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Celebrating Geoff Whitty’s contribution to education research

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 September 2020

Emma Wisby and Andrew Brown.

As Covid-19 was reaching its first peak towards the end of March, we were preparing to publish an edited collection in honour of one of the IOE’s former Directors, the late Professor Geoff Whitty: Knowledge, Policy and Practice in Education and the Struggle for Social Justice – Essays Inspired by the Work of Geoff Whitty. Our plans to celebrate the book by gathering together friends, colleagues and interested readers remain on hold. In the meantime, here we reflect on the project and how it builds on Geoff’s scholarship as one of the foremost sociologists of education of his generation.

Geoff conducted incisive and powerful research studies across the themes of knowledge, policy and practice in education.

He was also a prominent voice in examining the field of education studies itself and its relationship to policy and practice.  The collection takes inspiration from all those strands of Geoff’s work.  Our hope at the outset was that the publication would represent both a fitting tribute to Geoff and an important contribution to the literature in its own right. It was a tough assignment for the editors and contributors alike, having lost a colleague, friend and mentor in Geoff, but also a privilege to be involved with.

We were particularly pleased to include some more autobiographical chapters in the collection. This includes a contribution from Michael Young on the debate around ‘powerful knowledge’, in which he and Geoff were pivotal figures from the 1970s to the present day. With Michael as his MA tutor at the Institute of Education (IOE) in the early 1970s, this was the topic that precipitated Geoff’s move from secondary school teaching into teacher education and academia. Michael reflects on that journey and their ongoing dialogue on knowledge and the school curriculum over many decades.

Similarly, Peter Aggleton’s chapter charts his work with Geoff in the 1980s to bring educating about HIV/AIDS into the mainstream, in an inhospitable climate. To push against stigma, fear and prejudice in this way required courage and determination, and the results of those early efforts continue to inform the approach of international agencies to this day. From there, another longstanding colleague of Geoff’s, Michael Apple, presents case studies of local action in the US, showing how students as social activists have taken the lead in challenging narrow conceptions of what counts as worthwhile knowledge as well as structural barriers to accessing education. Apple notes Geoff’s approach of ‘hope without optimism’, to use Terry Eagleton’s phrase, and reflects on its enduring value to the cause of pursuing social justice. In line with Geoff’s international outlook, as well as contributions from the US and UK, the book includes chapters from Australia and China, these being the four education systems that Geoff had studied most closely. The chapter from Yan Fei examines notions of legitimate knowledge in the context of China, assessing the extent to which Western theories can be easily applied. Pushing the debate on knowledge further still, Deborah Youdell and Martin Lindley bring notions of ‘powerful’ and ‘legitimate’ knowledge to bear in making the case for biosocial perspectives in educational research.

On the theme of ‘policy’, the collection presents, from Stephen Ball and Richard Bowe, analysis of the legacy of over 40 years of neo-liberal education policy.  Ball and Bowe set out the evolution of modes of governance over this time and their impact on the schools system and teachers, drawing on Geoff’s commentary on their fragmenting effects. They pose the question of whether we have arrived at a new ‘post-neo-liberal’ phase and what the role of critical research can be in that context of high complexity. Two chapters start from Geoff’s analysis of the relationship between education research and policy. Hugh Lauder’s chapter offers an emergent analysis of the theoretical basis for education policy over the past four decades, focusing on markets in education, school improvement research and human capital theory. He takes the empirical evidence on all three to suggest that the neo-liberal paradigm is now a dying one, though he is necessarily more circumspect as to whether that evidence will re-shape policy. Bob Lingard looks to the contemporary themes of ‘datafication’, ‘fast policy making’ and ‘post-truth’ to assess the future prospects for policy making in education and the role of education research therein. Lingard is supportive of Geoff’s concern to maintain a broach church of education research, and sympathetic to his sense that pressures for research to be framed solely by current policy concerns, or the fashion for trials and systematic reviews, could narrow the field. He reflects on the additional pressures that are brought to bear in that regard by digital technology and globalisation. There are powerful contributions from David Gillborn and from Nicola Rollock on racial inequalities in our education system. Using Geoff’s notion of the ‘vulture’s eye view’, keeping structures and detail simultaneously in view, Gillborn examines the role of race within policymaking through biographical interviews with senior politicians. Paraphrasing Geoff’s 2005 BERA presidential address on the relationship between education research and policy and its question of ‘is conflict inevitable?’, Rollock looks to the experience of academics of colour and the adequacy, or not, of the higher education sector’s existing efforts to address racial inequalities and injustices. Sally Power and Tony Edwards take their work with Geoff on private schooling, to examine the evolving role of private schools as bastions of privilege.  They outline how, from the assisted places scheme to academy sponsorship, this sector has adapted to changing social and political sentiment whilst maintaining the benefits it confers on its alumni.

Chapters on practice include Sharon Gewirtz’s and Alan Cribb’s examination of the changing nature of teachers’ workplaces under the neo-liberal paradigm, contrasting different models of teacher professionalism and endorsing the richer, more humane model of teachers’ work as expressed in Geoff’s and others’ commentary on democratic professionalism. Towards the end of his career Geoff had focused once again on teacher practice and professional development. Jenny Gore’s chapter leads off from her work with Geoff at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales on trends in teacher professional development and their sense that many contemporary models have in fact been disempowering for teachers. Gore sets out what has proven to be a more emancipatory model of teacher professional learning, based on Quality Teaching Rounds.

Another strand of work for Geoff at Newcastle was as founder and co-director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education.  Co-director of that centre, Penny Jane Burke, uses her chapter to reflect on Geoff as a mentor earlier on in her career at the IOE and as a colleague at CEEHE working on access to higher education.  This work in particular seems to have encapsulated Geoff’s social justice motivations, seeking to address inequalities in access to (higher) education, what counts as ‘higher education’, and valuing the humanity in the role of the teacher. As Burke sets out, meeting such aims will require us to radically reframe approaches to widening participation.  We have included under the heading of practice the practice of education research itself.  One of Geoff’s final projects was his 2017 edited collection with John Furlong, Knowledge and the Study of Education, which presented the diversity of knowledge traditions and forms of research within the field around the world.  Furlong, another lifelong colleague of Geoff’s, closes our collection by looking across that diversity. In line with one of the defining features of Geoff’s work as an academic and as an institutional leader, Furlong makes the case for an inclusive conception of quality and impact in educational research (beyond randomized controlled trials) such that the contribution of the full spectrum of forms of research can be recognised.

We hope you enjoy the book and the additional contribution it makes to Geoff’s life’s work, the pursuit of social justice in and through education. Right now, we find ourselves amidst new challenges to that cause, but the theoretical and empirical insights from Geoff’ work remain as salient as ever.

To find out more about the book, and how to download it for free, go to https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/127616

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