In April 1986 a BBC film made cause célèbre of a neglected corner of special education. Thirty years on, Andrew Sutton assesses its legacyThirty years ago, at peak viewing time on the evening of Tuesday 1 April 1986, a one-hour documentary film was shown across the United Kingdom, straight after BBC1’s main evening news. It was called Standing up for Joe. As it was being shown, people were excitedly ringing up friends and relatives with disabled children telling them to turn it on. Within a few days 11,000 people wrote to the BBC wanting to know more, and bootleg videos were in the post to relatives around the world. The film recounted how an English family had taken their cerebrally palsied son behind the Iron Curtain to the then Pető Institute in Budapest, Hungary.
The BBC spends a lot of money making its programmes and guards its intellectual property closely. Standing up for Joe is not available online. You will not find a pirated video either of this highly influential documentary or of its 1987 follow-up To Hungary with Love, on YouTube or anywhere else online. There are of course pirated videos around, of varying quality.
Within a few weeks families were taking steps to travel to Budapest. Within a few months national TV networks in other countries were arranging to broadcast the film in response to parental insistence. The next year, at the same peak evening slot, on 14 November 1987 an impactful follow-up film was broadcast, called To Hungary with Love, showing the internationalisation of Conductive Education by then already well under way, with families from a growing number of countries already in Budapest. Many others were clamouring to join them, to access what in English is called Conductive Education.
They would need to raise money and fundraising requires publicity, local and national. The more families generated such publicity, the more others were drawn into considering doing the same. The more the media reported it, the more other media joined in. Political attention was inevitable and for a few years Conductive Education was a frequent topic for question and debate in Parliament and other Assemblies in the UK, and in local councils too. The law was changed so that children with special educational needs could be funded by local authorities to go abroad to meet them. Organisations were formed, and very large sums of money began to be considered.
What else can parents do then?
After having seen two outstanding BBC documentaries Standing up for Joe and To Hungary with Love, we were captured by the profound wisdom, intelligence and applicability of Conductive Education. We immediately had a feeling of “this is it”, meaning that this approach confirmed our findings and lifted it over an individual experience. Like so many parents from the “Western” world, we went in the footsteps of Joe’s parents on what might perhaps be called critically “a pilgrimage”, but what else can parents do when they have their backs against the wall?
Jo Lebeer, parent of daughter with cerebral palsy, neurologist, brain scientist and cognitive educator.
Thirty years on, this colossal explosion of interest has died down, with millions and millions of pounds, dollars, euros and other currencies having been spent. Nothing like this had happened before. It may not again.
In the mid-eighties change was in the air in what was still then called special education in the United Kingdom. The UK’s early pioneers had wanted change to the system as a whole and had hoped that introducing Conductive Education, with its goal of transforming the development and lives of disabled children, would prove a catalyst for improvement throughout special education. Idealistic times!
Why such initial impact? What happened? After all, Conductive Education had been known about in the West for years, having been first described in 1965, more than 20 years before, in an international paediatric journal. But there’s the rub. This had appeared in a professional journal and so remained unknown to those who really care about children with disabilities, their parents. And, though it had not been described well at the technical level, it was clear to its readers that Conductive Education lay outside current ways of thinking: it proposed a different paradigm and, excepting for a very few enthusiasts it remained a fringe interest, ignored and marginalised by mainstream special education and paediatrics, by 1985 just a footnote like many others. Almost certainly it was also suspect for where it had developed, Hungary, then within the Soviet Bloc, making it at best questionable and at worst ‘Communist’.
Why ‘conductive’ and ‘conductors’?
Conductive means ‘bringing together’ and applies here to the requirement for a unified, integrated approach to educating disabled children — and to bringing them up in the widest sense — to maximise the effects of teaching and learning.
Conductive pedagogues (‘conductors’) are educators trained and socialised to work according to this holistic philosophy.
By the mid-eighties Hungary’s ‘Goulash Socialism’ had moved quite some way from Communism but most parents who watched Standing up for Joe would not have been too concerned with that. They saw humanity in what they were watching, and hope for a better way of doing things than provided by the available mix of special schools and various therapies. For some this would have been hope for a ‘cure’ (which is not what Conductive education offers). For many others it was acknowledgement that their children’s development was not a closed book but could be enhanced, beyond current expectations, through optimistic, informed pedagogy and upbringing — and that there were people who knew how to teach them.
Standing up for Joe and To Hungary with Love were not in the final analysis about Conductive Education or about the Pető Institute, or about specific technicalities of what might be done to transform children’s development. They were about parents fighting for what they want for their disabled children and their own family life. For so many, the professional ‘services’ already available to them were experienced as no more than something further to struggle against, without offering effective humane benefit in return.
Were these good films? Yes and no. For the first and perhaps the last time they opened Conductive Education up publicly to convey the deep wells of emotion, determination, love and hope that lie at the heart of this work. At a technical, pedagogic level some of the things said were not all that they could be and in this respect these two films were not the best introduction to Conductive Education. But these are details, mere technical details. The spirit of an education can surely be fully conveyed only by a work of the imagination. Technical specifics are of course important but the overall whole is more important still, which must always include ideas, aspirations, dreams even. As films, they were deeply affecting; as propaganda, masterly; as agents for social change, priceless — for a few heady years.
