A tale of suspect spies and secret stairways

October 11, 2002

The Institute of Education has had a lively 100 years. Huw Richards spoke to its biographer about some memorable moments and the struggle to establish a discipline's credibility.

Sir John Adams is set to inspire envy in many senior academics who find the time to read Richard Aldrich's centenary history of the Institute of Education. Not for the knighthood, or the singular opportunity he was given as first principal of what in 1902 was called the London Day Training College, but for the facility he enjoyed once the LDTC moved to Southampton Row in 1907. Aldrich writes: "Adams, who felt that the proximity of the principal's room to the entrance made him too vulnerable to casual callers, had a small, secret staircase made, which corkscrewed down to the caretaker's room. When the caretaker spotted an unwelcome visitor he gave a prearranged signal 'and while the visitor went up one staircase, Adams went down another'".

Aldrich, professor of the history of education at the institute, was hoping not to need a similar escape route when his colleagues saw the book, published last week to coincide with the centenary on October 6. The role of the institutional biographer is a tough one. He says he found the job "more challenging than anything else I have written. It made me think harder about the mechanics of writing than ever before."

Not the least of the challenges, when you have been a prominent figure at the institution for nearly one-third of the period under study, is how personal to make it. Aldrich has chosen to efface himself and others who may have hoped to see some mention of themselves in the 259 pages. He says:

"While most early members of staff, from when this was a small institution, are mentioned, the institute has grown to a point where that is impossible. There are now 440 of us." He adds that it is easier to deal with the dead in an objective manner.

If a tough job, Aldrich leaves no doubt that it was an enjoyable one - and one in which he had several advantages. His is the first comprehensive history of the institution. He records then director George Jeffery's disappointment at the failure to mark the 50th anniversary in 1952 with a proper history - instead a series of lectures and a book of reminiscences by former staff and students had to suffice, while a 1986 history by former institute secretary Willis Dixon covers only 40 years and is heavily administrative in its emphasis.

The book was planned years in advance and a committee chaired by Aldrich was set up. It gave him time to exploit the institute's archives and to uncover a history rich in anecdote. Along with the secret staircase, he recounts the tale of the lecturer suspected of being a Nazi spy; a proposal, before somebody checked the acronym, to rename the institute the London Institute of Educational Studies; and a lecture on health education during which "a felt representation of the male member was observed slowly to curl over and drop off the board".

His own personal favourite, recapturing the atmosphere of the intimidating Senior Common Room he himself joined, is of a new lecturer confessing to feeling as though he was "sitting in a first-class railway carriage with a second-class ticket", and being told, "don't worry, we've all got second-class tickets".

One reason for such a feeling is that the institute has attracted an unmatched procession of academic education's great and good, starting with Adams and a remarkable set of early appointees who dominated the institute well into the interwar years. Aldrich confesses to particular affection for Sir Percy Nunn (principal from 1922-36), who combined the theory expressed in several hugely influential texts with practical skills that led him to be credited with the ability to "teach calculus to a class of whelks", became entangled with his own sword while being knighted and was reckoned personally to have donated around a quarter of the library's stock.

He can point to numerous staff members whose work has been profoundly influential. For instance, the institute incubated both Cyril Burt's work on intelligence quotients, which provided the essential underpinning for academic selection, and Philip Vernon's postwar studies, which demolished the credibility of IQ as a selection criterion.

Yet the institute has not automatically been recognised as one of our great centres of learning. Aldrich points to a number of reasons for this, in particular institutional instability: it has had three different sites and its institutional relationships - to the University of London, to London and its local government, to national government - have changed several times. From 1949 to the early 1970s it was an Area Training Organisation, incorporating more than 30 training colleges in the London area.

It has complained consistently of under-resourcing. Aldrich acknowledges this as an endemic academic grievance, but points out that alumni are unlikely to have huge earnings and, since they are mainly postgraduates, are more likely anyway to give money to the university where they did their undergraduate degrees.

This has been compounded by education's equivocal academic status. "It was recognised late and has never had the status it has enjoyed somewhere like Germany. Part of the problem is that where it is obvious that there is a discrete, specialised body of knowledge relating to something like physics, a lot of people in universities think they know something about education."

The oldest universities were particularly slow - the institute had appointed 49 people to chairs in education before Oxford managed its first.

And in the past 20 years in particular, the preparation of teachers has become a political football, with the institute frequently kicked by the rightwing press and morale damaged as a result. Responses have varied according to individual directorial styles, with Peter Mortimore (director 1994-2000) replying combatively in the press to slurs on the institute, its staff and standards.

Yet Aldrich makes a compelling case for an institution he regards with evident affection - pointing to a flow of grateful and gifted alumni and a productive research culture.

He expects to see both functions continued against possible pressures to specialise. "The extent to which initial training and research flow into each other is so obvious that it would be absurd to split them," he says. Aldrich himself has reached retirement age, but has stayed on for the first two terms of the current academic year, in part to assist with the centenary celebrations. He plans to exit via the main, public staircase.

The Institute of Education 1902-2002: A Centenary History by Richard Aldrich is published by the Institute of Education, £22.50.

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