Susy Powlesland, my dear friend who passed away at the age of 90, was a pioneer in the field of education, advocating radical ideologies. Together with her husband, John, Susy established the Kirkdale school in south London during the mid-1960s. The school operated on the principles of equality, self-sufficiency, and creativity, giving priority to the particular interests of each child. It served for over a decade and fostered a community that continues to flourish even today.
Susy was a single child born of Jewish origin to Emilie (nee Preis) and Felix Michlowitz in Vienna. Her father was a watchmaker and jeweller. When Susy was just nine years old, her family managed to leave Austria on the last train out, moments before the Second World War sealed the borders. Initially accommodated in London, the family was driven out by the blitz and eventually found shelter in Reading. However, Susy never felt completely comfortable there.
Over the years, Susy attended local schools, thereafter training as a nursery nurse in Reading and later attaining enrollment for teacher training at the residential Gypsy Hill Training College in Kingston, Surrey. She served in primary schools in Stratford, East London, and Leicestershire. It was during her work at the Forest School camps that Susy met John Powlesland, and they married in 1954 before settling down in London.
Susy was always highly cognisant of the issue of religious and racial prejudice, focusing particularly on the struggles of the underprivileged and marginalised groups. In Ed Husain’s book, The Islamist, he recounts a harrowing encounter with National Front bullies who threatened him and other Muslim school children in a local playground. Susy and the other teachers rushed to the children’s defence, confronting the bald-headed bigots head-on.
Susy lived in Tower Hamlets for over four decades, presiding over Sir William Burrough school as its headteacher from 1980 to 1995. She had a profound impact on the children and their families and went out of her way to aid newly arrived Bangladeshi children, especially those who lacked immediate family support. In the 1980s, Susy learned some Sylheti and travelled to Bangladesh to gain more insights into her students’ cultural backgrounds.
In 1984, Susy spearheaded the establishment of the Limehouse Housing Project, aimed at improving the quality of life for ethnic minority communities through the provision of better quality housing. In 2003, she helped found the Globe Community Project, a local charity that endeavours to offer activities for people in the community, young and old, and from all walks of life. For her services to the BAME community in East London, Susy was appointed an MBE in 2007.
After her retirement, Susy developed a strong interest in meditation and Buddhism. In 2003, she was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order, where she took the name Shraddhapuspa (Flower of Faith). Susy was committed to children, families, and her Buddhist teachings, remaining active in her charity roles and Buddhist teaching commitments until the very end of her life.
Susy’s husband John passed away in 1977, and she is survived by their children, Stephen, Helen, Francis, and Ayen, as well as their grandchildren Zak, Jasmin, Zain, and Zachran.