Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall, 1987-92   1 comment

Quaker

Quaker (Photo credit: kendoman26)

Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall

by Andrew J Chandler

It’s now twenty-five years since I first ‘set foot’ in Hungary, on 22nd October 1988, as the Organiser for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project. In May 1987, at what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War, I was concerned about both international conflict and interpersonal conflict, having experienced both verbal and physical abuse against teachers and between pupils, as a teacher in Coventry. The Project, based in the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham at Woodbrooke, George Cadbury‘s home, was also set up to continue to support teachers with work on controversial issues in the classroom, later characterised as ‘peace versus patriotism’ in a late-night TV programme I was invited to take part in. Since the hottest days of the Cold War, Quakers had answered invitations to visit schools throughout the West Midlands to show the film The War Game and give their views on Disarmament. The Project organised balanced debates between CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organisers) and advocates of Peace Through NATO.  These used the BBC ‘Question Time’ format, with fifth and sixth-formers ‘firing’ prepared questions at the speakers, who had no time to prepare their answers, however.

The Project also gave scope for considering Human Rights as well as ‘Earthrights’, with a simulation of rainforest destruction with paper cups! We broadened the range of international issues dealt with to include, for example, Hong Kong, eight years before the 1997 handover. This work on global issues led to a  Sixth Form Conference at Woodbrooke with participants from Stafford, Sutton Coldfield and Coventry. Based on a quote from Peter Kropotkin, the Russian scientist, about what learners should demand of teachers, it was entitled ’What kind of world? How do we build it?’ Held over a weekend, it consisted of a series of workshops which were designed to give the students the opportunity to place themselves in the various conflict situations and to think of ways in which they might empower themselves to tackle some of the major issues facing the world at the end of the twentieth century. Various guest speakers, including Jerry Tyrrell, who had been recently appointed as Field Worker to the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project, presented  ’case studies’ of the conflicts from their countries and regions.

Looking back, Warwickshire Monthly Meeting on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the last year of the decade marked a significant turning point in the life of the Project in more way than one, held during the collapse of the Ceaucescu régime in Romania, the latter sparked by in Temesvár by the resistance of the Hungarian Reforrmed Church. Reference was made to the pack for upper school pupils, prepared by teachers from the West Midlands and Northern Ireland, ’Conflict and Reconciliation’, the resources for which had been provided by the Project. It aimed to develop an awareness of interpersonal and conflict between cultures at a community, as well as an international level. Although I left in February 1990 to take up an appointment, through Westhill College, with the Hungarian Ministry of Education in Coventry’s twin town of Kecskemét, Hungary, I  returned to complete work on the pack in Belfast in the Spring. This was eventually published  by the Christian Education Movement, by then also based in Selly Oak, and launched at a workshop in Sutton Coldfield in the Summer of 1991.

At the time, the work between Northern Ireland (the only part of the UK where the Government funded Peace Education as part of EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) and the West Midlands attracted the attention of the Belfast Telegraph and The Times Educational Supplement and I was invited to make a presentation on it to an EU-sponsored Peace Education Conference in Brussels which was published in the journal, Trans-Europe Peace (1988). The CEM’s ’Conflict and Reconciliation’ pack serves as lasting testimony to the work of Q-PEP, as its Preface contains the remark that we were responsible not only for gathering together much of the material for use in the classroom, but also for ’the insistence on pupil-centred activity-based learning’. But the ultimate credit here, as in that of the Preface, goes to teachers like Terry Donaghy, from Belfast, from whom I learnt about the importance of faith-based education in helping pupils to reach out to people of other faiths and traditions. Following the Northern Ireland ‘Peace Accord‘, EMU was ‘transmorphed’ into ‘Education for Reconciliation’, a trans-border initiative which held its last conference recently, in 2012 (see links below).

Hungary: visa and stamps

Hungary: visa and stamps (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940.  It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. In the run-up to the 50th Anniversary of the Blitz, the City Council asked to the One World Education Group, which met at the Elm Bank Teachers’ Centre, to produce a pack of materials for use in schools. The Project was asked to help with this. At the same time, members of our Steering Group were keen on the idea of developing school and youth group East-West links, as were Friends elsewhere. In 1987, the Project had already helped co-ordinate the production and staging in Solihull and elsewhere of an exhibition on ’Life in the Soviet Union’, based on an exchange involving Quaker women. In 1988, we had received an invitation to visit the DDR. Tom Leimdorfer, Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, and I met teachers from ’behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of that year. Although we knew that ’one swallow does not a summer make’, I wrote in the Q-PEP newsletter shortly afterwards, that ’coming as it did just before the Moscow summit, there was a distinct atmosphere of Glasnost, which meant that the exchanges between the participants were relaxed, open and constructive… the spirit was very much in evidence in the opening session when children from the USA and USSR joined together spontaneously in songs from a peace musical.’  It was also apparent in the openness with which a Soviet representative spoke about the new Soviet Children’s Fund, a baby of Glasnost, through which they were  beginning to deal with child abuse and the problems of the one-third of families in which the parents were divorced. We were also particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, parents meetings were held and children were enabled to speak about their experiences of abuse.

Since Éva Horváth, of Hungarian Teachers for Peace, had visited the West Midlands Q-PEP with a delegation the previous year, we looked forward to the 1990 Congress in Budapest, little knowing that she would be inviting the delegates to a very different country. Prior to that, in the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.  On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became ver excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country.  This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew from Friends and teachers existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.

So, with the approval of the Project Steering Group and the support of  the City Council and Martin Pounce at the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator (one result of this was that Martin later became the LEA’s International Officer). The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer, including Frank Scotford, a retired teacher and ’elder statesman’ from Coventry, Gill Kirkham, a music teacher from Kenilworth, John Illingworth, a special needs teacher and bell-ringer from Monks Kirkby, and Gill Brown, a Quaker teacher at the Blue Coat School.  Stefánia Rozinka was one of our hosts who had been unable to take part in the first leg of the exchange due to her university studies in history, just as I had been unable to accept an invitation to visit the DDR the previous year because of mine, and so, academic work over, we became engaged within a week of meeting each other and the rest, as they say, is literally, ’personal’ history! This exchange also had longer-lasting effects in terms of school, teacher and trainee-teacher exchanges, the latter attracting significant funding from the EU.

I believe that the significance of Q-PEP’s work in this area cannot be overstated. At the time, the Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’.  In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just ’goulash, Puskás, and 1956’. We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, ’it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones…’ Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now more than twenty years ago.

Following my three semester secondment to the Hungarian Ministry of Education, and a further year as a teacher-fellow at Westhill College, I was then invited to return to Hungary to co-ordinate a teacher-exchange being set up by Devon County Council with Baranya County Assembly in southern Hungary, in 1992. By that time the coup had failed in the former USSR, and the Cold War was officially over, so longer-term ‘transition’ programmes could take shape, like the wholesale re-training of Russian Language Teachers to teach English as a Foreign Language in Hungary, a process which took a further four years with the support of ‘NESTs’ (Native English-Speaking Teachers) who took the place of their Hungarian colleagues in the classroom while the latter attended university training colleges part-time. My initial period of work in and with Hungary therefore came to an end in 1996, by which time a remarkable transformation had taken place in the education system there, as elsewhere. Fifteen years later, I returned to Hungary in 2011, to take up an appointment as a Consultant in English Language Teaching (CELT) for the Hungarian Reformed Church Schools. I’m now working for the Piarist (Catholic) Schools in Kecskemét in a similar role, as well as at the College of Education in the town.

AJC October 2008

Updated May 2012, October 2013.

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One response to “Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall, 1987-92

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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