Sixty Years of FICE-International

This speech was given at the FICE conference held in Budapest in May 2009 to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the refounding of FICE-Hungary. A report on the Conference, summarising some of the contributions, is elsewhere in this edition.

It is a pleasure and an honour to have been invited to speak at this conference, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the refounding of FICE-Hungary. I joined the FICE Federal Council in 1988, and so I have had the opportunity to witness the contribution made by FICE-Hungary over those twenty years.


I am aware that Dr Julia Blumenfeld is the next speaker on the programme and she is due to speak about the achievements of FICE-Hungary, but perhaps I may be permitted to comment briefly as a foreigner. My wife Kathleen and I have visited Hungary on several occasions during those twenty years. We have not only been looked after well and seen the sights as tourists, but we have also both been most impressed by the range of activities carried out by the National Section within the country.

We have, for example, taken part in training sessions for child care workers and managers. We have joined in discussions about new legislation, policies and approaches to child care. We have visited a wide range of children’s homes. (We remember being surprised when we visited one in Esztergom to find that the last visitor before us was our Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.) We have attended the Annual Ball, a very splendid occasion, obviously enjoyed by the young people who were participating. And, most recently, I witnessed the Annual Cooking Competition, held not far from Lake Balaton. We have nothing like these in England.

Furthermore, FICE-Hungary has always shown willingness to act as host to FICE-International’s Federal Council. The first Federal Council meeting in Budapest was in 1950, and in recent years we have had the pleasure of meeting in this Centre. Indeed, in its activities within Hungary and its contribution internationally, FICE-Hungary could be described as a model National Section, and we would wish to offer you our congratulations on the range and quality of your activities.


My role is to speak about FICE-International, which has now been in existence for over sixty years. I could spend my time by giving you a detailed account of those six decades, but they are recorded in the history written by Robert Shaw and published by FICE last year, entitled Children, Families and Care. I will give you some of the basic background information about FICE, but I think that our time will be best spent if I focus on a number of the key issues which emerge from the history and try to explain why I think that they are of importance here today.


The first key issue is to recognise the massive changes which there have been during the last sixty years, and by contrast to note the things which have not changed.

When FICE was founded in 1948, Europe was still recovering from the Second World War, which had had a devastating impact on millions of children in countries stretching from France in the west to Russia in the east, from Norway in the north to Greece in the south. A survey in 1946 found twenty million homeless children in Europe, including one million in Hungary. There were so many orphaned children that the only way to cope was by creating large residential communities such as children’s villages; Hajduhadhaz was an example in this country.

FICE was founded with the support of UNESCO. People working in the children’s communities scattered across Europe found that they were having to help children and young people who had been seriously disturbed by the War, and their communities were places of therapy and healing. It was difficult work, and there was a desperate need to share ideas and offer each other support.

In the early days each children’s community had its representative in FICE, which is why initially it was called the Federation Internationale des Communautes d’Enfants, and Hungarian children’s communities participated from the start. The name was changed in 1982 to Federation Internationale des Communautes Educatives after much debate, thus keeping the initials while broadening the scope of the organisation.

Since the Second World War there have been conflicts in Europe such as the events in this country in 1956 and in the countries of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but thankfully millions of adults alive today in Europe have not known war and its trauma in their lifetimes.

By contrast with 1948, we are in an age of travel and electronic communication. At Ferihegy Airport I was welcomed by immigration officers wearing face masks; why? – because of an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, halfway round the world. The current concern about the spread of the flu reflects the sheer numbers of people travelling between countries today. The instant news from countries round the world shows a massive change in the speed and types of communication. If you are able to read the FICE history, you will find that Nigel Cantwell’s introduction gives a masterly description of the changes in the context within which FICE has developed over the last six decades.

So what can history have to tell us about working with children and young people today?

One answer is that the problems which we face are often cyclical. I have been reading The Storm by Vince Cable, a book about the current economic crisis, which has pointed out that there have been stock market crashes and recessions at intervals since the 1700s. The time between the crises is usually long enough for people to forget the last time, and to make the same mistakes again.

Turning to child care, some of the earliest recorded discussions in FICE were about children’s rights. During the lifetime of FICE, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been negotiated, agreed, endorsed by almost every country of the world, and monitored. Yet it has not been a simple matter of progress; the rights of children are still a live issue.

I suspect that this is for two reasons. The first is that children are vulnerable, weak and politically powerless. They are reliant on adults for protection, and there are times such as war when their rights are completely overlooked and the treatment of children is appalling. Where you find conflicts in the world, you will find that children are still exploited and abused. They are involved as child soldiers; they are raped; they are mutilated or killed; they are forced to kill others. All this has no regard for the UN Convention. We have a long way to go before we can say that the Convention is being observed and children are enjoying their specified rights.

The second reason is that even among well-intentioned child care professionals there are differences of view. When do adults know best? Does observing children’s rights mean simply doing what they ask? Should children only be consulted, or given any decision-making powers? If children should be able to make decisions, at what age?