Controversy then boosted the public furore around Conductive Education. News of Conductive Education was implicitly critical of existing systems, however tactful or fearful its proponents might be. If this were a new paradigm, as some hoped, then it could advance only at the expense of the old one. Existing careers, reputations and income streams would be on the line. This would be a grass-roots turf war, with families — usually the least powerful of those involved — often caught in the middle. Public controversy in press and on TV saw powerfully expressed desires to establish Conductive Education in the UK vigorously opposed both by established positions and by rival directions for reform. Opponents included elements of existing paediatric practice and its therapists, many special schools, the emerging movement for total inclusion that regarded it as segregationist, sectors of the disability movement that held it to be oppressive, increasing centralisation of the education service and its curriculum — and representatives of earlier attempts to implement something of what little had previously been known about Conductive Education. By 1990 an initially clear picture was increasingly blurred.
The educational paradigm
Paralysing conditions such as cerebral palsy affect children’s overall development and lives in the same way as do, say, hearing loss — through how it affects what we learn and how we act — and is therefore best approached through special-educational means, social and pedagogic, in the family, at school and in the wider society.
Hungary did not help. One of the final acts of the old regime was to privatise the Pető Institute as a ‘foundation’, in the profoundly mistaken belief that the burgeoning foreign interest of the late eighties had shown that Conductive Education could be monetised for the benefit of the Hungarian economy as ‘health tourism’ for disabled children and their families. By 1990 the Iron Curtain was gone but an appeal to foreign governments to fund a mega-institute fell flat and anyway, parents round the world were already realising a more cost-effective way to access Conductive Education. With the Iron Curtain gone, and even more so when Hungary joined the European Union, parents began employing conductors for themselves, back home, often through small centres specially created to be ‘conductive’. The balance of Conductive Education, including conductor-training was beginning to shift out of Hungary, and becoming increasingly international.
In the ‘new countries’ centralised leadership or focus were rare, centres’ main concern being their own sustainability, often at best on the fringe of existing health and education services. An institution in Hungary could help or it could hinder what was being done in other countries, but it could offer the world no general solutions, and training one’s own conductors back home would be a very long-term task. It was, however, increasingly demonstrated that conductors working in small units or even alone could provide something that was valued in quite new contexts. Small parent-led centres could be just about affordable and even sustainable, at local rather than national levels — at least for an advantaged or lucky few, rather than as an equable social provision. By the end of the century there were growing numbers of conductive services up and running in the UK, Australasia, some parts of Western Europe (not in the former Eastern block), and North America. Hungary itself began to discover some of the problems of Western economics, especially in this context the true cost of services for the disabled.
The twenty-first century
Those films are now history, at best folk memory, but in the twenty-first century news of Conductive Education has continued to spread among parents around the world, in a growing number of languages, with the Internet now a major factor. There is, however, little professional or academic interest now, and with a few exceptions, conductive services do little to inform and increase public enthusiasm. Parents remain the main driving force behind Conductive Education.
The century began with major research reviews, suggesting that the research interest that had accompanied the excitement of the nineteen-eighties and nineties had generally failed to confirm Conductive Education’s advantage over existing approaches. This could of course be taken in different ways.
One interpretation is that the parents’ movement and those who supported it had been duped. Conductive Education from this position has been just another of the myriad snake-oils marketed to desperate and uncritical families. Researchers and their funders faded away: Conductive Education has been ‘done’.
Another is that the failure was due to the researchers and their research methods to investigate relevant and valued outcomes — and the research paradigms that they used. To put it differently: they worked predominantly within medical rather than social-science methodologies, and it was not Conductive Education that failed the test.
Conductive pedagogy has been provided chiefly for those with ‘movement disorders’, development stemming from conditions impairing voluntary movements (paralyses).
It is applicable in other circumstances too.
Be that as it may, enough may be enough when it creates a favoured outcome. The big national and supranational institutions have pulled back from Conductive Education and its thorny challenge to their governing ideas and practices. Conductive Education no longer merits a firm response. Ask them: European Academy of Childhood Disability, Council for Exceptional Children, Scope (UK), United Cerebral Palsy (US), relevant ‘professional’ bodies around the world, responsible government departments in nearly all countries…
There are now conductor-training schools for conductors in England, Israel, and the United States (two) in addition to Hungary. Conductors, now no longer solely Hungarians, work in some 400 settings around the world, a small but growing trend being in private practice or as ‘consultants’. Someone has to pay, generally parents with help from charitable fundraising. Many conductors work within ‘CE centres’, often non-profit. In the UK, Israel, Norway, Sweden, Germany, perhaps elsewhere too, a minority of eligible families may draw some or all of the cost from state or insurance systems. Conductive units attached to local schools across New Zealand are linked by their own informal federal structure. Generally, however, there has been little link-up with national education systems. In Luxembourg, indeed, the Education Ministry is trying to curtail its independence. In Germany, parents have projected Conductive Education as part of the movement for educational inclusion, and there is a reverse-inclusion conductive school that includes non-disabled children.
China has gone its own way. Existing services in Hong Kong have been radically developed, drawing inspiration from examination of Conductive Education and blending it with Chinese values of education and upbringing. This still developing work is now spreading across the mainland, and into South East Asia, perhaps already affecting children and families in greater numbers than does Conductive Education in the West.
Conductive Education Press
Books on the development of Conductive Education outside Hungary (including China) and on the founder of this system, the mysterious Andras Peto can be found here.
It is hard to see Conductive Education’s taking off and diversifying as it has without those two films 30 years ago. It is harder still to guess where it might be over the next ten. Its greatest challenge will to maintain the integrity of its approach in the face of financial constraints and imperatives to change in response to new social expectations.
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