Steiner schools fail to get Free School Funding -- for this year at least

Francis Gilbert's picture
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The News Network Anthroposophy, the news agency for the Steiner-Waldorf organisation which runs Steiner schools worldwide, has just published an article which states that Steiner Schools will not be getting the go-ahead to be funded as Free Schools this year.

"The schools and new Steiner initiatives which put in proposals to become a Free School will be hearing from the Department for Education around now,” a spokesperson from the British Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) said in a statement in response to an enquiry from NNA. “We are not expecting any Steiner schools to move to the next stage for 2011 opening. This is disappointing news, but we hope that a number of our schools will be submitting applications for 2012 and 2013 once the new proposal form is released,” the statement added.

Clearly the government is troubled by some of the key ideas that inform the Steiner approach. Most worrying is the schools' apparent aversion to vaccinations. The UK Health Protection Agency regards Steiner school children to be unvaccinated. There was an outbreak of measles centred around a UK Steiner school in 2000, and another one in 2008 in Austria. They may also have concerns about Steiner schools links with the mystical philosophy of Anthroposophy, which promotes a number of troubling ideas, including working out children's characters based on their facial characteristics and its belief in re-incarnation. Steiner schools were founded by the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, who held racist ideas, believing black people were of "childhood" and Asian people were "degenerate".

It's interesting to note that the government's Free School policy is not as "free" as it seems; in the US some Steiner schools have been given Charter School status, the equivalent of being a "Free School", public funding for an essentially "independent" school. Giving Steiner schools Free School status would have boosted the numbers of Free Schools considerably; it appears 25 schools were seeking public funds. However, it seems that there is growing uneasiness about the whole policy in the Coalition with many politicians -- particularly amongst the Lib-Dems -- concerned that the policy is perceived as unfair and divisive by the public.
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Liam Collins's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 10:07

Is there a possibility that this was stopped due to the fact that they wouldn't follow the prescribed curriculum? I am no fan of steiner schools, but this could be an unintended consequence of this policy, that all new schools completely opt out of curriculum and therefore league tables...now that would amusing

Thetis's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 10:28

It's interesting that the NNA quotes an 'inside source' as commenting re certain applications:
'This should serve as an incentive to undertake a much more systematic survey of the actual level of demand before making another application'.

It's easy to create an impression of demand by presenting expression of interest as something more. I know that some Steiner schools and initiatives were actively seeking signatures by asking parents to circulate surveys to friends, neighbours, grandparents... But the Steiner Waldorf movement has not proved itself capable of honestly representing the basis of its pedagogy, so that many prospective parents have little idea what the implications of this pedagogy may be for their children. Interested families who have researched more thoroughly - especially at an early stage - may well be inclined to withdraw their support.

MarkH's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 13:23

Six months ago I would have supported our local Steiner school's free school application. Then I found out about Anthroposophy, almost by accident and totally independently of the school's recruitment efforts.

An email soliciting signatures for a petition to demonstrate demand for the school read:

"If this sounds like a good idea, even if you don't have children PLEASE could you fill in the...form"

Support from those without children might be nice, but presumably wasn't what the DfE was looking for.

I expect at least some Steiner schools to come back in the next round with improved proposals. However, I believe it is also the case that the DfE is better informed about these schools, through the efforts of Thetis and others, than the average prospective parent.

Lucy Knight-Ballard's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 13:43

The term 'Free' school is completely mis-leading. There is actually very little that a free school can offer that can't already and often is already offered within the existing state system.

Sweden originally allowed much greater freedoms to deviate from a nationally designed curriculum but last year began to reinstate greater government control as damaging inconsistencies in standards were beginning to appear. I believe this encouraged our government to pull back from the allowing the curriculum freedoms they had originally intended.

'Free' schools, for very good reason, have little more freedom than any other state school and they also cost the tax payer enormous amounts of money. Maybe it's time they were given a more honest title.

janee's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 14:32

Steiner may have failed this time, perhaps because they managed to creep in under the Labour Government. The Hereford Steiner was one of 6 private schools which were able to become academies. Is it to be supposed that they were a "failing" school or one serving a deprived community?

It is clear that the Steiner empire sees "free" schools now as gift wrapped bonus.

