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Conductive Education As Exemplar Of The Emerging Paradigm Of Dynamic Inclusion, With New Emphases For Educational Research
Andrew Sutton
Paper Presented at theEuropean Conference on Educational Research
Ljubljana, Slovenia 17 - 20 September 1998


This presentation introduces a vigorous, popular movement within special education, for children with movement disabilities. It does so from the perspective of the United Kingdom, though this is now a world movement and issues raised here arise elsewhere.

This movement is called Conductive Education. Both through its intrinsic nature and the way that it is spreading, which is chiefly at the behest of families rather than through established state systems, it conflicts with the ideal of inclusion for all pupils at all times of their educational careers. It is now at a stage of its development as an educational system to address the need to establish its own research and evidence base.

This presentation will, firstly, outline Conductive Education itself and the way that it is spreading across the world; secondly, indicate the disagreement with the inclusion movement (at least with the ideal of inclusion current in the United Kingdom) and introduce the notion of 'dynamic inclusion'; then thirdly, look at research questions.

Conductive Education...

  1. the philosophy that children and adults can and will learn ways to do things that they could not do before, as long as they are taught in a way that creates in them the determination to do so;
  2. a range of techniques and teaching methods appropriate to the task, including emotional bonding between teacher and learner through shared tasks, internalisation of external verbalisation, strong emphasis on rhythm and economy of restraint and physical aids;
  3. appropriate organisational arrangements to optimise the efforts and effectiveness of teacher and learner.
It is the first of these three levels, the need to enlist learners' willing participation in their own development, which is done by leading them into experiences of personally satisfying learning, that gives this educational philosophy its name 'conductive'. It is the third of these, the wish to create optimal learning environments, that brings conflict with the movement for inclusive education.

... and its spread

Conductive Education developed originally in Hungary and it of course reflected the way that Hungarian society made its wider arrangements for disabled people over the years since the Second World War. With respect to children with motor disorders, this has meant that the disabled have tended to be provided for residentially or not at all. As for education, children who could participate meaningfully in an intensely academic grade school system could so: those unable to did not. Andrá s Peto and his successors were therefore free to develop and enhance their method separate from the education system as a whole.

Little was known about this system outside Hungary (or even within Hungary). It was not researched and remained virtually undescribed. In 1986, however, a BBC television film brought it very vividly to a mass audience, firstly in the United Kingdom, then overseas.

Services for children with motor disorders had developed very differently in the United Kingdom. By the nineteen-eighties children with motor disorders were all in schools, mainly day schools, and the move to integrate the less disabled into local schools had already begun. Nonetheless, many parents were (and still are) exceptionally critical of the lack of apparent specialist knowledge and methods to enhance their children's development, and the absence of a philosophical orientation towards the possibility that their children's developmental disorders might be amenable to educational measures. In short, parents of children with motor disorders wanted their children to learn but the 'system' did not provide for this (and still does not).

So, remarkably, many hundreds of British parents took their children to Hungary to seek Conductive Education, with the active encouragement of the then Thatcherite Government which had its own agendas in this, both domestic and foreign. By the beginning of the nineties, however, families were looking to establish conductive provisions back home, setting up their own embryonic services, independently financed and outside the state sector, staffed by Hungarian 'conductors' (that is the specialist educators specifically trained in this approach).

This appetite for Conductive Education amongst the families of children with motor disorders (mainly the parents of children with cerebral palsy but including other conditions) is manifest chiefly in parents who are articulate and informed. Such parents also seek maximally inclusive futures for their children. The popular conductive movement, which began in the United Kingdom in 1986, has now spread across most of Western Europe and the English-speaking world and its present scale may be indexed by the number of centres and associations which now employ conductors. There are already between twenty and thirty such organisations in the United Kingdom, between thirty and forty in Germany and between forty and fifty in the United States, plus many others elsewhere. The great majority of these are established as a direct result of parental action and demand. Hardly surprisingly, this process has not always been welcomed by existing professions and institutions. Nor by its very nature has it taken much account of established social policies or polite sensibilities.


There has been in the United Kingdom a major clash between the conductive movement and forcefully articulate elements in the disability movement, who assert that it is oppressive to change the course of development of children with disabilities (Read, 1998). Conductive Education is a cognitive education and asserts that the course and rate of children's development can be changed in both its affective and its intellective aspects. Further, parents who are the social motor that drives the conductive movement assert that their children's development should be changed. There is a conflict of values here, often confusingly expressed as a conflict of rights.

The inclusionist position in the United Kingdom asserts that all children with disabilities have a right to be educated with their non-disabled peers, throughout their education. The advocates of conductive education assert that all children with motor disorders should have the right to Conductive Education. More confusingly, such expressed rights slip easily into being expressed as imperatives, on both sides.

