Saturday, 20 June 2009

The empty plinth

This year’s Founder’s Award

Yesterday, Friday 20 June, the Foundation for Conductive Education held its Annual Awards Ceremony at the National Institute of Conductive Education, in Birmingham England. The ceremony includes award of the Founder’s Medal, conferred annually on people without whom things would have been very different…

Last year’s Award Ceremony was international in tone (Sutton, 2008a), and the Medal was awarded to Ann Paul (Sutton, 2008a; 2008b) whose television documentary, Standing up for Joe, was the single major factor in kick-starting the internationalisation of Conductive Education back in 1986. This year’s ceremony was more domestic, and the medal-award rather different too. Here is my economium.

The empty plinth

While recognising the particular significance of the word ‘plinth’ in Conductive Education, I am using it here in its proper, monumental sense. Think of the ‘Empty Plinth’ in Trafalgar Square, a pedestal awaiting a hero.

In Conductive Education we are not short of heroes, more usually heroines, far from it, but today I have no heroes or heroines to present to you, for reasons that I shall now explain. As in the case of the still vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square, the reasons for this are perhaps of more general import.

I had three candidates in mind this year, all surely people without whose contribution we should not be sitting here today, For different reasons, however, I cannot tell you their names.

I shall call them Miss X, Miss Y and Miss Z.

Miss X

I had met her some years before I heard of Conductive Education, when she was a social work student who did a practice placement at the Parent and Child Centre in Birmingham. Some years later, in 1985, she was working for the major national child-care charity Barnardo’s and heard that I was having difficulty finding funds to set up the first substantial project to establish Conductive Education outside Hungary.

She told her boss about this, he told his boss, and then he told his boss. The upshot was that Barnardo’s pledged us £60,000, a fortune in those days, if we could get started. Subsequently Barnardo’s came wholly on board, and stood firmly by the Foundation during the what in the early nineties seemed a most terrible recession, making more money available and facilitating the Foundation’s transition from cause to corporation.

Miss X had moved on by then, to greater things in health-service management, but her intervention has had indelible effects. Had it not been for her intervention this Foungation might not have found the financial strength to be born. Even if it had, it might not have survived the resulting weedy infancy to live on into the harsher world that followed.

She is not here today to receive personal acknowledgement of this for the simplest and most personally shaming of reasons.

After twenty-five years, I cannot remember her name.

Miss Y

Forward a year from Miss X’s intervention. On 1 April 1986 along came Standing up for Joe and a public and political demand to establish Conductive Education to the United Kingdom, the like of which it is impossible to imagine today. We had other pledges of funds once we could start, enough to take the risk of launching what would be a hideously expensive collaboration with the Institute in Budapest, but along with potential commitment came sectional interests, and there was still no coheren body to receive and spend these funds.

Miss X was the Secretary of an established philanthropy that wanted to contribute. But what to? Along with Janet Read, the Honorary Secretary of RACE, she took an active part in the rapid planning that occurred over that summer, and her charity undertook the considerable legal costs involved in forming the Foundation.

Then the catalyst. Her boss, the Chairman of her Charity invited the interested parties to a meeting at his HQ, chaired by the prestigious Jack (now Lord) Ashley who greeted them with the news that BBC‘s Newsnight would be waiting outside to film them as they left. Newsnight, he informed them, was making a critical report of whether or not the ambitious collaboration with Hungary would actually commence

This report, he further told them, was already shot and compiled for broadcast that night, with alternative endings waiting to be edited in: either these were the people and organisations who would be helping to bring CE to the UK; or these were the people and organisations whose inability to pool their resources and work together for the common good had wrecked an unrepeatable opportunity to transfer Conductive education out of Hungary. Creation of the Foundation was agreed at one of the quickest decision-making meetings that I have ever attended.

Miss X’s charity also came aboard the nascent Foundation, but did not stay. For some reason that we never knew her boss soon took vigorous exception to what we were doing and withdrew from further involvement. Indeed, he forbad our ever contacting his charity again. A few years later an enthusiastic fund-raiser for the Foundation accidentally did so, and received an extraordinary rocket for her pains.

We never heard from Miss Y again. I remember her name but I do not know what happened to her at the time or since as a result of her catalytic brush with what became the Foundation. Tracing her and inviting her to receive this award might open wounds best left undisturbed. Had it not been for her intervention, however, it seems highly unlikely that we could have started as we did…

Miss Z

Start we did, training British conductors in Budapest and establishing conductive practice in the UK. We would soon need our own premises, our own national institute to serve as base for the development and advancement of Conductive Education that we were mandated to achieved, and for the in-house services for children and adults, the indigenous conductor-training, and the other activities and facilities, that we intended to establishas means towards this end.

Unfortunately, by the end of the nineteen-eighties, the Budapest collaboration was proving even more expensive that expected, the first, unsullied flush of public enthusiasm for Conductive Education could only last so long, and money was getting shorter and shorter. Would we ever get ‘a building’?

Miss Z had been a post-graduate student of mine some years previously (Vygotskii, not CE). She heard that we were struggling to create a capital fund, and she told her boyfriend, who told his boss .His boss had just had a major financial windfall that had permitted him and his wife to established their own charitable trust. The Foundation was offered one million ponds to fund the first phase of its then ambitious plans for a National Institute.

There was just one condition: that the source of this grant should remain for ever anonymous.

Revealing Miss Z’s identity could put this at risk so, though without her intervention, it seems likely that the recession of the early nineties would have put an end to any hope for a National Institute. Simply, all other considerations aside, we should not be sitting here today.

And the moral to these stories…

If you think that there is one, draw your own.

For me, I feel comforted in my long-held belief that ‘a cause’ sells itself, and indeed it is infectious Not only did Miss X, Miss Y and Miss Z rally to the cause, their enthusiasm infected others, who went on to infect other still, sufficient to act significantly on our behalf.

Publicly but anonymously acknowledging these three ladies' contributions reminds me that really big changes in events are often the product of interventions that go unsung, and perhaps we rarely know the real story behind what happened.

These three heroines, who are not here to receive this year’s award for their decisive roles in determining the fate of the Foundation, stand therefore as types for all the unknown, unsung warriors who have fought for Conductive Education, not just here but around the world, who invisibly people this movement’s empty plinth, our cenotaph.

I had five minutes to speak, so I delivered only the gist of this. Above is the complete text of what I was prepared to say.


Sutton, A. (2008a), Standing up for Joe: Ann Paul's pivotal contribution to Conductive Education, Conductive World, 20 June

Sutton, A. (2008b), Annie’s reply, Conductive World, 1 July

No comments:

Post a Comment