Islands of opportunity

8th August 2003 at 01:00
Robin Jackson celebrates the pioneering work of Karl Konig, the Austrian refugee behind the Camphill movement

IN HIS book The Hitler migres, Daniel Snowman gives a graphic account of the plight of those Austrian exiles who fled to Britain in the immediate pre-war years to escape the menace of Nazism.

With the declaration of war in 1939, the temporary visas granted to the Austrians were declared invalid and most were arrested and sent to internment camps on the Isle of Man. As Snowman indicates, many went on to make an enduring mark on the intellectual, social and cultural life of Britain, whether as artists, architects, musicians, historians, philosophers, scientists or writers. Indeed, of all the emigre groups to Britain, few made such a lasting impact as the Austrians.

One of those on the Isle of Man was Dr Karl Konig, a Viennese paediatrician who, before leaving Austria, was working with children with special needs.

While interned, he contemplated ways to build a community dedicated to curative education in which the talents of its members could be recognised, shared and valued. On his release, Dr Konig returned to Scotland, where his family had been accommodated before the outbreak of war.

In deciding the form that such a community might take, Dr Konig corresponded with George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community. MacLeod was impressed by the way in which the kind of community proposed by Dr Konig responded directly to an evident social need. It should be said that MacLeod was much less impressed with the lack of engagement by the Church of Scotland in attempting to meet the many social ills besetting post-war Scotland. MacLeod saw Dr Konig's visionary idea as an exciting one and one that merited his support.

The unique nature of Dr Konig's work has not received the same degree of recognition as that accorded to the achievements of some of his eminent compatriots. What, then, have been Dr Konig's successes?

He was one of the first educators in Britain to show that all children with a disability, regardless of its severity, have a potential that can be developed. At no time has the deficit model of disability had any currency in the thinking of those working in Camphill communities. A feature of the education received by the children in Camphill schools over the years has been their exposure to a very broad curriculum encompassing the arts and sciences with a special place for art, music, dance and drama. This was almost certainly a legacy of Dr Konig's own central European background, where education was not constrained by curricular boundaries.

The Camphill communities sought to create an environment where the economic, social and spiritual lives of the community complemented each other and where its members, whatever their abilities, helped to support the needs of their fellows. A community of co-workers was thus established which shared all the work that had to be done, whether it was teaching, caring, household work or gardening.

Another distinctive facet of life in Camphill communities is the way the celebration of Christian festivals is inextricably woven into the seasons.

This consciousness of natural rhythms permeates all aspects of daily community life and is reinforced by the rural location of communities. For those with special needs, who frequently feel insecure and disoriented, such rhythms are important as they provide a constant, reassuring framework.

Critics of Camphill communities sometimes draw attention to their physical isolation, and argue that this is not consistent with the policy of inclusion. Such criticism misses the point because they are inclusive in the sense that children and young people belong to and live within family groups.

Inclusion here is not some abstract notion; it is a reality. It is difficult to see how genuine inclusion can be created in residential settings where shift systems periodically punctuate the daily rhythm of the household. Further, locating children and adults with special needs in barren and soulless urban settings frequently runs the risk of placing them on islands in an ocean of neighbourhood indifference.

R Konig was ahead of his time in another respect. He recognised that Camphill communities could only develop if those who worked in them were well grounded in the theory and practice of curative education, which may be described as an integrated range of professional activities carried out on behalf of children or adults with complex needs. It involves diagnostic assessment, care, education and the application of therapeutic measures.

Curative education is no longer seen as an alien concept, for there is now a BA in curative education offered in a unique teaching partnership between Aberdeen University and Camphill Rudolf Steiner Schools in Aberdeen. This course covers aspects of care, education, therapeutic activities and crafts. It aims to produce individuals who can act as reflective and intuitive practitioners and who can bring to the person with complex needs a holistic approach that upholds the dignity and uniqueness of the individual.

That there are now more than 90 Camphill communities in 20 countries is testimony to Dr Konig's achievements. This year, after the 2002 centenary of his birth, has witnessed a landmark in the history of Camphill. In March, the Scottish Social Services Council announced that a BA in curative education would be one of the recognised qualifications for those working in the social care sector in Scotland. This full professional recognition is a tribute to all involved in the pioneering partnership between Aberdeen University and Camphill Rudolf Steiner Schools.

Robin Jackson is a professional development consultant with Camphill Rudolf Steiner. Schools, Aberdeen.

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