Professor Geoff Whitty

August 7, 2018

Prof. Geoff Whitty

By Dr. Richard Collins FAcSS

Geoff Whitty died on 27 July 2018. He was an able and valued member of the Academy’s Audit and Risk Committee and was best known in academic and public life as Director of the University of London’s, latterly UCL’s, Institute of Education.

Geoff was born in 1946 in the suburban Middlesex memorialised in John Betjeman’s poems[1] – indeed the line in Betjeman’s Baker Street Buffet – “Cancer has killed him” is sadly to the point. Middlesex marked Geoff – he scaled one of the chief ladders of post-war meritocratic social mobility by winning a Middlesex county scholarship to what was then a Direct Grant school in Hammersmith – Latymer Upper School – and continued mobile and meritocratic with a scholarship (and student grant) to St John’s College, Cambridge. Geoff’s generation at Latymer was populated by an extraordinary range of talents – staff who in a later post-war world would undoubtedly have made distinguished university careers (as, indeed, a few later did) and boys (for then Latymer was a boys’ school) of remarkable, and remarkably varied, talents: Nick Stern, Alan Rickman, Andy Haines, Paul Millikin among them[2]. Geoff’s elder brother, Larry, is another case in point.

My own, six decades long, friendship with Geoff dated from our shorts and cap wearing shared Latymerian childhood. And Geoff’s lifelong scholarly and professional engagement with educational policy – how to mitigate social inequality and to enable people more fully to develop their competencies was rooted in the suburban childhood we shared. Ours was very much the world of the red electric train, Betjeman again, which daily took us from the semi-detached cultural deserts we inhabited nocturnally to school where we learned to think, and to think differently, in the company of an extraordinary cluster of varied youthful brains. Unlike Betjeman we hated the world of the “thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s” memorialised in his Middlesex[3], the claustrophobic conformity of our parents’ generation (the sources of their hunger for security we belatedly – too late – realised). Education was the glider which liberated us scholarship boys from suffocation by suburbia. And Geoff wanted, as his career testifies, to build a glider big enough for everyone. Class remained for him the key locus of social exclusion and injustice.

The meritocratic model which served us so well was, Geoff concluded, not a valid model: the glider wasn’t big enough, too much talent was excluded and wasted; too few people were able to realise their potential. Geoff knew that the ladder of social mobility which we climbed was more accessible than such ladders before or since. His work was a coming to terms with the meritocratic sifting that had provided us with lives better than we dreamed of but recognising that the institutional site that we enjoyed had changed, been changed, as county scholarships gave way to finance by the bank of Mama and Papa. Schools like ours have changed as the private school arms race testifies: an arms race which built ever lusher school gyms, theatres, pools and so on; engendered by competition not, as in our time, for the brightest but for the offspring of the wealthy who would never utter a ta or pardon but were very likely to condescend to the oiks who could not tell a nice entry level pinot noir from a nasty one. The meritocratic forcing house we had shared is and was thus no longer an accessible or viable policy model. Half involuntarily, half through choice, the temples of meritocracy have erected toll gates and now effectively exclude oikish boys such as we from the furthest reaches of the Middlesex semi-detached deserts. Alan Rickman’s – Geoff’s contemporary – speech at a Latymer speech day gets it nicely in a wonderfully acerbic, biting of the hand of the host who invited him, way (never a ta or pardon from him!): You are very privileged. That’s not a skill.  You are lucky to be here, too.  So take no credit for it – you are an accident of birth.  A chemical equation made of genetics and (unless you, too, are a scholarship student) your parents’ bank balance. See https://wordswithalan.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/prize-giving-2007-speech-by-guest-of-honour/

And so far, so familiar in contemporary educational policy. But what made Geoff different is that he never abandoned that which had made him. Merit was indeed merit. How to elicit it and endow all with it? Or if not all, at least more. The scholarly quality which gave his own academic professional practice its legitimacy and which commanded, demanded, attention even, especially, from those who did not share his commitment to fairness and inclusiveness had to figure in his vision of educational policy and practice.  Hence his return in his field work and comparative educational analysis to the locus of his own formation – Latymer – which became an element in his research material. Geoff’s grappling with what his colleagues at UCL/Institute of Education cogently described in an excellent obituary (see https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/29/geoff-whitty-an-appreciation/ ) as “The paradox of the inequities of equal treatment” ran through his work. And his life.

Latymer in the 50s and 60s was probably an extreme and unrepresentative case: the chance to share an educational world with the likes of Geoff Whitty, Nick Stern, Andy Haines and so on comes to few of us. But Geoff never let go of that experience (nor, as this obituary testifies, have I) and his passion for fairness in education, his life’s project both in scholarship and practice (teaching migrant children, in primary and comprehensive schools, with and for the medically stigmatised etc), was never for a glib flattening of outcomes and achievements but always about enabling people to do their best, be their best. As his education had done for him.

Not for us Betjeman’s solution of attachment to the marooned flotsam of rural Middlesex – both of us moved into as completely urban an environment as we could secure. But the world of the red electric train – on which Geoff will never ride again – irrevocably marked him. It gave him a respect for the excluded – for that is where scholarship boys came from and among whom they lived – but also a rejection of the disabilities and chosen markings of the excluded. Achieving merit, meritorious achievement, was an intrinsic and necessary part of ensuring that all could and would be saved (Geoff’s childhood home was Reformed Christian). Without that, securing equality of access to education would be empty. And so, in a small way, will the meetings of the Academy of Social Sciences’ Audit and Risk Committee henceforth feel. I, and we, will miss him: we will miss a taken for granted solid competence and good sense; we will miss the security of knowing that Geoff’s interventions were disinterested; we will miss witnessing, in recent times, his courage in carrying on carrying on whilst afflicted by Parkinson’s and renal and cerebral cancers; we will just miss Geoff.

[1] See, inter alia,  http://middlesexcountypress.com/?page_id=527

[2] Who were/are these people? The names are, of course, not wholly randomly selected but more than one such list could be constructed. Those named have been selected both for their celebrity and the variety of their achievements. Nick Stern is Lord Stern of Brentford, President of the British Academy, Chief Economist of the World Bank etc. Alan Rickman was a celebrated actor and film star. Sir Andrew Haines was Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Paul Millikin was a Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force and commander of the RAF’s Avro Vulcan display flight. Larry, Lord, Whitty was General Secretary of the Labour Party.

[3] In a wonderful paradox, Middlesex now no longer exists – only the cricket club remains! The world that shaped us has gone just as has the name which defined it.