Obituary: Emeritus Professor Cliff Turney

21 March 2005

This is an edited version of the eulogy delivered by Emeritus Professor Ken Eltis at the memorial service to Cliff Turney.


Cliff Turney, in his inimitable way, made sure there was a telling reference we could consult for an authoritative account of his progress through life. Under the wonderful title Tales out of School he published his own Memoirs of an Educator and, not surprisingly, the endpapers show the institution he served so well, the University of Sydney.


In 1994 Cliff was made Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney, and shortly before Christmas in 2003 I had the honour of reading, in the Great Hall of the University, the citation for his Honorary Doctor of Letters.


It began as follows: “Emeritus Professor Cliff Turney is acknowledged as one of Australia’s most influential figures in the field of teacher education. He is a leader whose legacies will be evident for many years to come. As a scholar Professor Turney has made a major impact on the development of the field of History of Australian Education, with highly influential analyses of educational leadership and influence. As a prominent figure within the University of Sydney, being employed here for more than three decades, Professor Turney is remembered as the foundation Dean of the former Faculty of Education who, probably more than any other individual, shaped the study and promotion of educational studies at this University.”


Cliff acknowledged in a very heartfelt way that his education was powerfully influenced by two women: his mother, Minnie, and his wife, Roslyn. Minnie, he says, taught him the importance of education. And not only was Ros always, for him, the anchor of the family; he knew she also provided the devoted support and advice which sustained his work.


Once, in 1991 in Beijing, at a series of workshops conducted by Cliff and myself for Chinese Educators, I complimented him on his overhead transparencies. “Ros does them – she’s the best in the business,” he said – but I understood he was talking about more than the overheads. Of course, he also had a special place in his heart for his daughters, Jennifer and Catherine, who, he said, “generously and caringly supported and enriched his existence as he endeavoured to succeed in academia.” And succeed he did.


I’ll take up Cliff’s story in 1950 when, as an 18-year-old who had just completed his secondary schooling at Fort Street, he walked down Smith Street, Balmain, to attend Balmain Teachers’ College. He then enrolled at the University of Sydney as an evening student, working by day as an assistant teacher in primary schools. And if you’re wondering why he was already eighteen when he went to teachers’ college, by his own admission his first attempt at the Leaving Certificate was hindered by rather too enjoyable a social life; but with characteristic determination, back he went and achieved the matriculation which made his remarkable career possible.


By 1953 Cliff’s skills in the classroom saw him appointed to Haberfield Demonstration School. Three years later, in 1956, he was lecturing in Education at Sydney Teachers’ College, where he was a Commonwealth Research Scholar. In 1962, Cliff walked across campus to join the University’s Department of Education. He was an outstanding scholar; he graduated BA, with first class honours, and MEd, again with first class honours. In 1964 he took out his PhD degree for a study in the history of early educational endeavour. The thesis was in every sense a weighty academic volume; it required, I understand, a small trolley to move it to the administration office prior to examination. Its defining qualities were characteristic of the works to come.


In 1966, after 4 years, Cliff was promoted to senior lecturer, and then to associate professor, in 1973. In 1976 he became professor of education, and he was appointed head of the School of Teaching and Curriculum Studies and the foundation dean of the Faculty of Education from 1986. How did he manage all this and continue to publish at such a high level? His aim was a book a year, either written alone or in collaboration. He officially retired from the University just over a decade ago, in December 1994, after completing 35 years of service to the University. And even then, despite poor health, he managed a vigorous publication program.


Right at the start of his career at the University he was a successful innovator, and what he achieved had an impact well beyond the University of Sydney. In 1959, the University Senate had approved the establishment of a four-year BEd degree, the first of its kind in Australia. Cliff’s appointment in 1962 was as lecturer in charge of the primary education strand, which became renowned for the quality of its students – as it still is. An important component of the program’s success was the special esprit de corps generated among those who made a collective effort to ensure the thing worked. Cliff’s capacity to motivate people to strive for worthwhile goals was already apparent. This dedication to the task and desire to take people with him lasted throughout his career. And, of course, some found it hard to sustain the pace and the effort.


In the mid-1980s, during the vice-chancellorship of John Ward, the opportunity opened up for the University’s Department of Education to become a Faculty. Cliff’s role in the formation of the Faculty of Education was central, and it duly happened in 1985. Let me say, for someone to have a new faculty established at the University of Sydney was a remarkable achievement; for that Faculty to be Education represented something of a miracle. And on top of that, the new Faculty was to move to a new building as soon as it could be built – raising not a few eyebrows, and despite last minute attempts to assign the building to another Faculty.


All of this was a major achievement. But it had greater significance not fully appreciated at the time. In the late 1980s Federal Education Minister Dawkins proposed a Unified National System, bringing together universities and Colleges of Advanced Education. So far as Education at Sydney was concerned this led to the merging of the Institute of Education, a member of the Sydney College of Advanced Education, and the new Faculty of Education. Had no Faculty of Education been in place, it would not have been easy to introduce a structure which could have met the needs of both parties, and the University at large. It is my assessment that his particular Dawkins arrangement between Faculty and Institute strengthened education in the University and benefited the cause of teacher education generally. Cliff considered the establishment of the Faculty as his most important managerial achievement, though he did write that the introduction of the Primary Education strand of the BEd, achieved many years earlier, was “almost as important”.


Sydney University puts great demands on its professors, not only for management and administration, but for research, scholarship and community service. Cliff was an outstanding professor in all respects.


