Obituary: Professor Ronald Gulliford
Tuesday 23 December 1997
Ronald Gulliford was for 35 years a luminary of the Department of Education at Birmingham University and from 1975 until 1986 its Professor of Special Education. It would be difficult to overstate his influence on the academic study of educational needs and on the whole field of special education in Britain.
Developing from the pioneering research and theory in the field of child psychology and child development earlier in the century of people such as A. Gesell, Susan Isaacs, C. Burt and F.J. Schonell, his work has found wide practical application. He would not have considered himself a successful man, however, or even have thought about success. He was concerned with himself not at all, but with children, especially those by chance or accident handicapped or limited; with education and development; with improvement and betterment.
At the time of his appointment as Lecturer in 1951, the Birmingham Department of Education, under Edwin Peel, expanding and ready to be adventurous, was building up Educational Psychology. Gulliford was promoted to a Senior Lectureship in 1965, and 10 years later appointed to a new Chair for Special Education, the first such Chair in England. By this time he was known not only in Britain but widely in the world, for his stints as Dean of the Faculty of Education at Birmingham, his Presidency of the Association for Special Education 1962-64, for his training programmes for Commonwealth and foreign teachers, and for his chairmanship of the Education Advisory Committee of Central Television.
In 1973 the Minister for Education, Margaret Thatcher, had asked him to serve on a committee of enquiry "into the education of children and young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind", under the chairmanship of Mary Warnock. The brief was broad and the subject full of complexity and wide-ranging enquiry. And it was not until March 1978 that the report was published, under the changed title "Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Special Education". Gulliford had a considerable but characteristically temperate and helpful influence in widening the scope and focusing the vision of the committee.
He was born in 1920, the second son of a blacksmith originally of Somerset mining stock. The family moved to Gloucester when Ronnie was four, his father working in the Gloucester Railway Wagon and Carriage Company. His son inherited from him a liberal and progressive cast of mind, love of learning and merry humour. He was lucky in his schooling at an excellent elementary school (Calton Road) and then on a scholarship at the Crypt School. He acted in school plays - I remember a thoughtful, wondering Miranda; wrote poetry, debated, played the piano, including some zippy jazz, founded in the sixth form what he called wryly, tongue in cheek, the first Gloucester Group of Communist Intellectuals, and played in the first XV and XI. He was from an early age a keen naturalist and hill walker, and a music lover. In his private reading he ventured into philosophy, sociology, psychology, and modern art, and used to get his close friends to venture with him. Yet there was nothing precious, swottish or pretentious about him.
Unfortunately, despite the urging of the headmaster, his parents felt that they would not be able to support him at university, although he would almost certainly have won a scholarship. It was well before the time of readily available grants. So in 1939 he enrolled at Saltley Training College for Teachers in Birmingham for the two-year Teaching Certificate, on a loan of pounds 200 a year from Gloucester Education Committee. Thus his connection with Birmingham and the foundation of his career began.
As a member of the Peace Pledge Union, when the Second World War came, he registered as a conscientious objector and was directed into teaching. While teaching full-time at Maidstone and then St Albans, he enrolled at Birkbeck College and gained his BA in Psychology. In 1948, still teaching, he took unpaid leave and took the diploma course in Educational Psychology at Birmingham University. He was appointed Educational Psychologist for Bolton Education Committee in 1949. Two years later, Birmingham called him back to be a Lecturer in Education.
There was a fine consistency and completeness in his professional life, and he must have known how much he was appreciated, admired and liked. He had a wide and devoted following. Like the magnet which attracts and draws things towards itself simply by being itself, Gulliford attracted people by his simplicity, his unpretentiousness, his quiet, serious involvement in all he did and all he worked for and worked with, as well as by his vision and sense of purpose. His achievement was the result of deep commitment, sense of purpose, love of the work and of course resolute unremitting industry, all done with seriousness but no solemnity.
But fate struck him two terrible blows. It took away his loved wife, Alison, before he was 50; she was killed by a severe fall on ice at the skating rink to which she had taken one of the children. Ronnie Gulliford did not remarry, and wonderfully managed to sustain the family of four children. Two of them followed him in psychology, one is in medicine and one a research chemist in Australia. The three in England were able to be with him in the last few peaceful hours after fate had left him for many months stranded with Alzheimer's disease.
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