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Geoff Whitty – an appreciation

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 29 July 2018

It is with deep sadness that we relay the news that Geoff Whitty, Director Emeritus of the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), has died.  He passed away peacefully on Friday.  Here we celebrate his life and work.
Just earlier this month we held an event in honour of Geoff, to mark his 50-year association with the IOE.  Geoff commenced his teacher training at the IOE in 1968, subsequently publishing with IOE colleagues and then himself taking up an academic post here; some thirty-two years on from being an IOE student he would take the helm as Director.  You can watch or listen back to the event here.  It was a wonderful occasion, which Geoff enjoyed immensely, and provided a fitting tribute to his considerable contribution to the world of education.  The capacity crowd, full of friends and colleagues from across Geoff’s life, was testament to the esteem and affection in which he was held.  He will be sorely missed.


Geoff’s career was defined by a profound concern for equity in education.  He balanced an illustrious academic career with influential leadership roles in higher education, in each working to further social justice.  This path was set in the 1960s when he volunteered to teach immigrant children in London.  Contemporary political debate emphasises ‘social mobility’, ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘social justice’; as policy makers and influencers struggle to translate these ideas into practical policies and reality, they rely hugely either overtly or tacitly on Geoff’s writings and wider contributions. 

Born in 1946, Geoff was educated at Latymer Upper School, London, and graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge.  Following his time as a temporary teacher at Belmont Primary School in Chiswick, Geoff completed his PGCE at the IOE and went on to teach at Lampton School in Hounslow and Thomas Bennett School in Crawley.  From there he moved to the University of Bath as a teacher trainer.  He subsequently held academic posts at the OU, King’s College London, Bristol Polytechnic, Goldsmiths College and the IOE as Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education, building an impressive body of scholarship in the sociology of education and critical policy studies.  Of his many leadership roles in higher education perhaps the most notable is his time as Director of the IOE, a post he held from 2000 to 2010.  Following his retirement as Director Geoff went on to posts at the universities of Bath, Bath Spa, and Newcastle, Australia.

An important message in his scholarship was the inequities of treating all pupils equally.  This is something he demonstrated powerfully in his work on the sociology of curricula from the 1970s, which highlighted how pupils from different backgrounds needed different approaches if they were all to engage with ‘powerful knowledge’.  That work remains as relevant today as it was then, and just last year his 1985 book, Sociology and School Knowledge was re-issued by Routledge.  The paradox of the inequities of equal treatment came through just as vividly in his work on school improvement and wider education reforms, drawing out as it did the dynamics of and interdependencies between middle-class advantage and working class disadvantage in education.  He explored these themes in publications including Society, State and Schooling (with Michael Young, 1977), The State and Private Education (with Tony Edwards and John Fitz, 1989), Devolution and Choice in Education (with Sally Power and David Halpin, 1998), Making Sense of Education Policy (2002), and Education and the Middle Class (with Sally Power, Tony Edwards and Valerie Wigfall, 2003), many of which have been translated into numerous other languages, as well as in his recent work on fair access to higher education.

Another significant strand in his scholarship was his collaboration during the 1980s with Peter Aggleton on educating about sex, sexuality and HIV.  That work would support the design and roll-out of new approaches to sex education that both de-stigmatised HIV and HIV education and empowered young people to protect their health.  To this day, it influences the taken-for granted assumptions of international agencies such as the WHO and UNESCO.  Most recently, Geoff’s work explored the relationship between education research and policy-making in education (Research and Policy in Education, 2016) and education as a discipline (Knowledge and the Study of Education, with John Furlong, 2017).  In this he was an important champion of retaining a broad church of education research in the face of ideological and funding pressures that would narrow its remit to the misleadingly simplistic task of identifying ‘what works’.

