Steiner Schools - A License to Discriminate?

Angel Garden's picture
Far away on the other side of the world, in a small country called New Zealand, something is happening which should give pause to all those people keen to have Steiner schools publicly funded in the UK.

Back in 2009, the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School, a small school in West Auckland, but also the headquarters of that country's Steiner Federation, expelled an entire family because their eldest daughter was being bullied.

Sadly, this was a private school and in New Zealand, there are no provisions in law to safeguard children's welfare in those establishments. The Law Commission tried in implement some in late 2009, but after a year going back and forth in committee, that proposal was shot down.

This means a private school can pretty much do whatever it likes, like expelling a child without warning, reason given or right of appeal, from one day to the next, even on the very day that her parents were supposed to have a meeting with that school, with trustees, teachers and management to find a solution to the bullying.

Unfortunately for that school though, New Zealand signed up to the Human Rights Act, and there's a law there that states that you can't discriminate against someone just because they're related to someone else - it's called Family Status Discrimination. In the case of the school, they kept saying that they had no problem with the children - just the parents. Their crime? Following school policy and asking management to put a stop to the rampant bullying. So everyone was expelled, even that child's two younger sisters who were perfectly happy there, one of whom just had a birthday party organised by the school a couple of weeks prior.

Because of the family status discrimination, the Human Rights Commission offered to mediate between the school and the parents in an attempt to reach a resolution. This was last year and the school refused, stating that they had not broken any law.

Unfortunately, that wasn't how the Director of the Human Rights Tribunal saw it. Looking at the case, he said that the parents had a "prima facie claim" and urged the school to reconsider mediation. If they wouldn't the Director will then decide whether or not to proceed with legal action.

Suffice it to say that this time, the school agreed and mediation will take place shortly. To our knowledge this is the first time ever that a Steiner school has accepted to attend mediation hosted by the Human Rights.

But with more and more free schools getting public funding and so many Steiner schools[in England] with the same "special character" holding their hands out, we should really ask ourselves if any school looking for public funding should be allowed to "discriminate". Is this the kind of school that we want our hard earned public money to go to?
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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 26/03/2012 - 09:09

So far, only one Steiner school has been approved under the free school system. It won't be the first Steiner school supported by public money - the last Labour government set up a Steiner academy in Herefordshire in 2008.

I'm sceptical about the merits of Steiner education (and certainly would not send my own children to a Steiner school) but some parents do want this kind of school, and we should respect their decision. Indeed, if we truly believe in Human Rights, we have to.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

Of course, that right is not unlimited. But if we want to operate within the spirit of the declaration, letting parents have Steiner schools if they want them would seem the right thing to do, however wronheaded we think those parents may be.

Angel Garden's picture
Mon, 26/03/2012 - 10:17

Hi Ricky. Thanks for your comment.

You're absolutely right that parents should have the right to choose whatever kind of education for their children (although I would draw the line at the point where such education would be harmful to those children) but my issues are as follows:

1. In our experience, Steiner schools advertise themselves as "safe, peaceful and natural learning havens" but their pedagogy appears to stop them from interfering with bullying. This can and has led to situations where such havens have turned into nightmares. If they were to advertise themselves honestly, then they wouldn't attract people wanting a more gentle alternative to state schooling.

2. There's a case in the UK between Jo Sawfoot and the Norfolk Initiative Steiner school where it was shown that the school had lied to social services about a child in their care.

3. Our particular school lied to the Ministry of Education when they said that they were following their stated school policy on bullying. The policy said to tell and they'd do something about it - unless of course you consider expelling the targets of bullying is a justifiable remedy to a bullying situation.

4. As I mentioned in my article, the manager of our Steiner school, who also happens to be pretty high up in the Steiner Federation wrote to the Director of the Human Rights Tribunal that due to the school's special character they should be allowed to discriminate.

