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International House Hastings 1970-1999: a personal perspective

It wasn’t a sudden death, more a slow strangulation, but teacher training at Embassy Hastings (what was IH Hastings from 1970 – 1999 and was bought by Embassy in 1999: Ed) is no more and it’s well after time to mark and mourn its passing. Here are my thoughts as I look back on a unique and hugely influential department.

Like many of us who created an amazingly varied and versatile training team, I was myself a product of Hastings training, having done my RSA prep in 1978 with Brian Hay and my diploma under Tim Bowen in 1986. I worked on courses for over twenty years till Embassy / Studygroup – who took over the school in 1999 – finally pulled the plug on teacher training in 2007. By this time the department had shrunk to a half dozen people and the final move came in March 2008 when the school closed as an all round operation and the surviving core of old lags were made redundant. ‘What a waste!’ you may say but it was very much a sign of the times, with profit margins replacing educational integrity and so called ‘core business’ replacing loss leading training ventures.

And so the International Teacher Training Institute which had started under the leadership of Adrian Underhill back in the seventies is no more. That, as they say, is history, but the question is how and why did a small school located in Palace Court, the gorgeous rabbit warren of a former hotel in a slightly seedy seaside town have such a tremendous impact on the world of ELT? The location did play a part, whether it was the fact that Hastings provided affordable housing for teachers returning from stints abroad to settle down and breed, or the stunning setting which gave views of wave lashed promenade in winter and sun filled days in summer. It’s the only school I’ve known where you could nip across the road to the beach for a lunchtime swim or sunbathe and return for afternoon class with batteries recharged.

Palace Court

One source of influence is clearly the writing which emerged from the teacher training department. Jim Scrivener’s Learning Teaching is hugely successful and a key CELTA reference book but, as he admitted at the time, the first edition was pretty much a distillation of all that was happening in the department, albeit brilliantly put together in Jim’s unique voice. And almost every classroom I work in all over the world has its copy of Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundations chart which changed the way teachers can work with pronunciation. IH Hastings never produced a Headway or Cutting Edge but Clockwise Pre-intermediate by Vic Richardson and Bruce McGowen is a pretty good contender for best ever book for short courses. Add to the above Tim Bowen, Jonathan Marks and Mark Powell and you have a collection of writers found on every school bookshelf.

But more than the undoubted influence of Hastings’ writers and conference speakers, it is its work as one of the original teacher training centres which gives the school its special place in ELT history. I wonder how many of you reading this article have a connection with Hastings as language students, trainee teachers, teachers or guest trainers? In its heyday the school ran some 14 CTEFLA courses a year, not to mention Diplomas and foreign national courses. Many of those graduates are scattered round the world as directors of studies or teacher trainers, hopefully with something of the light that the Hastings experience put into their hearts still shining after all those years.

Ask me who put that light into our teaching and I’d have to say the hugely inspirational Adrian Underhill. More than his groundbreaking work on phonology, it was Adrian’s facilitative, person-centred approach, which helped create the department ethos. Gently mocked by our more cynical city cousins at IH London as ‘touchy feely’ sandal-wearing hippies, there was a real feeling of caring and sharing between colleagues which transcended the sixties cliché. Meetings and in-service seminars resonated with Adrianesque terms like ‘ joy ’ and ‘ elegant solution’ rather than today’s obsessions with technology and targets. But if Adrian was the holistic heart of the training department, then Vic Richardson was its systems orientated brain as he banged out missives on those early Macintoshes. Vic always had a close working relationship with Cambridge / UCLES and his mid course tutorial forms for the CTEFLA were the predecessor of today’s ponderous list of assessment criteria in the CELTA 5. Vic produced in – house teaching materials which promoted discovery based language work without always relying on text – a key difference between Hastings pedagogy and centres like IH Barcelona. Another feature of IHH training was that we tended to provide informed options for teaching rather than giving oversimplistic dogmatic classroom formulas. The oft heard cry of ‘Where was your PTV ( pre teaching vocabulary) stage?’ was never heard in TP feedback in Palace Court or Gensing Manor.