As an institutional leader Geoff is widely credited with taking the IOE to new heights in terms of its local, national and international standing, setting it on its path to be recognised as the world’s leading school of education.  By the end of his directorship the IOE was unique among faculties of education in its size and reach, and unparalleled in its work with education systems at home and overseas.  In 2007 the IOE gained the power to award its own degrees (having previously awarded University of London degrees), and in 2008 produced an outstanding performance in the national assessment of universities’ research activity, the then Research Assessment Exercise.  By this time the IOE was the largest and most esteemed provider of postgraduate initial teacher education nationally, accounted for nearly a third of all UK research funding in education, and was one of the top-four universities for receipt of social science research funding.  Sat behind these headlines was work at the very forefront of education and related areas of social science that continues to shape these fields.  But amidst all these achievements, Geoff will be remembered for the kind of leader he was – principled, loyal, utterly committed to the IOE and its staff, demanding of the best from colleagues, and in the process always generous, inclusive, fair.  These attributes also characterised him as a research leader and his support for colleagues at all career stages. 

His service to education went much wider, with contributions to the work of, among others, research councils, funding councils, and bodies representing teachers and teacher education.  He served as President of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and of the College of Teachers, and as a Board member of Ofsted.  He was Specialist Advisor to successive House of Commons Education Select Committees, one outcome of which was the re-writing of national school admissions policy in order to facilitate fairer access for children of all backgrounds.  With the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland he developed innovative new teacher standards that supported a more holistic model of teacher professionalism.  Later on he would help lay the groundwork for the introduction of Teach First in England, and serve as a sounding board for those who worked on the transformative London Challenge programme.  His review of school councils for the government would help schools harness the benefits of vehicles for pupil voice, while, as Chair of the Bristol Education Partnership Board, he would help build improvement in Bristol’s school system. Always international as well as collaborative in his outlook, Geoff was instrumental in establishing the International Network of Educational Institutes, a global think-tank created to bring a global perspective to issues in education, and the World Education Research Association, an alliance of major associations dedicated to advancing education research. 

His contributions and achievements have been recognised in numerous prestigious awards and visiting professorships.  Most recently these include the BERA John Nisbet Fellowship Award, fellowship of the American Educational Research Association and of the Society for Educational Studies, and, in 2011, a CBE for services to teacher education.  In 2009 he received the Lady Plowden Memorial Medal for outstanding services to education.  He was admitted as an academician of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2002, and held visiting professorships at the universities of Bath, Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Oxford, Beijing Normal and Wisconsin-Madison.  He held honorary degrees and fellowships from the University of the West of England, University of London, Hong Kong Institute of Education, UCL and the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Geoff was a major figure in the field of education – as an academic, through his work on policy, through his engagement ‘on the ground’ with education practitioners and school systems, and as an institutional leader.  His influence has been profound, driven by his early experience of teaching in disadvantaged communities, and based in his pursuit of the insights that sociological analysis can bring.  His scholarship opened up the ‘black box’ of educational inequalities.  This was for the good of policy and practice, but also, and perhaps just as importantly for Geoff, for individuals seeking to make sense of their own experiences.  As a colleague and friend he will be deeply missed, but he leaves behind both an important legacy and a hugely valuable resource for those who continue in the task of shaping fairer and more inclusive education systems.

Emma Wisby
Picture caption: Geoff with his IOE Director’s portrait in 2007, painted by Trinidad Ball FPS.

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2 Responses to “Geoff Whitty – an appreciation”

  • 1
    Toni wrote on 29 July 2018:

    Dear Geoff was always generous with his wisdom and warmth. His esteemed work in educational research and leadership have made a marked difference, especially to help create fairer education for those from all background. His work will continue to inform the future and guide others. He will be much missed. Toni Fazaeli

  • 2
    Glen James Allen wrote on 31 July 2018:

    Geoff would always be seen smiling and he was very approachable at all times. I remember his talks and lectures well at the IOE and he would be seen at all times motivating others. There was a wonderful event that he hosted at the IOE and he had asked the Music Department to perform some pieces of music, which we enjoyed performing at. He did such wonderful work for the world of education.