating what we are doing overseas; whether it’s political engagement or economic work or development. But I think it is true that the public perception of Africa is a bit outdated. We need to view Africa as a place that really matters, where the UKhas a tremendous set of relationships, and a long – if sometimes complicated – history. There are all sorts of things in our favour in Africa and we need to press harder to make the most of the opportunities here, because others are hustling!
At what age were you were inspired to go into this area of work?
One important thing I got at CLS was a sense of how London was connected to the wider world. The School brought together all sorts of people from different backgrounds, from all over the world. So I think that inspired a certain curiosity in me – as did London more generally, as a connected, global city.
What are your first memories of going to City of London School?
I was lucky. I went to an ordinary primary school in Tower Hamlets and there were a couple of teachers in particular who were keen for the kids to be able to do their best. A couple of boys a few years above me had been to CLS, so I wasn’t the first.
My mum worked in education; my dad was a painter and taught at art school. They were keen for my sister and me to go to good schools. I took the exams and fortunately it all came together and I got a scholarship.
I went to City at 11. I guess I felt all the usual new school things – lots of big kids, feeling very small – but I immediately felt welcomed. From the very start, I knew it was serious and that we were going to work hard. It felt like there was a real drive for the boys to do their best and I quite quickly worked out that I could be part of that and I liked that.
I always felt it was an inclusive school – there was a range of social backgrounds from the most modest to the most privileged, but I never felt that was an issue. The school taught us how to get on with different people from different backgrounds. I think it gave us a sense of confidence but not entitlement.
Which teachers most inspired you?
We had a lot of inspiring teachers. I’ll always be grateful to Peter Allwright, who is still at the school. For those of us who were interested, he would lead an additional French class after School. He berated us, rightly, for not working hard enough. I’m married to a French woman now – French came in handy. I wrote to him later to thank him for changing my life! In Senegal, I do all my work in French and that all goes back to learning French at School.
Which extra-curricular activities did you do?
CCF was a fantastic opportunity. I found it quite liberating to go off and do things you wouldn’t otherwise do and be given quite a lot of responsibility. I enjoyed all the camps the military side of it and the outward-bound stuff – we went off to walk in the Pyrenees for a couple of weeks which was fantastic. And opportunities to fly a plane when you were 16 or 17 – that was very cool.
I played sport enthusiastically but badly. Rugby, cricket, swimming, squash, badminton tennis – I liked how you could try different things. Going to play tennis at Queen’s Club was fantastic.
What was your first experience of work?
I worked throughout school – I worked at the flower market in Columbia Road on Sunday mornings, selling cakes, doughnuts and ice creams, from when I was 12 or 13. You’d start at 6 in the morning and work though until late lunchtime so it was quite tiring and sometimes it was cold and rainy but I enjoyed meeting people and selling things and being part of the buzz of the market.
Which A levels did you do?
Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Economics. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after school, so I did science A-levels because I thought they would help me keep my options open. Then I went to Oxford and read Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
While I was at university, I travelled to India and saw people working for the British government. I liked the idea of doing something similar. So I sat the exams for the Foreign Office and it came off.
Your first overseas posting was to Afghanistan: what was that like?
Kabul was a fantastic place. It wasn’t long after the fall of the Taliban – it was exciting as a professional experience but also, culturally, Afghanistan is an incredible place. Kabul is surrounded by mountains and despite decades of war, you still had these tremendous historic places, like Babur’s Garden built by one of the Mughal emperors, and the Old City. The history was palpable.
What personal qualities should current pupils develop if they want to follow in your footsteps?
Curiosity. A desire to get out and see and do things. It’s about establishing yourself in a culture and really getting to understand it and know the people and work how to get things done, whilst also having a very clear idea of UK interests.
It’s quite entrepreneurial: looking for opportunities and making the most of them. You are given broad guidelines on what you need to achieve but ultimately a lot of it is down to you and your team deciding what to do and how to do it, and how to prioritise. That is very empowering.