Do you think, bearing in mind the above that such schools should be getting public money? Let them remain private by all means, but if they become public, there should be some stringent regulations... however since their pedagogy would have been rubber stamped by the government, how is that going to work out?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 26/03/2012 - 10:55


I have just looked up the case to which you refer and was surprised to discover that it was your own family that was expelled and that you were one of the parents the school said it had a problem with.

I do think that you should have disclosed this interest in your post rather than posing as a disinterested figure worried about the interests of the UK taxpayer.

You clearly chose to send your kids to a private Steiner school, and presumably supported the general Steiner method until you had a falling-out with the headteacher.

I can imagine that you feel very hurt and possibly betrayed - but just using boards like this to slag off all Steiner schools as a form of revenge doesn't seem right to me.

According to the local Auckland newspaper:

1. The school investigated the alleged bullying but found no cause for concern.

2. The school allowed you and your partner to spend two weeks inside the school observing pupil behaviour (which seems very reasonable) but your own behaviour while there upset children, staff and other parents.

3. That there was nothing specifically "Steiner" about the expulsions - all private schools in New Zealand are legally in the same position.

I sincerely doubt that this whole sorry affair has any real lessons for public policy in the UK regarding free schools.

Angel Garden's picture
Mon, 26/03/2012 - 12:09

I'm not hiding anything at all. This is the second article I've written on LSN, the first was had "a parent's tale" in the title.

Also read my first comment here, in which I haven't hidden who we are.

Re the Aucklander - I'm sure Mark Thornton would be happy to think you are here putting his points for him, but the chronology doesn't bear out the things he said in the Aucklander, and thanks for reminding me of that little juxtaposition of the two week period with the alleged "behaviour" the school is claiming meant they had to expel the children. The expulsions were three and a half months later, so it had nothing to do with that.

In fact, although the teacher made that arrangement with us, the Manager did not wish to adhere to it, and told us that the teacher shouldn't have done it, even though it clearly says in the parent handbook that "It is important that parents speak directly with teachers about any issues that may be affection [sic] their child's well-being." The teacher had to apologise in a very abject manner. It may have been partly to do with such undermining behaviours that this teacher was unable to deal with the bullying, in spite of substantial help from another mother who tried to work on it with her for years. Eventually this mother gave up and took her children out of the school only two weeks before ours were expelled. The school never told us she was trying to deal with the bullying, yet her son was in the same class.

It's very interesting to hear your opinion of me, and to use words like slag, but our experience has genuinely made us feel that it is worth warning people of what can happen.

Although it feels as if you'd like me to be intimidated, because I am whistle blowing something which is usually swallowed by individuals, I feel that having eventually succeeded in bringing this to the attention of Human Rights, I will deal with them about the details, and indeed I think that is the significance of the mediation, that we will have a chance to look at those matters again with the school.

This is extremely relevant to the UK, and not because of anything to do with me. Look at Jo Sawfoot, "targeted as a whistleblower", by Norwich Steiner Initiative.

It's tax-payers money. If the Steiner movement is going to claim that it's special character means it needs to be allowed to discriminate, expelling children rather than dealing with bullying, because of pedagogical reasons, then British tax-payers deserve to know whether that is going to be a trend.

I obviously can't do that on my own, but I don't have to because others are doing actions to bring the same things to light. Look up Jo Sawfoot and Pete Karaiskos to name but two others, so the questions definitely do need to be asked.

In fact this is a completely re-written piece, the original in my opinion was better and much more detailed, but it was not accepted by LSN, although they haven't explained why.

Angel Garden's picture
Mon, 26/03/2012 - 12:34

I've just realised that two major paragraphs have been removed from my article which may explain why it may be a little confusing.

I'll contact LSN and check out what happened.

Angel Garden's picture
Tue, 27/03/2012 - 01:21

update: Still no news from LSN regarding the omitted paragraphs.

Local Schools Network's picture
Tue, 27/03/2012 - 09:56

Two short paragraphs were removed because they contained assertions which were not linked to unbiased evidence. One of the paragraphs used quotes made by a third party - however, there were no links to the document which contained the quotes. The other, barely more than a sentence, was a generalised comment about Steiner schools which could not be substantiated. The removal of the short paragraphs did not detract from the main point of the post.