In teacher education Cliff is best known for editing and co-authoring the Sydney Micro Skills Handbook and its accompanying videos. Part of a national re-evaluation of teaching and teacher education which took place in the 1970s, these publications had a major influence on practice in teacher education, in Australia and internationally. Was there a teacher education institution in the country not using Sydney Micro Skills?   When they were redeveloped in 1983, in colour, Cliff and I worked closely on the project, and he showed how well he could still teach a group of primary kids the principles of flight. He considered the Teaching Skills Development Project as his most important research and development work.


Cliff was a prolific publisher of books. His clever idea was to establish a team, conduct a major literature review of a significant area of educational interest – teaching skills or supervision practices, for example – develop analyses and protocols based on the research, and produce a text designed to assist skill development. And then, he oversaw the production of video training materials which became, in turn, the basis for enhancing the skills of teacher educators across Australia, through workshops he led himself. He also had an eye on any policy development which could flow from his research. The collaborative nature of much of his work gave those working with him, including myself, invaluable experience, and helped lay the foundation for many a career. And even a short list of his titles on teaching shows the breadth of his interests as an educator, and his commitment to helping teachers everywhere, and at all levels, do their best, for themselves and by their students.


Cliff led major consultancies in Singapore, in China and in the Solomon Islands, as well as so many in Australia. The last consultancy I shared with him was to develop, using federal funding support, a statement of Generic Competencies for Beginning Teachers in Australian schools. He would be interested to see the teaching standards framework developed for implementation by the recently formed NSW Institute for Teachers. The influence of his work lives on.


He played a major role in professional organisations such as the South Pacific Association for Teacher Education (later the Australian Association). And he was a major contributor to the Correy Review of Teacher Education in NSW and its 1980 report, Teachers for Tomorrow. Its recommendations would be worth a revisit today.


And only now am I coming to Cliff’s other principal interest – the history of education.

When Cliff began researching in the history of education as an undergraduate, social history was not a fashionable field. The study of our educational past was overwhelmed by the weight of laudable tomes which placed great stress on achievement and underplayed problems. Melbourne and Sydney educators now undertook a reassessment of developments in Australian education and Cliff fostered a strategic alliance with Sydney University Press, leading to a three-volume series, Pioneers of Australian Education, on which he worked as both an editor an a contributor. He also published essays and sets of sources, and contributed to books on nineteenth and twentieth century Australian eduction. Of particular significance in this field was his 1989 publication, Grammar: The History of Sydney Grammar School, one of the new histories of individual schools designed to set them in their social contexts and times.


His interest in institutional history led naturally to the co-edited writing of the history of the University of Sydney, Australia’s First, a two-volume epic. This was complemented by a pictorial account of University life. After his retirement, there came, too, a History of Sydney Teachers College and a History of Teacher Education at Balmain and Kuring-gai Colleges. What a valuable legacy.


But probably Cliff’s major work was his study of William Wilkins: His Life and Work. To quote from Professor Bill Connell: “His biography of the dominant figure of nineteenth century elementary education in Australia, William Wilkins, was a fine piece of historical writing and a valuable portrait of the man described by a recent Director-General of New South Wales Education ‘as the educator who set the essential patterns of public schooling in Australia which have endured to this day.”


The thing about Cliff’s writing of the Wilkins life was that it was truly a labour of love – indeed almost a lifetime labour. Those of us who visited his study remember the clock with Wilkins commemorative plaque. As in all good biography, Wilkins comes alive, with his hard early years, his great achievements and the less than happy ending. Among those present at the book’s launch were proud members of the Wilkins family. It will be a fitting tribute to Cliff Turney when a scholar of comparable standing takes up the task of writing the study of Cliff Turney: His Life and Work. It, too, will be a weighty tome.


Cliff’s research work in teaching and teacher education helped give Education at Sydney a special lustre: Sydney became well known across Australia for its educational leadership and this success added to the reputation of Australia internationally. As I mentioned earlier, Cliff had a major responsibility lecturing in and organizing the BEd Primary, and in establishing the BEd Honours degree. He taught in the Faculty of Arts in the generalist and honours programs, and in the Diploma of Education. He planned and taught in the Masters degree seminar course History of Australian Education and introduced the seminar Teacher Education – Research, Innovation and Curriculum Design. As a major research project came to a conclusion, a Masters seminar was introduced. I worked with him on several of these as part of a collaborative effort between Sydney and Macquarie, and he gave a very high priority to these classes and to the students in them. All his classes were renowned for their forthright argument and great humour – and for the circulation of the wine, cheese and nuts of academe. Thousands of educators, especially teachers in this State, were influenced by Cliff through their experience of the MEd Program and many obtained higher degrees under his exacting supervision.


My review has been something of a history lesson – Cliff would have appreciated that, but doubtless his pen would be out to make some amendments. I said it would be hard to do justice to the man. Inevitably, much has been left out of my account. But you all know what an influential figure Cliff Turney has been in education. We need more Cliff Turneys, people ready to develop the well-researched, constructive critique on which schools and universities can draw as they cope with the inevitability of change. We go on needing people with the capacity Cliff had to make innovative ideas workable and pursue them to success.


For me, as for so many others, it was a privilege to teach and research with him, and to build on the foundations he so ably established in the University of Sydney. He will be remembered by us all with admiration and gratitude, but he would want us to go on building on what he achieved, so that the nation continues to gain those ‘scholar-teachers’ – well-educated and skilled practitioners, able researchers and constructive critics – that Cliff himself exemplified so comprehensively.


That’s the challenge he left for us, and we will best honour his memory by accepting it and trying to meet it he deserves no less.


Ken Eltis

Emeritus Professor

Former dean of education

Former senior deputy vice-chancellor

University of Sydney