Steiner schools have some questionable lessons for today's children

With their free and easy philosophy, parents for years saw Steiner schools as a serious alternative to mainstream education. But, as Lee Williams reports, some have discovered a more sinister side to the lessons being taught

Lee Williams
Tuesday 08 November 2016 19:32 GMT
Rudolf Steiner School
Rudolf Steiner School

With its beautiful grounds and emphasis on creativity and imagination, the new school seemed perfect for Lottie Antwi’s daughter. Eleven-year-old Sarah had a talent for performing arts, one of the reasons the Steiner school in Hertfordshire with its huge theatre looked so appealing. At first Sarah enjoyed herself and seemed to be thriving in the environment. It wasn’t until half a term later that the problems began. “They got a new teacher who was, basically, not well,” says Lottie.

“He got them to look up swear words one day and just said, ‘Oh look I’ve found c***!’” Sarah also complained that the new teacher – drafted in from another Steiner school – hurt the children when shaking their hands in the mornings and told them stories involving decapitations and other disturbing details. Following several complaints, the new teacher was dismissed after just eight weeks. The Antwis were prepared to put the incident down to a single bad teacher and continued with their daughter’s Steiner education. It wasn’t until Sarah’s second year that things started to go badly downhill. “Her teacher read out a poem,” says Lottie, “and it said, ‘The little boy had so much chocolate on his mouth he looked like a nigger’.”

As a mixed-race couple, the Antwis were incensed. They demanded a meeting about the incident but the teacher showed little remorse and the school made no attempt to discipline the individual concerned. “It was very odd. In a state school I don’t think that would happen,” says Lottie. “The teacher wasn’t suspended, nothing. They just said the teacher was getting training for it, but I don't think it was proper training, just normal class training.”

Baffled by the school’s response, Lottie Googled "Steiner school racism" at home that night and was stunned by the result. “All this stuff came flooding out of my computer, ” she recalls, “that they believe in reincarnation through the races with white people at the top. I read for four hours and literally cried, thinking where is our child at school?” The Antwis removed their daughter from the school as soon as possible.

Mother of three, Belle Jackson, sent her children to a Steiner school in the Midlands for similar reasons to the Antwis. Belle was attracted by the lack of academic pressure at Steiner schools, where reading and writing aren’t taught directly until the age of six and emphasis is placed on experiential, arts-based learning. Belle’s two sons enjoyed their time at the school but daughter Joanna suffered problems. Joanna was excluded by others in her class and subject to bullying and name calling. The problems escalated when Joanna’s father picked her up after school and found her soaking wet. “The children had been playing in a wheelbarrow by a stream,” says Belle, “and they tipped her into the stream. There were no teachers watching. They hadn’t cleaned her up or dried her off and when my husband spoke to the teacher she simply said, ‘Oh, she asked for it’. ”

The school had no bullying policies in place, according to Belle, and the children were left unsupervised at playtime. “It was incredible that no teachers were there to look after her, ” she says. “They believe it’s the karma of the child and the child has to work through it themselves.”

Rudolf Steiner, philosopher and occultist, had dubious theories on race 

Karma and reincarnation were just two of the beliefs held by Steiner education founder, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and occultist who started the first school in Stuttgart in 1919. Steiner’s educational system was based on his spiritual philosophy, anthroposophy, which blended religious ideas from the Far East with aspects of Christianity, zoroastrianism and gnosticism.

Steiner’s approach to education was founded on the use of imagination, creativity and practical learning, with a spiritual theme running through all subjects, including even maths and science. He incorporated elements of dance and physical expression – so-called eurythmy – into his lessons, which were thought to help the students’ personal and spiritual development. And he believed that analytic thinking and academic learning were unsuitable, even dangerous, for younger children.

