My friend Susy Powlesland, who died at the age of 90, was a radical pedagogue. With her husband, John, she established the Kirkdale Alternative School in south London in the mid-1960s. The school adhered to the principles of self-sufficiency, equality and creative learning, focusing on individual interests of each child. It ran for over a decade and created a community that still exists today.
Susy was an only daughter born to Jewish parents, Emilie (née Preis) and Felix Michlowitz, in Vienna, where her father ran a watch and jewelry business. When she was nine, the family managed to board the last train from Austria before the border was closed as World War II approached. They were initially quartered in London, but were driven out by the blitz and cared for by a woman in Reading, where Susy never really felt at home.
She attended local schools and, after leaving Kendrick Girls’ High School at 16, she trained as a nursery nurse in Reading, then was accepted for teacher training at the residential Gypsy Hill Training College, in Kingston, Surrey. She has taught at primary schools in Stratford, East London, and Leicestershire. She met John Powlesland when they were working together in the forestry school camps. They married in 1954 and later moved to London.
Susy was very sensitive to racial and religious intolerance and had a particular passion for the oppressed and foreigners. In his 2007 book The Islamist, Ed Husain describes a terrifying incident when a group of National Front thugs threatened him and other Muslim school children at a local playground. Susy and the other teachers rushed to the kids’ sides and yelled at the shaved-headed fanatics.
Susy has lived in Tower Hamlets for over 40 years. During her leadership of Sir William Burrough School (1980-1995), she had a huge impact on children and families. She went out of her way to support newly arrived Bangladeshi children, especially those who had no immediate family. In the 1980s, she learned Sylheti and traveled to Bangladesh to learn more about the cultural background of her students.
In 1984, she was the driving force behind the creation of the Limehouse housing project, the main objective of which was to improve the lives of black and minority ethnic communities through the provision of good quality housing. In 2003, she co-founded a new local charity called the Globe Community Project, which aims to provide activities for young and old in diverse communities. She was appointed MBE in 2007 for BAME People Services in East London.
After her retirement, she became interested in meditation and Buddhism and was ordained in the Buddhist order of Triratna in 2003, taking the name Shraddhapuspa (Flower of Faith). She brought her devotion to children and families into her Buddhist life and remained active in her charitable roles and Buddhist teaching commitments until the last weeks of her life.
John died in 1977. Susy is survived by their children, Stephen, Helen, Francis and Ayen, and their grandchildren, Zak, Jasmin, Zain and Zachran.