Thetis's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 16:25

Jane - you will have seen Francis Beckett writing about the Steiner Academy Hereford for the Guardian in 2008:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/mar/10/schools.uk2
'..closures will leave perfectly viable school buildings standing empty, so the villagers question whether £16m on a new building for 330 children is a sensible use of public money.'

A sound education's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 23:45

It is quite reasonable for a successful school system to try to serve a wider population; many of us don't believe that quality education should have to be only for the economically well off. It is intriguing to see how many politicians (and, often enough, state school teachers) are keen to send their own children to private schools.

It appears that there's a very large group of people who are very happy with the reality (not just the theory) of Steiner education. Perhaps this is true of state education, as well...but it appears to me that many of us are (or were) enamoured of the idea of state education, but few are very happy with the reality.

Thetis's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 11:10

I don't see the evidence that a very large number of people are very happy with the reality of Steiner education. It attracts, in reality, a very small number of parents. It's very much a niche group. And the turnover of pupils is high in many Steiner schools, have you thought to ask those parents who are unhappy with their child's education why they've left?

Peter H Reeve's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 11:16

My wife and I are familiar with Steiner's insights, both of us taking the 2-year teacher training course at Emerson College Sussex in the late 1970s. Since then, we have taught children by the Steiner approach daily right up to today. All our own four children went tthrough Steiner education to the age of 19. All took good honours degrees in sciences and two now hold PhDs. All four are thoroughly balanced and normal people. We have had much feedback that children we have taught are appreciative of their education and happily look back on it.

Thetis's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 14:49

Peter Reeve: We're talking here specifically about Free Schools funding for Steiner schools: I think you would agree that it is vital for Steiner schools to be entirely honest with both parents and potential funders as to the nature of those 'insights' of Rudolf Steiner's, especially when money may be diverted from other schools to fund the fruits of those insights. I'm sure you taught your pupils that honesty is the best policy, and that you believe it isn't ethical to mislead families by withholding 'esoteric' knowledge that is material to your pedagogy and to their children's school experiences.

In my child's school they play outside, climb trees, have a gardening club, cook, listen to stories, form close friendships and are treated as individuals by their teachers. There is nothing better in a Steiner school. What there is in a Steiner school though is an pedagogy based on an occult philosophy, about which the teachers are not honest. It's hardly sustainable in the age of the internet.

Prof David Colquhoun was quite right to call Steiner the Mystic Barmpot. I can't think of a better name! We need to concentrate on protecting the schools which serve our children, not on indulging the bizarre whims of adult esotericists.

Fran Russell's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 15:15

Unfortunately there are a number of myths and half-truths being peddled about Steiner education which ignore the fact that Steiner education is the largest independent education system in the world with over 1000 schools.

The Steiner curriculum is rich and broad, interweaving all the subjects of the national curriculum in an imaginative and artistic way. Along with most European schools we introduce reading and writing at age 6 when we believe children are better equipped to absorb that kind of learning. Two languages are also taught from that age and at least 2 musical instruments from age 8. Children in our schools take GCSEs and A’Levels and go to university like any other school but they are not tested at 7 or (in our independent schools) at 11 because we believe testing at these young ages is detrimental to learning.

Rudolf Steiner’s ideas around mysticism and re-incarnation are not taught in Steiner schools and we are strongly ant-racist in our teaching and in the culture of respect for others and the environment which imbues the schools and the curriculum. Whilst Steiner schools do attract some parents who are against the use of vaccinations that is a matter for their judgement and not something any school would advocate.

There is currently only one Steiner school available under the state system. It is so popular it could be filled 5 times over. The evidence for demand is overwhelming and extending the choice of a Government funded Steiner education to a wider number of families is long overdue.

MarkH's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 20:26

Steiner schools generally claim to promote the spiritual wellbeing of children, alongside their emotional needs and academic achievement. That sounds nice, but it is vital that parents understand what it means.

Gardening and playing the piano make me feel good. Perhaps they're good for my "spiritual wellbeing".

On the other hand, I see that Anthroposophy, Steiner's peculiar brand of spiritual insight, is taught in Steiner teacher training courses and is promoted by the schools in study groups for parents. It would be reasonable to assume that they have a particular understanding of "spiritual wellbeing" that I would do well to be sure I agree with before enrolling my child.

