Professor Lionel Elvin

Principal of Ruskin College and Director of the Institute of Education, London University

Lionel Elvin enjoyed one of the most distinguished and varied careers in education of the 20th century, serving as Principal of Ruskin College, 1944-50, as Director of the Department of Education at Unesco in Paris, 1950- 56, and then from 1958 until his retirement in 1973 as Director of the Institute of Education at London University.

Herbert Lionel Elvin, educationist: born Buckhurst Hill, Essex 7 August 1905; Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge 1930-44, Honorary Fellow 1980; Principal, Ruskin College, Oxford 1944-50; Director, Department of Education, Unesco 1950-56; Professor of Education in Tropical Areas, Institute of Education, London University 1956-58, Director 1958-73, Emeritus Professor of Education 1973-2005, Honorary Fellow 1993; married 1934 Mona Bedortha (died 1997; one son); died Cambridge 14 June 2005.

Lionel Elvin enjoyed one of the most distinguished and varied careers in education of the 20th century, serving as Principal of Ruskin College, 1944-50, as Director of the Department of Education at Unesco in Paris, 1950- 56, and then from 1958 until his retirement in 1973 as Director of the Institute of Education at London University.

Born Herbert Lionel Elvin at Buckhurst Hill, Essex, in 1905, he was educated at elementary schools and Southend High School. In 1924, with the aid of a scholarship, he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, achieving first class honours in English and History. He also became President of the Union and represented the university in the half-mile against Oxford in 1927. After a two-year Commonwealth Fund Fellowship at Yale, in 1930 he returned to Trinity Hall as the college's first Fellow with responsibility for the teaching of English. Elvin's interest in education was broadened by membership of the Town Council and by the work of Henry Morris, chief education officer for Cambridgeshire, who was the creator of "village colleges" in the county. Elvin was also active in the Workers' Educational Association and served as Treasurer of its Eastern District.

His Second World War service was in the Air Ministry and in the American Division of the Ministry of Information, but in 1944 he moved to a very different environment with his appointment as Principal of Ruskin College, Oxford. His chief rival for the post was Richard Crossman. In his autobiography, Encounters with Education (1987), Elvin, who had stood unsuccessfully as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Cambridge University in the election of 1935, recorded, "I do not think any five years in my career were more enjoyable than those I spent in Ruskin."

He was firmly committed to the college, with whose political, social and educational policies he was fully in accord. As Principal of Ruskin, Elvin gained an even broader experience of education and many important contacts through his appointment to a number of national bodies, including the National Advisory Council for Education, the Secondary Schools Examinations Council and the University Grants Committee.

In 1950 he made another change of direction to become Director of the Unesco Department of Education, based in Paris. "Fundamental Education" was the major theme of the period and Elvin gained a considerable acquaintance with the educational problems of Third World countries. In 1956 he returned to England as Professor of Education in Tropical Areas at London University's Institute of Education.

Two years later, following the death in post of G.B. Jeffery, Elvin was appointed Director of the institute. He retired in 1973 with the title of Emeritus Professor. Elvin, who served on the Robbins Committee on Higher Education which reported in 1963, was a staunch defender of the expansion of higher education and of the independence of the colleges of education. At this time the Institute of Education comprised not only the "Central" Institute, but also a "Wider" Institute or Area Training Organisation (ATO) of some 30 colleges established in accordance with the recommendation of the McNair Report of 1944.

Elvin was thus head of an organisation which was training one-quarter of all the teachers in England. The Central Institute attained a peak of power and prestige at this time, both at home and overseas, and Elvin's colleagues included such notable figures as Basil Bernstein in Sociology and Richard Peters in Philosophy.

In the 1960s expansion was in the air and Elvin played a crucial role in securing a new building for the Institute of Education in Bedford Way and in overseeing the introduction of the BEd degree. Nevertheless, although Elvin's wide experience and innumerable contacts within the world of education made him uniquely fitted for the post of director, expansion was to be followed by contraction. A sharp downturn in projections for the numbers of teachers meant that by the 1970s many of the associated colleges were in crisis. His successor, William Taylor, would oversee the ending of the ATO.

Elvin was a tireless worker who was active in numerous causes, for example as president of the English New Education Fellowship and of the Council for Education in World Citizenship and as chairman of the Commonwealth Education Liaison Committee. His publications included Men of America (1941), An Introduction to the Study of Literature (Poetry) (1949), Education and Contemporary Society (1965), and The Place of Commonsense in Educational Thought (1977).

Lionel Elvin was a man of the left, a radical and a "non-Christian"; his adherence to his principles led him to refuse numerous honours, although he did accept the honorary fellowships awarded to him by Trinity Hall and the Institute of Education. A person of great charm and modesty (his Who's Who entry included under recreations "most games indifferently"), Elvin visited the United States on numerous occasions, but his final years were spent at his home in Bulstrode Gardens, Cambridge.

Richard Aldrich

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