Well before FICE was set up, Janusz Korczak and others set up children’s communities where they gave children the opportunity to be responsible. Several of the communities set up to care for children in the aftermath of the Second World War adopted self-government and there were fierce arguments between those who supported children being able to make their own decisions, such as the communist Juliens in France and the Catholic Don Antonio Rivolta, and the secularists who preferred a more paternalistic approach.

(As an example of the extraordinary qualities of some of child care workers in the past, the Juliens shepherded a group of up to 200 children through the last two years of the Second World War, mostly on the run from the Germans, and, when it was all over, they set up the Children’s Republic at Moulin-Vieux in the Isère District of France for the sixty children who had no families to return to.)

Interestingly, the secularists won the argument against self-government in the late 1940s, and it took the eastern European members of FICE to re-introduce the idea of children taking decisions about their lives into FICE discussions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, those who argue for children’s rights generally hold the children and young people should play a major role in decision-making about their own lives, but there are still boot-camps today where the staff believe that requiring conformity to imposed standards is the way to shape children and instil self-confidence.

Another recurrent theme concerns the comparative effectiveness of different types of care – fostering and residential care, for example, and the children’s need for stability. In England Peggy Volkov (then President of FICE-International) warned about the importance of stable placements in 1948. Last month a parliamentary committee in Westminster produced a report emphasising the need for children in care to have stable relationships with their workers, and criticising the number of placements children often have. Sixty years on, and the arguments remain the same.

I suspect that some of these arguments will never end. Whether we are looking at global politics or the child care profession, these matters reflect the fundamental ways in which humans think and behave. Humankind may be evolving, but not very fast, and many of the issues looked at by FICE sixty years ago are just as relevant today as they were in 1948. We need to be just as vigilant in protecting children’s rights, and we need to engage just as much in professional debate about the best way to meet children’s needs.

Indeed, there are no grounds for being complacent, or for thinking that things will keep on improving. In just the same way that the current international financial crisis caught bankers and politicians by surprise, so child care workers need to be constantly alert to new risks which may be posed to children.

Reflecting the Wider Community

My second lesson from history is that we have to be realistic about the role of child care in society. We may think that child care is very important, and, for the children we serve and their families, child care services certainly are life-changing. But in the list of politicians’ priorities there are often many causes ahead of ours – the national economy, defence, health services and so on. We rely on the goodwill and concern of government ministers, members of parliament and senior civil servants to ensure that child care obtains sufficient resources. There are examples where FICE members have influenced legislation or obtained resources.

Of greater importance, however, is the overall economy and culture of the country. If a country is poor, it will not be able to afford the services which a wealthy developed country can afford. Equally, if the economy improves, many families will then have the resources to find their own solutions to the problems they face, and they will not need the help of welfare services. It could be argued that getting the economy right is more important in meeting children’s needs than providing child care services.

It is important not to overstate this point, though. There are rich countries with ineffective services, and poor countries which have done much for their children. Wealth may help to solve some problems but it does not necessarily make people happy.

During the course of its history FICE has had to work with countries with differing political systems. It was awarded the title of Peace Messenger by the United Nations in 1988 because it had continued throughout the Cold War to be a meeting place for child care professionals from both eastern and western Europe, despite the political tensions at the time. I am sure that this was important to those who participated at the time, but the overall message is that child care workers have had to be realistic about what they can achieve under their country’s regime.

Commitment and Perseverance

The third point which I would like to raise is that, when I read the history of FICE, I was greatly impressed by the impact of individuals on history. It is my experience that when we join an organisation, we often make assumptions about the organisation as we find it and maybe we criticise it. Like children who do not understand the struggles which their parents and grandparents had, we usually fail to appreciate the years of hard work that have been put in by those who founded the organisation, who helped it to grow, who shaped it into the organisation it is at present, and who are keeping it going now.

We may make an assumption that FICE-International is ‘part of the furniture’ – that it is secure because it has always been there. But it only exists today because Monika Niederle as President, Andrew Hosie as Secretary General and everyone else in their present roles are putting in their hours of work to keep it going. The same is true of the past. There are now generations of people who kept FICE going, who reshaped it to meet new circumstances, or who responded to new child care problems.

We are seriously indebted to all those professionals who came before us, who were concerned to raise standards of care and education for children. Sixty years ago there was a group of professionals – very like ourselves – who saw the need to come together and share ideas. There is a sense in which we are standing on their shoulders, and the organisation would not have the size of network which exists at present if it had not been for the work of our predecessors in encouraging interest in their own and other countries, in keeping the organisation going, in finding sources of funding, and in identifying the key professional issues which needed to be addressed.

FICE is made up entirely of people; it owns no buildings or land. It only exists because people want to meet, to share, to network, to exchange ideas, to learn, to support each other, and to promote shared values. The history book itself offers a good example. It includes information from a large number of people, with substantial contributions from two former Presidents, Dr Steen Lasson and Robert Soisson, and it has a cast of hundreds.

Over the sixty years of FICE, there have been ten Presidents, twelve Secretaries General, ten Treasurers, hundreds of Federal Council members, thousands of delegates to Congresses, and tens of thousands of members of National Sections. There was one President, Rene de Cooman, who remained in office for twenty years. To our shame, although there are many women in our profession, the last woman President before Monika Niederle was Peggy Volkov in 1950.