Today there are more than 1,000 Steiner schools in over 60 countries, making it one of the biggest independent school systems internationally. Yet Steiner schools have faced continuing controversy over some of the ideas of their founder. One of these is the claim that Steiner believed in so-called reincarnation through the races, where the souls of humans evolve through a hierarchy of races culminating in white Europeans. Steiner’s dubious theories on race were witnessed first-hand by one prospective parent, Dan Dugan, during an open day at a Steiner school in San Francisco. Dugan wandered into the school’s bookshop where he found a text on health and illness.

“I dipped into a Rudolf Steiner lecture from 1922,” says Dugan, “where he was talking about how intelligence naturally comes from blond hair and blue eyes. I thought, oh God, this is the foundations of the Holocaust.” Shocked, Dugan approached a teacher who told him that none of Steiner’s beliefs were taught at the school, only his educational methods. Dugan allowed himself to be persuaded, he says, because he was so “blown away” by the beauty of the school and impressed with its arts-based curriculum.

Dugan enrolled his son. But the doubts soon returned when he attended a chemistry demonstration lesson. He found that it wasn’t really a science lesson at all but a spiritual philosophy about heat and light. On another occasion an anthroposophist physician gave a guest lecture which Dugan describes as “pure quackery”. He decided to voice his concerns to prospective parents at an open day and then at a meeting with teachers. During the meeting Dugan says he was told: “You don’t have to believe what we believe but you can’t complain about it in front of other parents.”

He decided to pull his son out of the school. Since then Dugan has become secretary of the Parents for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools (PLANS) in the US, where he has amassed a wealth of literature on Steiner education and anthroposophy. According to Dugan, Steiner schools teach pseudo-history, with much of the curriculum taken up with Bible stories, lives of the saints and Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. Science is also not mainstream, but so-called Goethian science, based on observation without theory. “Some of the lessons are just crazy, ” says Dugan, “like the way they teach about colour. They believe that white light is not composed of colours mixed together. They believe white light is pure spirit.”

Other bizarre theories mean younger children aren’t allowed to draw pictures with pencils or pointed crayons because straight lines are thought to harm their development. Likewise, computers and all forms of media are shunned until later stages of development, at home as well as at school. These forms of media are thought to embody “a materialistic spirit named Ahriman, who alienates the human being from his spiritual roots,” according to an ex-Steiner teacher who blogs about her experiences online.

According to this teacher, children at her school were taught that there are just four elements and that the continents are islands floating on the ocean. Elemental spirits like gnomes were invoked to explain things such as the working of a fax machine, to deflect children from ‘'dangerous'' analytical thinking. And the lack of supervision at playtime was explained by the fact that “angels watched over the children”.

When she tried to explain conflict resolution skills to a group of children repeatedly pushing a child off a tree stump, she was reprimanded by other teachers and told that the children were “working through things and needed to be left alone”. Overall she warns parents to be careful of Steiner schools which, she claims, definitely pass on the ideas of their founder.

Kevin Avison, senior advisor for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship in the UK and Ireland, denies that bullying is tolerated in Steiner schools or that children are left unsupervised at playtimes. He points out that Steiner establishments are inspected just like other schools and that they would be shut down if such practices were allowed. He also calls the claim of belief in reincarnation through the races “a complete and utter misunderstanding” of Steiner’s teachings. Steiner was, according to Avison, talking about a time “long, long before humans were around. He certainly wasn’t talking about it in modern terms.”

Avison further points out that the only school in Apartheid South Africa that allowed black children to study alongside whites was a Steiner establishment. But Avison does admit that Steiner education has its problems and can attract the wrong sort of teacher. “I really feel upset sometimes that our schools aren’t doing better than they are,” he says, “and in many respects these parents have very good points. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing otherwise.”

But for many parents like Belle Jackson, this comes too late. She feels that Steiner schools should be open from the start about the ideas behind the education and what children will be exposed to. “The thing that worries me most about my experiences,” says Belle, ” is that they didn’t tell us the truth of what it was going to be like. If I had to do it all over again, I certainly wouldn’t. ”

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