LSN asked Angel Garden to rewrite her first post because it was very long and contained much material of a personal nature.

Angel Garden's picture
Tue, 27/03/2012 - 11:30

Thank you LSN for finally responding but your comment is somewhat inaccurate.

The reason you gave for revision of the first article was that it contained "personal allegations" even though the only person I mentioned in it by name, was Michael Gove.

When repeated requests for clarification went unanswered, and in some confusion, I asked another journalist to read it for me and he found no personal allegations at all as you are aware.

Nothing whatsoever was said about its length until now and I asked you repeatedly and politely over many days for help in pinpointing those stated personal allegations. You never got back to me. We took your comment seriously but you didn't answer any request for clarification.

Of course the article contained "much material of a personal nature". It was based on my family's experience at the hands of a Steiner school, which is the reason this mediation has come about. There are lots of stories on LSN which mention and describe personal situations, including about children. I've certainly read quite a number.

It is true that the circumstances we have to describe are not very palatable.

And that's exactly why it's important to talk about, because once the principles of Anthroposophical pedagogy are signed off by Michael Gove, they won't be in question any more even if schools do then openly use them as an excuse for discrimination.

That will not make it any easier for those future parents and families who will be forced into whistle blowing to get a fair hearing. Neither will not being allowed to mention what happened because it's too personal - good luck to them then.

Regarding the statement from the school manager in which he wrote that they have to discriminate because of their special character, no, I don't have an "unbiased link" to it, it's a letter the manager sent to the Director of the Human Rights Tribunal which we were copied into. Not everything is available on the internet, but that doesn't mean it's invalid as evidence. But if you had answered our questions, you could've mentioned the need for a link at the same time, and we would have supplied it.

The Manager's words can be read here:

That would at least have been more democratic than just cutting it up without telling me especially in view of my willingness to communicate and make changes.

As for "the removal of the short paragraphs did not detract from the main point of the post." of course it did. In fact, in spite of your objection to material of a personal nature, by removing those two paragraphs you have ironically confined the article almost completely to our own personal experience, stopping readers from seeing the bigger picture and this is clearly illustrated by the comments.

For the record, this article isn't the one I wanted to publish. But faced with a complete lack of communication from you about the problems you had with the original, which were not as you have stated here, I came to wonder how watered down my story had to be for it to appear on LSN.

As it turns out, even my neutered piece wasn't watered down enough!

Angel Garden's picture
Tue, 27/03/2012 - 11:52

I forgot to mention: "The other, barely more than a sentence, was a generalised comment about Steiner schools which could not be substantiated."

It certainly can be substantiated, and has been confirmed to us by two different sources, both highly knowledgeable researchers of Anthroposophy.

Angel Garden's picture
Tue, 27/03/2012 - 21:50

FYI, here are the Direct Messages someone at LSN sent me via Twitter regarding my first article (I'd submitted it in the morning of 15th of March):

On the 17th of March at 3:10pm, you said:
"just reviewing it. normally hesitant to put up posts about individual child cases"

On the 18th of March at 10:24am, you said
"Could you edit, removing personal allegations (our site not really place for that), keeping general points?"

Between the 18th and the 20th of March, I sent LSN seven direct messages asking for further clarification because I was at a loss to understand what they were referring to with this rather serious phrase "personal allegations". There was no reply to any of them.

It makes me wonder what this phrase "personal allegations" was really all about since no evidence of any has been supplied, the other journalist couldn't find any, and in fact LSN decided not to reveal this reason for not publishing, but publicly posted different and until then undisclosed reasons here instead.

Angel Garden's picture
Wed, 28/03/2012 - 01:03

“LSN asked Angel Garden to rewrite her first post because it was very long”

It’s true that most articles on LSN are under 1,000 words.

The article that was turned down was 1,147, but this is hardly unprecedented. In fact, the article I wrote in August - - clocked in at 1,328 and Henry Stewart’s one published on the 4th of March of this year - - is a whopping 1,751.

