Steiner schools: Learning from experience

Steiner school pupils get a stress-free education - they're not even taught to read until they're seven. Now, the Government is set to turn one into an Academy. Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

Last week, we reported that the Government was making common cause with the privately funded Montessori schools movement to rescue a struggling state primary school in Manchester. Today, we can reveal that it is getting into bed with the private Steiner movement. That means the Government that gave us curriculum tests and league tables will be supporting a school where tests and exams are almost non-existent, and where play and dance are seen as every bit as important as formal classroom learning.

And if - as Steiner supporters hope - this coming together of the two systems allows some of these ideas to filter into mainstream schools, the children of our noisy, socially fractured world could benefit immeasurably. "The Steiner curriculum is a therapeutic curriculum," stresses Sylvie Sklan, development director of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. "It is perfect for disadvantaged children. It should be available in the inner cities."

"There is definitely scope for two-way learning," says Philip Woods, professor of education at the University of the West of England, who has just completed a major study on Steiner schooling, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills. "And learning across boundaries is a significant theme of Government policy."

There are 31 Steiner schools in the UK and Ireland, but they have never had any public money, unlike their counterparts in other European countries. In fact, they exist on the margins of educational consciousness - something, people tend to think, to do with tree-hugging.

In fact, the framework of Steiner schools is closely prescribed, and built on the view that a child's creative, spiritual and moral dimensions need as much attention as their intellectual ones. "When people used to say to my mother: 'Aren't those the schools where children do what they like?'," says teacher Alison Gilbert, "she used to say: 'No, they're the schools where children like what they do.'"

Even so, it is ground-breaking that the Government has decided to expand its drive towards school diversity - mainly used to encompass Moslem and church schools - to embrace such a different educational philosophy, and it's no surprise to find it has not been easy.

The idea has been kicking around for six years. Estelle Morris, when she was Education Secretary, and Andrew Adonis, now an education minister, have pushed for it to happen, but attempts to set up a voluntary-aided school in London foundered, and three years ago it was decided to go down a different route.

Now, plans are being worked out to make the Hereford Waldorf School in Much Dewchurch, currently housed in a converted barn, a new, all-in Academy taking about 300 pupils aged five to 16. But there are tricky issues to negotiate. Steiner teachers want to protect their ideas; the Government needs its schools to be accountable.

So far it has been agreed that the Steiner curriculum will not be compromised, provided that pupils are taught English, maths and science - no problem, since the Herefordshire pupils already take public exams in these subjects. The Government has accepted that Key Stage 1 tests are irrelevant to the Steiner curriculum, and that any Key Stage 2 testing would have to be flexible, and the results not for publication. There will be no selection on ability, admissions will be based on parents' commitment to the philosophy, and the role of a head, as a financial manager, will have to be worked out, as Steiner schools are run as teacher democracies.

At the school, Steiner-qualified teachers will be expected to work towards graduate status if they do not have a degree, but - to the annoyance of the teachers unions - qualified teacher status is seen as a national curriculum-based qualification and inappropriate. Computers will not be used in the lower school, as the Steiner philosophy is that screen images hinder the development of thought and imagination, and the school will be free to decide how to use them in its upper school, provided that pupils become competent at ICT.

The school will be sponsored by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, and sponsorship money - 10 per cent of capital costs - will come from a European software house and a private donor.

And it looks as if local parents could be clamouring to get their children into the place. Following the news that there could, potentially, be government funding for the school, this year's open day attracted many more visitors than usual, and it is likely that they would have been impressed by the pupils' calm and confidence, and their powers of concentration.

This, teachers make clear, is because they are brought up from the beginning in Steiner ways. In the kindergarten they play with simple, unfinished wooden toys rather than bright plastic ones, to allow their imaginations to develop. "People say, 'don't they get bored?'" says teacher Karen Fielding. "And we say, 'No, because every day it's something different.'"

When pupils move up a class, they stay with the same teacher, right to the end of their schooling. This means personal differences have to be worked through. It can be hard, acknowledges teacher David Donaldson, but you get to work at relationships at a very deep level.

The school day begins with an important settling-in session, where children work off physical energies and draw together in common purpose. Younger children sing and play games with bean bags; older ones might do something outside, then play the recorder and recite "the verse" together - a religious-sounding affirmation of the spirit of life.

This is followed by a two-hour "main lesson", where students follow one subject for three weeks, exploring it in depth and from all angles before moving on to something else. The afternoons are given over to arts and crafts activities.

The lessons are based on whole-class learning, with the teacher first speaking about something, before the class moves on to talking about it, writing about it, and illustrating what they have written.

There is an old-fashioned, courtly quality to these classes, with children sitting at wooden desks, and a high standard of work - although it helps that class numbers are small. A class of 14-year-olds is studying The Tempest, and discussing the nature of Caliban. He is, they volunteer, "a deformed human being" or "half-devil, half-witch", and argue about whether they should feel sorry for him.

Upstairs, teacher Karin Hines is teaching history of art to the top class of 15-year-olds, who have just finished a three-week module on physics. These students do GCSEs in English literature, language and in maths, and Open College Network qualifications in crafts and sciences, but are not rattled by exams. "The local sixth form college loves to have them," she says. "They say they're mature, interested, articulate and ask lots of questions.

"You work twice as hard for half the pay here. But where else could I teach history of art in the morning and do blacksmithing in the afternoon, with a bit of chemistry thrown in as well?"

Ruth Hardy, 15, and Leila Terrett, 16, are adamant that they would send their own children to Steiner schools. They love the family atmosphere and the way that Steiner children are so creative. Most of them cook, they say, and many make their own clothes, and tend to be practical.

There are things that are weird to outside eyes. The curriculum goes for depth, not breadth, and the laboratory and art room facilities are pitiful. There are few books and no computers. Children learn to write using huge pencils, and to paint using huge brushes. The art is stunning, but closely controlled, with children instructed how to proceed through the colour spectrum. There is basket-weaving, and also a ritualised dance form called eurythmy.

Rudolf Steiner founded his first school back in 1919 for the children of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory workers, but he understood that rhythmic, coordinated physical exercise helps the brain, and that the development of the imagination is central to a good education. He knew children needed room to breathe, and had to come to things when they were ready for them, and he understood the importance of helping them to develop as whole people. He also pre-empted Jamie Oliver by almost a century, pointing out the need to feed children good, wholesome food.

There are 900 Steiner schools worldwide. They work successfully in South African townships and Eastern European refugee camps, as well as in wealthy parts of America and our own Surrey commuter belt. Gilbert says: "It all comes out of how you work with your children - how you work with them in your mind while you're preparing lessons, how you hold them in your heart. It's based on the notion that the child is a spiritual being, and that you are caring for something precious."

There is a shortage of Steiner school teachers in the UK. If you would like to know more about the different pathways to becoming one, please phone the Hereford Waldorf school on 01981 540221, or view training options at www.steinerwaldorf.org.uk/training.htm

What is Steiner education about?

1. Co-educational, comprehensive schools, run co-operatively by teachers, which follow an internationally recognised curriculum, without early specialisation

2. A balance of artistic, practical and intellectual teaching, plus an emphasis on social skills and spiritual values

3. Children have the same class teacher from seven to 14. They do two foreign languages from the age of six. Mental arithmetic happens daily. Calculators and computers are banned until children are older. Whole-class teaching is the norm.

4. Formative assessment rather than testing. GCSEs and A-levels can be taken alongside the full curriculum, usually a year later.

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