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IOE at 120: Empire, decolonisation, modernisation and dislocation – 1952-1962

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 June 2022

Beryl Gilroy with her pupils; she was given an honorary fellowship in 2000

Beryl Gilroy at Beckford primary school in north London in 1971. Photograph: Beryl Gilroy Estate

This blog is the sixth in a series of 12 exploring each decade in IOE’s history in the context of the education and society of the times. Find out more about our 120th anniversary celebrations on our website, and follow us on TwitterInstagramFacebook and LinkedIn to keep up with everything that’s happening.

Elaine Unterhalter.

Many historical strands weave through the 1950s, but the end of Empire and grappling with what colonial education and decolonisation entailed were key themes at IOE.

Understanding the 1950s at IOE requires trying to bring together two threads: inclusive education for modernising societies and the relationships of colonialism, built on economic and political dispossession associated with slavery, land seizure, economic exploitation, racial discrimination and cultural hierarchy.

The involvement of IOE with Britain’s colonial projects stretches back to the 1920s. A Colonial Department was formally established in 1927, aiming to train teachers and support education policy work for the Colonial Office. In 1952, as part of a series of lectures organised to mark the Golden Jubilee anniversary of IOE, Sir Christopher Cox, educational adviser to the Colonial Office, delivered a lecture celebrating the ‘increasing importance’ of the Institute’s involvement with colonial education ‘guiding and helping Colonial peoples to stand on their own feet’. This mix of policy engagement and professional training drew in cross-disciplinary links with the London School of Economics, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and School of Oriental and African Studies. The orientation mixed assumptions about the authority of  knowledge  associated with modernising ideas and the politics of Empire.

Under Fred Clarke (Director from 1936-45), this engagement took a particular internationalist form, connecting IOE with international organisations and colonial education projects. Clarke articulated founding ideas regarding the rationale for the Commonwealth which he believed should be based on ‘not so much a unitary political structure, as that whole philosophy of life, culture and social order which, with its roots and historical origins in these islands, has now re-rooted itself and grown to maturity in distant lands’. Clarke influenced the IOE’s inclusive and modernising strand of thinking, as well as the internationalising orientation this took. He played an influential role both in the early years of UNESCO and in the thinking about education associated with the Commonwealth as former British colonies became independent.

The life and  work of Margaret Read (1889-1991), Professor in the Department of Education in Tropical Areas (established in 1952 as a rebranding of IOE’s Colonial Department) expresses some of the tensions between the two threads. Her ideas about education centred on her view that education entailed ‘a process of cultural contact’. Her writings on education and culture do note hierarchies between cultures, but she is  confident, drawing on ideas of Clarke, that detailed research into the history of colonial education in Africa will highlight achievements associated with adaptation and modernisation in terms of increasing literacy, economic development and political participation.

She delineated six stages of cultural contact associated with colonial education in Africa which she saw as moving through a phase of local resistance and rejection, on to an awareness among colonized people of education opportunities, selective adoption of elements of modern and traditional cultures, and then a formulation of a form of education ‘home rule’. Her analysis rests on a confident modernist assumption that delineation of the problems in education will yield solutions. She concludes a chapter in her 1955 book Education and Social Change in Tropical Areas: ‘Ideological warfare, which is so characteristic of the present age, makes it imperative to be more aware of these educational problems and to devise adequate means for their solution.

What is striking reading Read’s work 70 years after it was published, is the way in which the education system is linked with attempts to build order – economic, political, aesthetic, empirical. Much that has been distinctive about Education and International Development as a field of enquiry at IOE has its roots in her analysis. But it is also striking what she does not talk about – the dislocations associated with the impositions of particular languages, the epistemic exclusions with regard to colonial policy making, how the experiences of dispossession and legacies of slavery and war played out in how people were able to experience education and society, how they were treated, overlooked, silenced, or categorised.

We can counterpose Read’s confident account of education systems linked to order and modernisation in what she calls ‘British Africa’ with that of Beryl Gilroy, who came to the UK from Guyana in 1952, as an experienced and well qualified teacher. Here, as recounted In her book, Black Teacher (1976), she encountered exclusion, racism, a demeaning of women’s bodies, and lack of recognition of her knowledge and insight. She had come to London excited to learn about new techniques in education linked to child development, but

…when it was time to take off my student’s scarf and try to be a teacher… all was frustration. As the months went by, my applications for a teaching post in an infants’ school became ‘the matter’. Time and again I was told ‘the matter’ was being considered. The fact was that, as a Guyanese, I simply could not get a teaching job.

It was only in the 1960s that she was able to get a job teaching in a London school, where many of the white children expressed the racist ideas of their parents. She recounts the abusive, hurtful comments of other women about her body, defining and demeaning her. Her work over decades, as a teacher, head teacher, writer, poet and broadcaster, was to recognise, document and serve the education rights of children, and also, as she wrote in 1998, ‘in the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight.’ Part of this record included documenting experiences both those coming to the UK from the Caribbean, and others, subject to forms of racism, noting the injustices and exclusions that needed to be confronted and changed. IOE made her an Honorary Fellow in 2000.

Margaret Read’s confident account and Beryl Gilroy’s critical account are both part of IOE’s history in the 1950s. The end of Empire and the establishment of cross national organisations like the Commonwealth and UNESCO centred on education, but did not yet give credence to the lived experience of racism and exclusion that Gilroy highlights. In trying to understand this history, working in the Centre for Education and International Devleopment (CEID) we have been trying  to deepen our research and teaching work in an attempt to confront and change inequalities and injustices, which remain braided In with the colonial past.

Education, decolonisation and international development at the Institute of Education (London): a historical analysis by Elaine Unterhalter and Laila Kadiwal is published this month in the London Review of Education 

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