JulieB's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 20:30

I sent my child to a Steiner school, because ALL my local state schools were:
Expecting children to attend full time at age 4,
Teaching reading, writing + numeracy at an age that we felt was too soon,
Teaching IT to 5 year olds! We feel this should be left till teenagehood,
Supporting TV watching + use of HI tec toys for small children - I could go on...
Our family does not have a TV and I don't want my 5 yr old using a PC, so a Steiner school was a natural choice. They don't teach mumbo jumbo and they are not secretive about Anthroposophy. They are not racist or sexist and they reject this aspect of Steiner's views. They do however offer children many excellent and common sense opportunities that are not offered in the State system. Because I don't agree with the state school system, I have to pay school fees even though I also pay taxes for others to enjoy the state system.
Steiner schools are not for everyone but they do offer a high standard of education. Its just a shame that there is so little choice in the state system.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 22:14

The legal age for children to attend school is 5 years; attending full-time at 4 is not compulsory.

Lucy Prentice-Miller's picture
Tue, 10/05/2011 - 11:46

Unfortunately while this may be true Francis, in reality state schools often put parents under pressure to send their children younger. I was told my daughter would not get a place at our nearest primary school school in Plymouth (where her brother was already a pupil) if she did not take up the place offered to her in January, when she was four and a half. Because it was a good school, within walking distance and her brother was also there, I reluctantly accepted but regretted it for the whole of that year as she did struggle.

Thetis's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 22:33

very good new post about the Hereford Steiner Academy, the only state funded Steiner school in England, on Alicia Hamberg's blog: http://zooey.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/hereford-academys-visions/

The Academy is intended to provide a template for future funding of Steiner schools - so its activities are worth noting.

MarkH's picture
Sat, 19/03/2011 - 12:56

JulieB: when you say that the Steiner school your child attends is not secretive about Anthroposophy, may I ask in what way it is presented to parents? Was it mentioned at all before your child was enrolled?

Iona Cameron's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 11:28

I believe it is good to give parents a choice as to which school is right for their child. From my own experience, and that of other parents I have spoken to, our children did not enjoy their experience of state school in the foundation stage. Thank goodness for the alternative of Steiner schools which have given back to my child the love of learning and imaginative exploration of the world which was sadly being lost to him in his state school. Steiner school definitely suits him. The fairest system would be to award each child in the country a schooling allowance or voucher to be spent at any school they choose. It is not up to us to judge a system but for each parent to choose what is right for their child. I feel Steiner schools should receive government support for the excellent job they are doing at creating alternative education streams for those children which do not adapt well to the state schooling system.

Thetis's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 15:34

Iona - in the light of the measles outbreaks in Europe, which as in previous years can be linked in some cases to Steiner Waldorf schools - see Ernst E. 2011 Anthroposophy: a risk factor for noncompliance with measles immunization:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21102363
Are we to expect a statement from the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship strongly advising parents to seek vaccination for their children, in order to protect not only their own families but other children with whom they may come into contact?

I refer to a newsletter dated November 2010 from the Exeter Steiner school, for which you are currently fundraising, in which Oliver Cowmeadow is advertised giving a talk entitled: 'How to strengthen your immune system - is immunisation necessary?'
http://www.webcitation.org/5vX25Pk4b
also: http://www.webcitation.org/5vX1oXVOU

Since Professor Ernst is a neighbour of yours (at the Peninsula Medical School) perhaps you could encourage Exeter Steiner School to invite him to give a corresponding talk explaining why, especially in the light of these measles outbreaks, it is necessary.

Pete K's picture
Mon, 17/10/2011 - 19:36

"They don’t teach mumbo jumbo and they are not secretive about Anthroposophy. They are not racist or sexist and they reject this aspect of Steiner’s views"

Wouldn't it be better to say *as far as I know, they don't teach mumbo jumbo..."? They ABSOLUTELY taught Steiner's racist ideas to my child - and delivered the lesson plan as "physiology". After multiple discussions with the school (Highland Hall - a 50 year-old established Waldorf school with teacher training facilities on site), they stood behind a RACIST lesson plan. There's little reason to assume, since they're a training facility, that they don't teach Steiner's racist ideas to teachers... but since they DID teach them to my child, there is NO reason to assume they don't teach Steiner's racism to children. Again, this isn't a start-up Waldorf school with a wacky teacher... it's an ESTABLISHED Waldorf school and teacher TRAINING center.

Waldorf schools are here to promote Steiner's ideas. ALL OF THEM! Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. It's really THAT simple.

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