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The social organisation of a conductive education centre in Birmingham

Carolyn Blackburn, Reader in Interdisciplinary Practice and Research with Families at Birmingham City University

Conductive education (CE) is a pedagogical approach for teaching people with neurological impairments. The Professional Conductors Association (2003, p.3) describes conductive education as:

A holistic integrated pedagogical/educational system which enables people with damage to the central nervous system to learn to overcome the challenges they face.

The CE approach is a means of ‘bringing together’ and involves a unified, integrated approach for educating children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to maximise the effects of teaching and learning. Conductive pedagogues (‘conductors’) are educators trained and socialised to work according to this holistic philosophy.

CE is poorly understood as a profession across the disciplines of health, education and social care. One reason for this may be that research concerning CE is commonly published in health journals and is compared to other health-based rehabilitation or intervention approaches. In healthcare, individuals with neurological motor disorders are described as patients. This contrasts with the description in education of ‘learner’ (Brown, 2006). The framework of rehabilitation has traditionally been based on the medical (individual) model of disability, in which disability is seen as a problem in an individual’s features, and rehabilitation as modifying the individual by the cultural norms of normality (Oliver, 1996). In CE, the learners need to acquire the skills that were previously or are typically automatic with a focus on how they learn, as well as what they need to learn while ensuring their psychological wellbeing is enhanced simultaneously. Adaptations to the environment to suit the individual are part of this (Abberley, 1987; Oliver, 1996; Scotch & Schriner, 1997). In the social model, disability is considered a condition caused by cultural prejudices, inadequate societal services, and physical environments. These aspects can be modified to meet the different physical and mental human variations (such as impairments) which appear in any particular community. Society can adapt and modify variables within any environment to ensure full inclusion for all citizens (Oliver, 1996; World Health Organization, 2007).

In an effort to challenge this medical perspective of CE, I undertook a study believed to be the first to explore the professional working practices in a CE centre in the UK. The study draws on institutional ethnography (IE), a method used for inquiry and discovery about the way in which things are put together and work in order to establish the actualities of people’s everyday lives (Smith, 2005). The focus is on social and ruling relations. These terms have specific meaning in IE. They refer to particular practices that ‘activate’ a social world of things happening among people. They are empirical and can be ethnographically described.

‘The study draws on institutional ethnography (IE), a method used for inquiry and discovery about the way in which things are put together and work in order to establish the actualities of people’s everyday lives.’

Ruling relations are social relations that organise work from afar. For example, government SEND policy and legislation requires conductors to work collaboratively with other professionals and parents to continuously monitor and assess children’s progress in a particular way. Although ruling relations are generated at a distance, they are often ‘activated’ by people in a local setting. Policy is developed remotely and enacted locally in social practice.

From interviews with conductors, observations and documentary analysis, the findings highlight the ‘relations of ruling’ that shape local experiences within the centre. For example, it emerged that the professional lives of conductors were organised through a discourse of SEND policy and assessment tools; health and medical reporting on children’s progress and development; and excessive coding, documentation and monitoring of children’s development. Despite this, conductors envisioned their role as providing hope to parents and filling important gaps in service provision between health visitors and primary education. Conductors demonstrate resilience in a number of ways. For example, they use ‘movement as a vehicle to the national curriculum’ enabling them to demonstrate progress for children as required by regulatory bodies in the same way as other special schools.

There is an important role for conductive education for children with neurological impairments that is complementary to mainstream and other special education schools. Working closely with parents and other professionals to provide important early intervention services for very young children, CE can improve the chances for children to enter mainstream primary school.


Abberley, P. (1987). The concept of oppression and the development of a social theory of disability. Disability, Handicap and Society, 2(1), 5–19.

Brown, M. (2006). An insight into the benefits of conductive education. Nursing & Residential Care, 8(3), 122–125.

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding disability. From theory to practice. Hampshire: Palgrave.

Professional Conductors Association. (2009). What is conductive education? Birmingham: Conductive Education Professional Education Group.

Scotch, R., & Schriner, K. (1997). Disability as human variation: Implications for policy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 549(1), 148–159.

Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

World Health Organization [WHO]. (2007). ICF-CY. International classification of functioning, disability and health: Children and youth version. Geneva.