Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Ann Paul's pivotal contribution to Conductive Education

On Friday 20 June the Foundation for Conductive Education held its Annual Awards Ceremony at the National Institute of Conductive Education in Birmingham, England, at which Ann Paul was presented with the Founder's Medal in recognition of her services to Conductive Education..

Below is the 'economium' that I delivered at the Ceremony, partly in further honour of Annie and partly so that this pivotal point in the history of Conductive Education be more widely understood.
Economium for Annie 

1 April 1986, twenty-two years ago. How different our world was.

Some of the young people whose apotheosis to conductors we recognise to-day were not even born, and most of the others were no more than one or two years old.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Cold War. The Iron Curtain. And Conductive Education.

Yes, Conductive Education had been heard of in the West, heard of, misunderstood and forgotten, by the start of the eighties relegated  to a mere footnote in a paediatric text-book, just one another thing that had been tried in the West, and found wanting. That was the context in which, in 1984, the late Mária Hári agreed with me to transfer Conductive Education to the United Kingdom. All I had to do was find the money to pay for this. 

The project was opposed by the start, vehemently and at times viciously. The opposition included the then Spastics Society, the then Department of Education and Science, many of the professionals working with motor-disordered children and, surprisingly to some, many who had previously worked to implement on their own terms what little they knew of this work. Even so, despite this opposition, some money was pledged to our project, but not enough to start.

After a year the patience of my sponsors was beginning to run dry. I changed the strategy. If the professionals, the charities, the bureaucrats would not play ball, then we would ignore them and go over their heads to the people who paid them, to their political masters. To drive the politicians we would need the will of the people, and to get that we needed the media. 

An article planted in the Guardian newspaper caught the attention of a British family, the Horsleys. Quite seperately it also caught the attention of a BBC documentary producer. I was able to put the two in touch with each other and in 1985 production began on the film Standing up for Joe, depicting the Horseleys' first experience of Conductive Education, in Budapest. The film was shown on BBC 1, at peak viewing, straight after the Nine O’Clock News, on 1 April 1986. Eleven thousand people wrote to the BBC wanting to know more. Bootleg videos went around the world. At parental insistence, other national networks broadcast the film. A little over a year later an  impactful follow-up film was broadcast, from the same source, To Hungary with Love, showing the unprecedented internationalisation of Conductive Education already under way. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why were those two films, Standing up for Joe and To Hungary with Love, so impactful, not just for the families of disabled children but even for the population at large, people with no personal reasons to know or care about disability? So impactful were they, in fact, that more that twenty years later people still remember watching them. 

To answer this question one has to remember just how different the world was then. An important reason for the widespread fascination of this film can be summed up by a frequent local newspaper headline over the next few years, announcing yet another hopeful family setting of in the Horsleys' footsteps, something like ‘Brave mum off behind the Iron Curtain’. This was a Len Deighton Cold War story, coming from a suburban street near you. I cannot convey the force of this to younger people today except by asking them to imagine that something analogous were to be developed in Iran, generating a similar mass movement of families and their disabled children. ‘Brave mum off to Teheran’. No, they cannot imagine such a thing ever happening.

But in 1986, just as implausible at that time, Standing up for Joe did spark such a movement, first here then very quickly in other countries. A year later To Hungary with Love was able to show the first fruits of this, parents from around the world turning their eyes to Budapest.  

And of course part of the reason comes from the very nature of the films, from how and what they projected. 

Were they 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 make me now squirm a little. Had I understood Conductive Education better then I could have given the film-makers better advice. And the late Mária Hári did allow herself to say something to camara that was unguarded and ill-judged. But these are details, technical details.

I have long held that the spirit of an education can be only fully conveyed by a work of the imagination. Never mind about details apparent to the wisdom of hindsight. Technical specifics are of course important, but the overall whole is more important still. As films, they were deeply affecting; as propaganda, masterly; as agents for social change, priceless. We got our popular and political support, the money crystallised and within eight months the Foundation for Conductive Education had been established on a national wave of public enthusiasm. More importantly for the grand scheme of things, the world got Conductive Education, and Conductive Education found a new future.

Always be careful of ‘What-if history’. On the other hand, had it not been for these two films, particularly Standing up for Joe, it is reasonable to say that none of us would be in this room today, indeed there would be no room, no National Institute, no training for conductors here in the United Kingdom. Indeed, there might well be no Conductive Education at all in the United Kingdom, or in Norway, or in New Zealand, or anywhere else for that matter. Further, over the years many people in Hungary have assured me that, without the events that sprang directly from Standing up for Joe, by now Conductive Education would have long vanished in Hungary too. 

Who was responsible for this? Who was our salvation? Mike and Lisa Horsley, the two parents in Standing up for Joe were incomparable. Roger Mills' script and Richard Denton’s commentary were masterful. Many others in the BBC and in Hungary made vital contributions. But pride of place has to go to the Producer and Director of these two films, who first spotted this story in the Guardian, followed it up, developed it, orchestrated it, and in doing so brought Conductive Education to the world: Ann Paul. 

It is a privilege to present Ann Paul with this simple medal. It bears the Latin tag ab esse ad posse, ‘From what is to what can be’. This is a telling enough motto for Conductive Education as a whole, in its confident purpose to transform present and knowable human lives, to create something new and unknowable.

Annie, it also nicely sums up what you have done for us all. 

There is a prevalent, teleological understanding that the internationalisation of Conductive Education was somehow inevitable, a continuation of a long steady growth in interest that arose out of the inherent virtues of this system. This was far from the case. The explosion of public, political and media interest that occurred in 1986 was deliberately engineered for a specific purpose, and everything that stemmed from this, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, was an unforeseen by-product. Ann Paul's economium published here offers a small window on to this process.

1 comment:

  1. As one of those parents who walked in the shadow of 'Standing Up for Joe", and who was unable to be with you this year in Birmingham to celebrate, I'd like both to thank Andrew for this account of a disappeared era and to congratulate Ann Paul on her award for her unique contribution to conductive education. In doing so, we will always remember the Horsleys and, of course, Joe himself.