Friday, 6 March 2009

Embed a conductor

A model worth a try

This article has been sparked by something new starting up in the UK (specifically in England). Perhaps though some of what follows here might apply anywhere, offering potential benefits to children and families, and employment to conductors.

Aiming High

Shortly to begin operation in England is a Government mega-programme for disabled children and their families, called Aiming High. £35m of allegedly new money has been allocated to help get this going and the first ten pilot schemes will be getting under way this spring. As was the case with Sure Start, each pilot programme will receive a detailed local evaluation, and there will be a national evaluation of the whole scheme.

What’s is Aiming High all about?

It is to do with enhancing ‘child care’ (as distinct from ‘education’).

There is an enormous website. Those who are adept at England’s present-day public-sector jargon about ‘children’ ma be able to work out what is intended. It seems to concern existing preschool services, the non-schooling part of schools’ ‘extended day’, short- and long-term respite care and ‘transition’ from school to adulthood. Such provisions will get better funding, staff will get more training and ‘good-practice’ will be identified and promulgated.

Where will these skills come from, though? From the existing system? From existing ways of acting and thinking about disabled children and their families? From prevalent theories about the potential and ‘needs’ of disabled children’? From too-simple reductionist models of disability, be they founded on physiological or sociological reductionisms? Without something very new coming in at grassroots level that amounts to actual practical knowledge, then all the money, all the hard work and all the bureaucratic effort is hardly like to produce any result that is not the familiar ‘more of the same’. In that contest ‘good practice’, ‘best practice’ even, are unlikely to bring about fundamental changes in human wellbeing.

There is no need to suggest that CE has all the answers . One wonders, though, whether well-placed, flexible and imaginative conductors, embedded in an expanding Aiming High system, might make a considerable impact and maybe give people something to think about.

Where will the pilot programmes be run?
  • Barking and Dagenham, Bradford, Camden, Cornwall, Luton, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Sefton and Solihull.
Who is it for?

These pilots will focus on childcare for those disabled children who are currently least likely to be able to access services, including older children and 'children with complex needs'.

‘Children with complex needs’ is a coy modern-day expression that probably covers most of the children currently receiving Conductive Education in the United Kingdom.

Eventually the scheme will be ‘rolled out’ (as they love to say) across the country. If what happened to Sure Start is anything go by, Aiming High will finally be found everywhere, but in a form somewhat removed from its original intentions, and perhaps its national evaluation in disarray. No matter, something will be happening, at no little public expense, supposedly requiring practical knowledge and experience of advancing the well-being of children with severe developmental disorders, and concerned to develop skills of its workforce and to identify and then promote what it calls ‘good practice’

So, step forward Conductive Education?

An embedded conductor

I know of no conductors anywhere with experience of working in the system of what the British call ‘child care’. That is not to say that such work has not been undertaken, just that (a) it has never been reported and (b) it has been, then between us Gill Maguire and I have not found a copy of it.

There have, however, been occasional, individual conductors embedded in schools. One knows this from word-of-mouth accounts, or from the odd spoken account that has been delivered at some meeting or other, but never written down. In other words, as far as the world of professional knowledge is concerned, it never happened and it doesn’t exist, leaving the wheel to be reinvented from scratch by those who come after, with no precedents available to them with which to argue their starting up in the first place. Sad that. So it goes.

As far as I know the only exception is the work of István Szücz (with Wendy Baker) in the ACE Project at Great Barr Primary School (ACE = ‘Accessing Conductive Education’). Though affiliated to the National Institute of Conductive Education, István spends his working hours at the school and is a wholly integral member of the school staff. He is in his third year there.

Even early on in the project’s life, the ACE Project won a national award for its contribution to inclusion. Such fairly fast returns are important, not just for the children and their families, and the staff who work with them. They also stand in good stead when putting a case for such embeddedment to decision-makers and budget-holders.

The Great Barr experience has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to embed a conductor in an existing institution. In this case the institution has been as school, but there was neither call nor reason for the conductor to adopt the identity of ‘a teacher’ or some sort of assistant., He is not a ‘teacher-conductor’, nor even a ‘conductor-teacher’, sucked into delivering the state academic curriculum. He is a conductor, a particular specialist in his own right, someone who acts to enhance and transform the development of disabled children

Such a very favourable position has been achieved from a base in an existing CE service: it could possibly done by and individual cnductor working as a consultant.

There seems no a priori reason to expect other than that conductors might also be successfully similarly embedded in non-educational children’s institutions as well as in schools, and in countries other than England. Experience with student-conductor placements few years back furtjher suggested that something similar might also be successfully achieved in an adult rehabilitation facility.

Three factors seem to be needed before this model might be successfully implemented
  • conductors or CE centres able actively to seek out such opportunities
  • welcoming and flexible host institutions
  • money to pay for the scheme (primarily, since almost all overheads are absorbed by the host institution, the salary costs of the conductor).

But is this ‘Conductive Education’?

This inevitable question leads one straight into the interminable and arcane discussion of what is Conductive Education. That is fine for academic people at a time of ease and plenty. This, however, is a time for practical action in difficult times, and radical personal adaptation to meet fast-changing demands.