The Foundation for Conductive Education, for which I work, is a UK charity created in 1986 in response to public demand. Its National Institute provides conductive services for children and adults, as a base for training and research. The evolving structure of these services, as they stand at the beginning of the present academic year, illustrates the battleground over the question of inclusion (Figure 2).

The earliest intervention, what we call Parent and Child groups, begin as soon as possible after the child's condition is suspected. We consider that at that age (the first two or three years of life) the natural unit of intervention is the parent-child dyad, usually manifest as mother and baby. These dyads attend together for sessions and learn together to do the ordinary activities of child-rearing, which rarely 'come naturally' when the child has, for example, cerebral palsy. The bulk of the effect is achieved not, of course, during brief attendances but through more effective bonding and upbringing at home (Á kos and Á kos, 1991). Characteristically parent-child dyads attend in small groups. This is education. Is it 'segregated education'?

From around the age of three we provide kindergarten and nursery groups where motor-disordered children learn together in developmentally appropriate pre-academic programmes created around motor development. There is then opportunity to continue on into a school group up to the age of eleven, with academic teaching is incorporated into the overall programme. The explicit goal of these provisions is to transfer children into their local schools, as soon as parents and school agree that this is appropriate. Even so, children's full-time attendance at our Institute is most certainly 'segregated' education as the expression is generally understood within the educational community in our country.

Children requiring specific services, such as those over eleven, those with dyspraxia and those with very individual requirements of any age, attend sessionally. So do adults. Whilst this does not offend the inclusionist position it does still runs foul of the wider disablist position in the United Kingdom.

Parents who place their disabled child in conductive provisions usually experience no major ethical turmoil from 'segregating' the child. They are simply choosing what at a given stage of their child's development seems the best available option to prepare their child for the foreseeable future. Professionals and institutions active in this field, however, require more formalised response to critics on the inclusionist side, who regard Conductive Education as a step backwards into 'segregation' and an opposition to inclusive education.

Dynamic inclusion

We argue from two viewpoints for what we call 'dynamic inclusion'. Firstly, from the point of view of cognitive education, we assert that human mental potential is dynamic, not static, and will be determined not by what children are but what they might be. For Conductive Education, 'pedagogy must be oriented not towards the yesterday of development but towards its tomorrow': (Vygotskii, 1956). We therefore deny the reductionist position that the role of the education system, like that of the wider society, should be to fit around and accommodate children's present level of development as determined by their disabilities. Secondly, and as a parent-driven movement we have no choice in this even should we wish to, we subscribe to the principle that families have a right to make informed choices in their children's special education, with different circumstances and possibilities emerging as their child progresses up through the developmental process.

In effect, dynamic inclusion represents a combination of the principles of Least Restrictive Environment with acceptance of the cognitive-educational position on the active role of education in human mental development.

In the United Kingdom, the popular movement to establish cognitive-educational provision, outside and in opposition to the established state system, has now widened to disabilities and interventions other than motor disorders and Conductive Education. Families with children who are autistic and those with children with intellectual disabilities have travelled overseas to experience, respectively, the Higashi system (Kitahara, 1984) in the United States and Mediated Learning in Israel (Feuerstein et al, 1988) and are now establishing their own independent, charitably funded institutions. One interpretation of all this activity is that, as the state retreats from the goal of providing quality special education as part of the new post-welfare consensus, then those privileged families who are able to choose are voting with their feet, setting up their own specialist facilities to match their own goals and values.

The role of research

Educational research as a whole in our country has come in for some strident criticism this year (Tooley, 1998) for its relevance to the concerns of the state. The conductive movement opens up a new challenge, on the grounds of its relevance to citizens as consumers of education.

Conductive Education developed in Hungary in a research-free environment, without even illuminative accounts of its operation or theoretical analysis of how it might work. In Western Europe there has emerged a consensus that a Vygotskian-Activity Theory model appears a productive approach to the latter question (Sutton 1998) but alternative theoretical analyses are possible, indeed welcome. The hurly-burly of very rapid establishment of institutions and adaptation of practice to meet new national contexts, has meant there has been little time for descriptions of new ways of working, and indeed perhaps little purpose to this in the process of transition. A few empirical studies have been carried out during this transitional phase, chiefly simple (or simplistic) outcome studies without account of the context, process or goals of the approach, and of those who advocate it.

The precipate import of Conductive Education to altogether new national contexts might be regarded as an exercise in applied comparative education. As such, it offends a basic comparative-educational principle, that educational systems should be understood only in the context of their own societies. People have simply acted, then sought to solve problems that arose as they meet them. The Foundation for Conductive Education did operate a policy on this, which was to import the system to the United Kingdom initially 'in as Hungarian way as possible', recognising that such autarchy could serve no long-term national purpose, and then to work consciously towards adaptation or naturalisation in a step-by-step manner. Inevitably academic principles take second place to the exigencies of day-to-day practice, not least to the new economic order in the Western economies. Comparative-educational research might use such movements as useful natural experiments, which may or may not confirm wider positions, it may even say 'I told you so'. It is unlikely to have a role in guiding a popular movement.