Angel Garden's picture
Wed, 28/03/2012 - 01:04

“LSN asked Angel Garden to rewrite her first post because it was very long”
It’s true that most articles on LSN are under 1,000 words.
The article that was turned down was 1,147, but this is hardly unprecedented. In fact, the article I wrote in August – – clocked in at 1,328

Angel Garden's picture
Wed, 28/03/2012 - 01:04

and Henry Stewart’s one published on the 4th of March of this year – – is a whopping 1,751.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 08:33

Here's another good documentary about Steiner Education in the state sector:

Nikc's picture
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 21:24

The idea of expelling a pupil (and their parents) for being bullied is so ludicrous that I wonder how they can justify it to themselves let alone the expellees! My experience of Steiner schools in NZ and UK is that they are cultish, out of date, out of touch with children, and unhealthily obsessed with their own very dubious 'guru' figure. I once witnessed a five year old girl being tied to a tree and hit by several boys while the teacher happily dusted the shelves in period costume whilst fully cognisant of what was going on. Send your kids there if you like!

Angel Garden's picture
Sun, 01/04/2012 - 23:18

Thanks for your comment Rebecca. One interesting thing about Footscray (where the Steiner stream is now closed) is the fact that you had 'straight' parents and 'anthroposophist' parents, in the very same school.

Two things that are very clear from the coverage is just how emotional the subject is and that consequently no-one will ever get to the bottom of it.

Take Jewel Topsfield in The Age;

This holistic approach to learning appealed to academic Dr Charles Livingstone, whose daughter Karla was accepted into the High Achievers Discovery Program at Footscray City College after graduating from the Steiner stream at Footscray City Primary.

Read more:

This sounds wonderful, but google another couple of links and you find the blog of a former Footscray pupil who left the school in 2000 a year before the Steiner stream started, and who's view sheds a totally different light on Jewel's mention of High Achievement.

"there is also a lol-worthy bit in the article where someone says that Steiner didn’t hold back their kid because she got into the gifted program at footscray city college, the local high school. okay. I was in that gifted program. it’s not really a gifted program in the sense of being a hard-ass academically rigorous stream. you have to show them some of your work from primary school and attend an interview. but I can’t think of anyone who was serious about applying who didn’t get in"

Read more: www[dot]ourcatastrophe.tumblr[dot]com/post/13237058312

It's as difficult to reach any solid viewpoint of the relationships involved at the school. Clearly the Steiner people feel aggrieved because they have been turfed out, but where some journalists have painted a picture in which all were united against a unilateral move by the Education Department, Jewel Topsfield goes on to say:

"It is difficult to find current parents who publicly support the closure of the Steiner stream. But Jenni Lans, whose son finished year 6 in the mainstream last year, says parents are reluctant to say anything in case ''they cop it''. Lans says she found herself the victim of hate mail and 3am threatening phone calls when she began questioning why the mainstream was subsidising the cost of the Steiner music program. There were other sources of tension, she says, including a ban on discos, electronic music and movies because they were opposed by the Steiner philosophy"

The factions were clearly visible in 2008 when the video was made and in fact, looking at it with the benefit of hindsight it's pretty clear that factions is what the video is about - cliques, factions, parent hierarchies, and power games - the fruits of trying to fit esoterically dogmatic peg into a secular pragmatic hole.

When Steiner schools are state-funded, their Anthroposophical basis, all of it, will be effectively on the statute books. If/when things go wrong, the authorities will only be able to look at schools individually, and this will be true even if the school in question uses its special character as the justification for whatever action is in question.

That means that special character is a one way street, creating an unassailable wall against having to follow the same standards as others, whilst always being available as an excuse for the fall-out.

In the Uk these schools will be starting up in areas where there are already established cohesive communities. When these communities begin to experience the sense of entitlement that appears to go along with having a dogma, (let alone a state-funded one) it will not be possible to turn the clock back, however grisly things become.

There are many more questions that need to be asked before funnelling tax-payers money into Anthroposophy.

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