Istvá’s situation in the ACE Project is indeed a favourable one. It was established in economically happier days, as part of a formal collaboration between two established institutions, already with experience of each other and with congruent goals for disabled children. It does not come much better than that.

No, for various reasons, a harsher economic climate could potentially create a range or spectrum of conductor-embeddedment in non-conductive settings, unprotected by outside affiliation and with no comprehension within the host community of what CE might be, and no apparent sympathy with its goals. It has happened…

If it might be that bad, further along the spectrum, is it worth even contemplating potential ‘opportunities’ within something like Aiming High? I recall, some years back now, going with high hopes to early meetings about the then newly launched Sure Start (a colossally costly Government intervention into the development of preschool children) and sitting there increasingly aghast at the implausibility of it all. One lived in hope, but I never came across a report of a conductor working within a Sure Start centre.

One travels hopefully, still. Just recently I was impressed by an position advanced by Emma MacDowell, in a Comment to a recent article in Conductive World (‘Staying different’, 3 March) on a slightly different but adjacent issue. She wrote

In my view a basic GOOD academic training, combined (in CE) with well-guided practical learning, to acquire the necessary skills and to develop students’ outlook and personality etc. need not be changed to something else afterwards, fast as the world changes around us now.

It reminded me of something. Years ago I used to be a psychologist. In my eyes I stopped being a psychologist in 1984, when I moved full-time into Conductive Education and therefore stopped ‘doing psychology’. Around ten years or so ago, however, I co-supervised a couple of PhD students investigating aspects of Conductive Education in a large university psychology department. Talking to the Head of that Department I found that, putting it mildly, we shared a mutual lack of respect for psychologists. I could hold that position with comfort as I had, after all, left the trade way back. How though, I asked, could he justify to himself pumping out the huge numbers of psychology graduates that his department produced each year, given that he thought so badly of psychologists?

‘Easy,’ he said, ‘hardly any of them work as psychologists. They get jobs in all sorts of fields, and they do them all the better because of their grounding in psychology’.

I could live with that. Granting Emma’s proviso of ‘a basic GOOD academic training, combined (in CE) with well-guided practical learning, to acquire the necessary skills and to develop students’ outlook and personality etc’, I could live with it for conductors too.

Embed Isvan as a conductor within a state primary school, under the favourable circumstances of a formally established joint development project, and he can be a conductor in his own right. Such protected contexts, however, may prove rare. Even so, well educated, well socialised, well trained conductors working in, say, a day-care facility, a respite home, a children’s preschool centre may like those thousands of psychology graduates who never become psychologists, find opportunities to transform the jobs that they are doing, whatever their formal role and job description. It might not be what they set out to do but this is 2009 and they may be glad of the work.

It would be grand it they could report and publish their experiences, it would be terrific if such professional trajectories could be ‘researched', but let us be realistic, they are not going to be. Let us instead get on with living, with conductors applying for jobs that they can turn a hand to, in confident expectation that positive benefits might ensue. Then, in a better world, we shall see…

Meanwhile, if the government wants to spend public money on mega-programmes like Aiming High, and if some conductors cannot travel the world seeking a billet of choice, then new and much sought-after jobs are emerging in child care, in the keen competition for which a conductor qualification should offer considerable advantage.

What now?

It is now for others to seek out what experience they can find of such work, examine what is involved and then energetically seek out contexts or opportunities in which to emulate it.

The ACE Project is probably about as top-of-the-market an experience of conductor-embeddedness as one will find. It therefore offers a certain benchmark from which to argue a position.

Aiming High is mentioned specifically here because large amounts of public money are to soon be made available through it and, as the scheme is in its nascence, procedures and practices may be more readily open to innovation. Public spending to bolster national economies may create analogous opportunities elsewhere.

Learning more

If you are in the UK, on 19 March Wendy Baker and István Szücz will be presenting the ACE Project at a Seminar in Birmingham (see conference URL below, or enquire further from

As István can testify, a 'non-traditional setting' requires innovative practices. It is well-inculcated ‘old values’ that maintain his identity as a conductor, not superficial techniques appropriate to an altogether different world. Nor is it explicitly articulated ‘theory’. It is practice.

He is an integral part of a working institution (and that means users an well as staff), that construes and values his work in the concrete terms of ‘what István does’ rather than as manifestation of some abstract entity called ‘Conductive Education’.

Conductor-embeddedment points to a rather different business model for providing access to the benefits of conductive expertise. Such a model id quite distinct from what has been the traditional model of conductors ‘doing Conductive Education’ within a CE service of some kind that has to find the money to ‘fund Conductive Education’. If society feels that it has to fund child-care workers within a service like Aiming High, somebody is going to have do the job. If that somebody is a conductor, then Hey Presto, ‘free’ Conductive Education!

That’s one way, anyway.


