Back to the Eighties: The Growth of English Language Teaching in Hungary.   Leave a comment


On Thursday, 22nd October 2015, a group of us were invited to attend a tree-planting ceremony at the Kodály Zoltán Music School in Kecskemét (Hungary). After a musical introduction performed by students of the school, including folk songs in English, we went out into the front garden to plant the tree. After a short and characteristically witty speech by Péter Medgyes (President of IATEFL), we then took turns in shovelling the earth around the little fir tree. This caused me to reflect on some of the local events of a generation ago which helped to establish the Kecskemét Association of Teachers of English (KATE), which in turn helped to found IATEFL Hungary a year later, with its inaugural conference held in the town in February 1991.

The Eighties: Educational Exchanges

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. Together with Tom Leimdorfer, the Quakers’ Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House in London, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, I met teachers from ‘behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of 1988. Although we knew that ‘one swallow does not a summer make’, we were particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, children were enabled to speak out about their experiences of violence in their societies. 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 very 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 existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, the then 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 support of Coventry City Council and the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator. 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. At the time, the Exchange 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 a generation ago.

Into the Nineties: TEMPUS and IATEFL

In October 1989, I entered one country and left another without crossing a second border. On the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (no longer referred to as a Counter-Revolution), the name of that country had changed from the ‘Hungarian People’s Republic’ to ‘the Republic of Hungary’. It was during that week that I also received formal invitations to become an Associate Tutor at the Kecskemét College of Education, meeting its Principal and staff. I returned on Valentine’s Day 1990, having won the sponsorship of the Westhill and Newman Colleges in Selly Oak, Birmingham, to establish a student-teacher exchange. I began teaching at the College, supervising teaching practice in the primary schools, and working on the joint application to Brussels for TEMPUS Funding from Birmingham, Rennes and Kecskemét. One of my first duties was to give a presentation on the Higher Education system in England and Wales to the College Staff Meeting. An elderly colleague at the back of the room protested at the brevity of the Ministry of Education’s recent letter informing institutions that they were now free to follow their own path. ‘We don’t know how’ he pointed out, ‘we’ve always got our instructions from the Ministry!’

The first leg of the student-teacher exchange took place the following January with a visit to Birmingham of the Kecskemét students, who were training to become specialist teachers of English at the primary school level (6-14 years of age).  The students were given a multi-cultural tour of Birmingham, its schools and its churches, Quaker meeting houses, mosques, gudwaras and synagogues.  In February, at the same time as the Birmingham lecturers were visiting in order to set up the TEMPUS programme, the first Hungarian IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference was being held in Kecskemét. With many American and British guests visiting the Conference, among teachers from all over Hungary, it suddenly felt as if the whole world had descended, with the snow, on the small provincial town. The following poem, written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of this event, takes up the story:



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   Kata Ittzes and Péter Medgyes plant a tree in commemoration of the twenty-five years of IATEFL’s work among the teachers of Hungary, 22nd Oct 2015.

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