Geoff Whitty obituary | Education

My friend and colleague Geoff Whitty, who has died aged 71, was one of the world’s leading sociologists of education. His early reputation was made in the 1970s and early 80s, when he subjected to examination official views about knowledge and the curriculum. It was a heady time: he collaborated with his friend Michael Young in debating the central question of what should be taught in schools.

In contrast to the prevailing view that inequality was largely a matter of social class, Geoff and Michael argued that schools were reproducing and exacerbating inequalities. They opened a new field in the sociology of education in the UK, in which schools were seen as an important area for research.

As awareness developed of other forms of inequality, related to gender, ethnicity and learning difficulties, researchers in these areas found the doors to the school had been unlocked. Together, Geoff and Michael edited Explorations in the Politics of School Knowledge (1976) and Society, State and Schooling (1977).

Geoff went on to examine the effects of government policy and more recently turned his attention to the nature of educational policymaking. He advised the Commons education committee and sought to show that to achieve greater social justice required changes to all levels of education, from the classroom through to national policy.

Geoff was born in Mortlake, south-west London, son of Kathleen and Frederick Whitty, both teachers, and was educated at Latymer Upper school, west London, and St John’s College, Cambridge. He met Young in 1968 while studying for a PGCE qualification as a history teacher at the Institute of Education in London. After posts in secondary schools, Geoff began his lecturing career in 1973 at the University of Bath; this was the start of a longstanding relationship, which later included a visiting chair in the department of education and then a chair in the school of management.

From Bath he launched a stellar career: in 1992 he was appointed to the Karl Mannheim chair in the sociology of education at the Institute of Education, and in 2000 became its director, leading what many consider the world’s top educational institute.

Geoff established strong roots in China, Australia and the US, and he developed networks across many other countries. It seemed that he knew everyone, from those just entering the profession to the most senior. I had known him since 1986, as a fellow sociologist of education, and, more closely, as a friend, when I was appointed to Bath from New Zealand in 1996. Although he loved football, socialised at concerts and exhibitions, and enjoyed travelling, work and scholarship were everything to him.

Geoff is survived by his second wife, Marilyn (nee Toft), whom he married in 1989, and their daughter, Natalie; by two children, Alison and Patrick, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; and by his grandchildren, Luke and Toby.

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