--- (2009) Aiming High for Disabled Children, Department for Children, Schools and Families (continuously updated)

--- (2007) Maximising children’s independence and building self-esteem through Conductive Education in a mainstream school. Case study: Great Barr Primary School, Birmingham, Leading Aspect Award, July


A whole approach to babies and young children who have multiple needs
in the pre-school and primary school

1000 - 1500, Thursday 19 March,
Postgraduate Centre, City Hospital, Birmingham

Conductive Education in a Birmingham mainstream primary school
Wendy Baker and István Szücz


  1. Andrew. Following your example of psychologists who no longer work as "psychologists" (ie don't have "psychologist" in their job title), would it not be interesting to be able to learn where conductors are currently working in settings where they are no longer working as "conductors"?

  2. It occured to me, too, just like to Norman, that a survey of WHERE English-trained conductors presently work would be most interesting. "Aiming High" could be considered a good future place for them to help children.

    If you don't regard it as a "degradation", or something harmful to CE-ethos: get in at the Consultation stage, Birmingham Institute!! A conductor in such a "team" would be a feather in the cap of the commissioning authority(in England, anyway.) Quite an opportunity to put their "innovativeness", "diversity"and "equality" principles (or slogans?) into practice. Why should only speech therapists and physios be (very occasionally and for very short times) consulted in "Early Years" efforts (after the doctor, the social worker and other traditional professionals had their say), while the child care worker gives her best on the spot, according to her own common sense?

    As an interpreter I am occasionally asked back to "assessment sessions" for young children and, as ever, it is very hard for me to keep "stumm". Sometimes I don't, either, but that means taking on the doubting parent (after all those helping professionals....)

    Now, if a conductor was smuggled in, AS A PROFESSIONAL, that would be different!

    Dum spiro, spero.


  3. Norman, it's hard for all higher-education institutions to keep track of their former students (and God knows, they try hard enough in order to dun their graduates for money!).

    As ever, Sod's Law says that the ones that you'd like to know about most are what the welfare services call the 'hard to reach', in other words, they've vanished.

    My impression is that the overwhelming majority of our NICE graduates are still (max. eight years) working as conductors, this in a workforce comprising mainly young women.

    This is baed on an exercise that Gill and I did about eighteen months ago.

    A very few have dropped right off the radar and I can think of four who subsequently took postgrauate teacher-training. Of those four, one is 'teacher-conductor' in a special school and I think that the other three have gone native in primary schools.

    I recall tht one went off to train as a policewoman after succcessfuly graduating but I heard know no more.

    So, as far as NICE is nconcened, most went into conducting and most of those have stuck it. The good or bad news, depending upon your viewpoint, is that especially in recent years a substantial proportion of the NICE conductors has gone to work abroad.

    All in all, though, NICE has run a boutique course, its numbers dwarfed by the output of the PAI in Bp., an output moreover that far predated the establishment of the UK course. What would be really interesting know is what has happened to this very substantial potential conductor workforce and the roles that (emigration aside) they have been absorbed into within the Hungarian economy if they can't find employment as conductors.

    Not only that, the PAI has run satellite courses.

    There are somewhere a number of 'conductor-rehabilitators trained in Spain. A few work in Spain, a few more in Mexico. But what do they do there? And the rest?

    Then there were some forty odd 'teacher-conductors' trained at Keele University in Enland. Horton Lodge special school, not that far from you, is staffed by them. There are a few isolated individuals scattered around special schools and small centres in England, there's a couple in Perth, WA, and a couple, I think, in the US. That probably accounts for about half of them. The rest, I assume were absorbed into the Englishteaching profession.

    Then there's Tsad Kadima, always in a class of its own. It started training in collaboration with the PAI in the late eighties and has continued, increasingly independenly, ever since. Memory suggests that they've created some sixty-odd conductors, with a pretty healthy retention rate. That's not retention simply within Conductive Education but retention specificlly by Tsad Kadima. I have no idea what those who leave do instead.

    Ah yes, I almost forgot, there was the miniscule training course, again for 'teacher-conductors', at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids MI. I know that at least one of the graduates from this course keeps a keen eye on the CE blogs and anicipate that we mighg get the best aswer of all to your question from the US of A.

  4. Emma,

    I most certainly do not 'regard it as a "degradation", or something harmful' to do a real job in the real world.

    It would be nice in an ideal, unrealisable world, if some conductors were to work as conductors, others in other positions, and that the two sides were to communicate and even swap over occasionally.

    In fact this would be benficial in many fields, and I vaguely recall various oficial schemes in the UK to encourage just this.

    Turn it over and you can question aspects of the present career model, which is leave school, train, do what you were trained to dofor the rest of your working life, then retire.

    Thw word 'stale' comes to mind, and words like 'shuttered' and 'unworldly'. And worse!

    So I do not regard it a degredation or something harmful for conductors to work in what student-conductors refer to as the real 'world'. It is neither better nor worse to work out there rather than in a CE centre, there are virues and demerits in both contexts. One is not superior to the other, they are just different.

    Spiro et spero, et in spero semper vivo.

  5. A parallel I can remember is artists coming into 'residence' in schools.

    It only works well if there is a clear contract about terms and conditions and a sincere committment from head down to use the embedded person honourably. If not, they are timetable fodder and not thought of as having a valued specialist contribution to make.

    Such a contract would have to specify how the conductor's expertise could seep into the school.