Research, however, is very much needed. In the United Kingdom the Foundation for Conductive Education has now established a degree-level training course for conductors in partnership with Wolverhampton University and there are two other universities involved in related courses, whilst European universities are also developing courses (Keil et al, 1998). A college in the United States has just announced a training programme. Academic teaching will demand academic research.

The process of systems-transfer out of Hungary into the United Kingdom has been proceeding long enough now to permit consideration of research and development as the next essential step, for reasons intrinsic to the work itself. Innovations need testing, as do relics of the system's Hungarian origin, in both cases to ensure that the essentials of the pedagogic process are not lost in the process of transition. Obvious examples at the level of everyday practice are the incorporation of augmentative communication (an innovation) and the survival of clumsy wooden equipment (a relic). More fundamental are the benefits (or dysbenefits) of shifting from total care in a residential facility to a predominantly day provision and on into summer schools and other short-term or intermittent provision. More radical still, at least for the English education system, would be the possibility of abandoning the national school starting age of five years in favour of commencing academic learning (the National Curriculum) only when children are potentially able to benefit from this (cf Ná gy 1989) and not at all in appropriate instances.

Our National Institute, having encouraged ad hoc research around its work for ten years has now commenced upon establishment of a formalised research capacity. In doing so we foresee a difficult contradiction which we expect will not be unique to ourselves. On the other hand, research and development in special education do not readily attract charitable funding, and applications to more established sources of research-funding are likely to be more successful if related to existing paradigms, methodologies and social agendas (amongst which inclusion, currently construed, takes an important place). On the other hand, parents will support and welcome work that enhances the apparent effectiveness and economy of what they regard as important to their children's development or which promises to articulate their own goals and values. The sort of research questions that emerge, however, may prove difficult for researchers, both methodologically and micropolitically. For example, parents often say that their children have improved in motivation, sociability, language, intellectual prowess etc., in qualitative terms. How to demonstrate this in, say a dysarthric, mixed spastic-quadraplegic child of four-and-a-half years of age (but functioning much lower) : might one approach this through qualitative measures, through stage-change, in terms of learning style or how? There are major technical problems. Micropolitically, comparative evaluation of what inclusionists call a 'segregated education' against an inclusive one, for relative effectiveness in achieving such outcomes may come under bitter, unpleasant and public attack from inclusionist and disablist positions. My colleague Moira Owens is currently making a discourse analysis, by means of grounded theory, of parents' life experiences, finding great divide between what they had expected of the education system on the basis of its rhetoric, and their actual experiences. This is hardly an unexpected finding but may exist at the edge of currently acceptable discussion of the way in which we provide in the United Kingdom.

If there is indeed a significant social trend (not just in the United Kingdom) for more privileged families to reject choices on offer within their state educational systems then researchers, like other professionals, may also have to make choices, to stay within the official system or to 'come out', in either sense of the English phrase, and declare themselves for families. Whilst this could provide alternative career opportunities for educational researchers it will also prove a source of much needed controversy and debate, not least to break the present unchallenged consensus over inclusive education.



Á kos K., Á kos M. (1991) Dina: a mother practises Conductive Education, Birmingham, Foundation for Conductive Education

Cottam, P., Sutton, A. (1986) Conductive Education: a system for overcoming motor disorders, London, Croom Helm

Feuerstein, R., Rand Y., Rynders J.E. (1988) Don't accept me as I am: helping 'retarded' people to excel, New York, Plenum Press

Keil, H., Kozma I., Sutton A., Weber K. (1998) Studium und Weiterbildung fü r die Praxis konduktiver Fö rderung und Rehabilitation, Dortmund, Modernes Lernen

Kitahara, K. (1984) Daily Life Therapy: a method of educating autistic children, Boston, Nimrod Press

Ná gy, J. (1989) Articulation of Pre-school with Primary School in Hungary: an alternative entry model, Hamburg, UNESCO Institute for Education

Read, J. (1998) Conductive Education and the politics of disablement, Disability and Society, 13 (2), 279-93

Sutton, A. (1998) Last Year in Jerusalem, Birmingham, Foundation for Conductive Education

Tooley, J. (1998) Education Research: an Ofsted critique, London, Ofsted

Vygotskii, L.S. (1956) Izbrannye psikhologicheskie issledovaniya, Moscow, Prosveshchenie


The motor-disorder spectrum
In adulthood, major contributing factors include:
Parkinson's disease
multiple sclerosis
head injuries
In childhood, the motor-disorder spectrum includes:
cerebral palsy
childhood strokes
head injuries
motor retardation accompanying mental disability
Figure 1
National Institute of Conductive Education
Conductive services

Parent and child

Nursery/kindergarten groups

School group

Sessions follow-up



Sessions adults

Figure 2

This document was added to the Education-line database 26 November 1998