The history of FICE in some ways reads like a family history. If you have been a member of FICE for any length of time, you will find the names of people whom you know in it. And then perhaps the names of people whom you have heard of, who were the great names of child care in your country a generation ago. And then there are the accounts of the people whom they looked up to, who had gone before them, until you get back to the founders of FICE back in 1948, such as Bernard Drzewieski, Robert Preaut, Elisabeth Rotten and Walter Corti. It is like tracing one’s family tree, except that these people are the professionals who went before us. The genes which they passed down are their professional values.

In child care it is the commitment of individuals which improves and maintains the services. The services are not a machine which can be switched on and left running. Child care is essentially about relationships, and to succeed, these relationships need to be constantly renewed and strengthened. Child care workers carry a really important responsibility in helping children to develop and cope with the physical, educational, emotional and other problems which they may have.

This is true also of FICE; it is a living organism, and will only continue to live while people are committed to ensuring that it remains relevant to the problems of the day. The lesson for the future is that it is our responsibility today to make sure that our services are meeting the needs of today’s children, and to plan ahead so that services evolve to meet the needs of tomorrow’s children. In turn what we do today will become history; we need to be sure that the legacy we leave is one that serves children well.

What FICE Can Achieve

My fourth point is that from small beginnings FICE has grown to become the largest international organisation focusing on the needs of children and young people in all forms of extra-familial care. Its National Sections vary from those with fewer than a hundred members to those with thousands, and its members’ activities vary from direct support for children and young people through activities such as :

– running their country’s version of Childline, a telephone helpline for children and young people

– a training bakery for care leavers

– running major social events for children and young people such as those in this country which I mentioned earlier,

– arranging holiday visits to other countries for children in care,

– in particular, setting up Peace Camps and Friendship Camps for children and workers from the countries of the former Yugoslavia,

– providing courses for those working with children and young people,

– undertaking research,

– arranging conferences, either nationally or internationally,

– organising staff visits to other countries an exchanges,

– publishing textbooks and bulletins,

– lobbying at the highest level with governments for greater protection and resources for children and young people in extra-familial care.

You will recognise many of these activities as things you have done in Hungary.

When FICE was founded, it was supported by UNESCO, but when UNESCO itself ran short of funds, FICE’s grant was cut. In common with other international organisations in this field, FICE has occasionally had severe financial difficulties and it could have come to an end, but individual benefactors and organisations such as the Pestalozzi Foundation in Switzerland have helped out at crucial times. FICE is not rich now, but we are still here.

Despite all the difficulties, FICE has not fallen apart or died. It has kept going, and you will see in the history book that the motivation of the early founders of FICE was in many ways like the commitment of members today, to achieve high standards of service, to respect and listen to children and young people, to offer them opportunities to overcome the problems they face, and to seek out new ways of doing so.

The Past is the Parent of the Future

My last point is to look to the future. The history I have touched upon is the platform from which we start. Where should our journey take us? What changes are needed in children’s services, or children’s rights, or legislation about child care? What can FICE do to effect those changes? What sort of organisation should FICE be to do its job?

Up to now, FICE has been strong in Europe but weak elsewhere. With electronic communications, it has the scope to create networks in every continent. At times in the past it has seen other organisations working in this field as rivals; I believe that the work over the last few years to have dialogue and collaboration with other associations is beginning to bear fruit, as in Quality 4 Children, for example. The child care profession will be stronger and more influential if we speak with one voice. When FICE was set up, it had close links with UNESCO; maybe it is time to invest more energy in becoming influential at international level.

Whatever the changes of working methods and priorities, I hope that FICE retains its values and overall aims. If you read the history, you will find that the people who set up FICE in 1948 had very similar aims to those we have today.

In Conclusion

Finally, I would like to tell you that when Kathleen and I first visited Hungary for the FICE Federal Council meeting in 1989, we stayed at Csilleberc, in the countryside near Budapest. It was at the time just before the Berlin Wall was taken down, and refugees were coming through Hungary from East Germany to make contact with their relatives in West Germany. It was a historical period.

The meeting place was set in beautiful woodlands, and as a souvenir of our stay in Csilleberc, I took an acorn back home, and planted it in my garden. That tree is now about five metres tall, and is producing its own acorns. It is a nice memento of our stay in Hungary, but I also see it as symbolic of the country, planted at a crucial time of change in Hungary’s history. It is also symbolic of FICE-Hungary and its growth from small beginnings.

FICE is concerned with the development of children and young people, and if we invest in them and nurture them, they will grow and develop, and in turn become responsible citizens and parents. I am sure that there are thousands of people who are indebted to the members of FICE-Hungary for the help that they received in their childhood. They may well be unaware that, by supporting and training the child care workers of Hungary, FICE has influenced their lives. That does not matter; the reward for FICE members is seeing the young people succeed.

I would like to congratulate FICE-Hungary on their achievements of the last twenty years, and in particular Dr Julia Blumenfeld for her inspiration and leadership, and offer our thanks for your friendship and very best wishes from Kathleen and myself for the future.

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