Teaching as well as training was influenced – directly or sometimes more subtly – by a combination of Adrian’s interest in the Silent Way pioneered by Gattegno, Vic’s work on learner independence and of course a general interest in things phonological. As well as Adrian and Tim , colleagues like Rosie McAndrew and Ellie Spicer were inspirational in their knowledge and skill regarding intonation work. Though initially my own teaching was fairly mainstream compared to people like Allan ‘Master of the Rods ‘ Bramall, I was encouraged by my then DoS Jim Scrivener to develop my brand of spontaneous, learner driven lessons which I went on to christen ‘Organic’ teaching. In fact, I gave a talk on this at IATEFL some years before Scott Thornbury’s work on Dogme and Teaching Unplugged.

But if we worked hard together, by golly we played hard! The funky Pig in Paradise pub downstairs became a virtual extension to the school, especially for the management, and early Friday evenings would be a heady combination of teachers, trainers, trainees, students and assorted administrative workers celebrating the end of the working week. And those long winter nights leading up to Christmas were enlivened by rehearsals for the annual IH Pantomime … the likes of which shall never be seen again. We did them all from Robin Hood to Peter Pan and they brought great joy to both performers and audience. There were so many wonderful performances it’s unfair to single anyone out, though my favourite memory is from Snow White, with Adrian as the mirror. He was wearing mirror glasses and a skin – tight, shiny leotard made decent by a spangly scarf hanging from his waist. In one scene, however, the scarf slipped off, leaving Mr Underhill and his Nurejev style bulge exposed for all to see. Needless to say, the future president of IATEFL didn’t scuttle off stage in embarrassment, but finished the scene with great élan and exited to tremendous applause. Great days!

The annual IH Pantomime

So where are they now? Vic is just about the only ex IH Hastings trainer still working full time for Embassy, but some of the Hastings diaspora, including myself at times, can be found up the road at Bell, Bedgebury where Jim Scrivener is head of teacher development and Bruce McGowen was director of studies until his recent move to work for the Open University. Adrian travels the world giving seminars and workshops and essentially being Adrian. Tim Bowen writes on line for Onestop English and Ellie Spicer has been involved in making training videos for younger learner teachers for Macmillan as well as DELTA work. In fact, several Hastings trainers including Ellie, Allan Bramall and myself can be found doing mini lessons on the DVD accompanying Jeremy Harmer’s Practice of English Language Teaching 4th edition if you want to check us out in our old age!

Here’s news of other former IHH trainers – apologies for anyone I’ve missed.
Steve and Deb Barratt are teaching out in Qatar. Pete Redpath is alive and well and living in Galicia and writing for OUP. Allan and Rosie are teaching at Hastings College. Judith Gleave (formerly Jude Wilkinson) is working as a sign language support in FE and doing some ELT work in the area. Kate Evans is living in Leeds and doing DELTA training and exam writing for Cambridge. Roz Balp is retraining as a primary school teacher, as is Nicola Rendall. Simon Marshall is a freelance trainer often working for Pilgrims. Gill Johnson teaches at a nearby international school and has her book on culture out soon. Terry Pack has gone back to being a full time musician. Anne Robinson and Lynne Kennett, stalwarts of the executive school as well as the TT dept, are doing ELT work and a degree in speech therapy respectively. As for myself, I’m freelance and still do the odd training course at Gensing Manor for Embassy. I felt quite bereft to be deprived of my IH identity with the Embassy take over, but have since worked at IH schools all over the world from Spain to Slovenia, Santa Monica to Sydney. And wherever I go there’s usually a Hastings connection! Check out my CELTA trainer blog on the Cactus web site. And Teaching House New York where I worked in March is now IH NY!

Ex IHH folk meet up in Hastings now and again to share a beer and fond memories as well as discussing current plans and projects. The department is dead but its spirit lives on in the collective ELT consciousness all over the world. And every time I open up my box of Cuisenaire rods, teach the phonemic chart a la Underhill, or facilitate an end of course feedback with slightly bemused colleagues I think: ‘How very Hastings!‘

Hastings pier and palace court sunset

A post script from Jonathan Marks now living and training in Poland.

For me, the highlights were the autumn seminars with Gattegno in Bristol. I remember once Adrian was inviting someone to come and do an evening in-service session on the Feldenkrais technique, which as far as I remember entailed lying on the floor and doing microscopic muscle relaxation exercises. This was being discussed at a staff meeting, and Graham (Impey the MD) went into a rant about money from the in-service training budget being squandered just so that people could spend an hour lying on the floor, to which Adrian replied “Ah, but this is ‘guided’ lying on the floor.” Graham shot through the ceiling and went into orbit round East Sussex.

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