The latest batch of ‘Free’ Schools have been announced (http://on.ft.com/qc6qMQ) and amongst them is a Steiner school planned for Frome in the West Country. The first state funded Steiner School opened in 2008 in Hereford when its existing fee paying structure was substituted for state funding (http://bit.ly/rsbtax). The website of the Frome Steiner Academy (http://fromesteineracademy.co.uk/) indicates the school has been approved and will be state funded from 2012.
Finding out more about Steiner Schools requires some patience and you have to get to grips with the man who inspired this model of education. Rudolf Steiner was a rather intense and complicated individual who seemed to have read widely and had a particular talent for synthesising disparate intellectual material into grand structures of belief. Being positive about him would require us to note his amazing appetite for knowledge and ability to formulate opinions on just about everything. But we could also see Steiner in a different light, as an eccentric and even deluded individual, who dabbled dangerously in many fields and ultimately descended into a twilight world of childish fantasy and pseudo-scientific nonsense. If you think this is harsh, then remember that he believed the Atlanteans had a way of turning the life force of a seed into a usable form of energy. They used this energy to power planes which floated above the surface and they could steer these vehicles over the mountains if they needed to. These are the Atlanteans who lived on the mythical island of Atlantis. The island which even modern Archaeology has failed to find any evidence for whatsoever. But back to the magic planes; unfortunately for those of us stuck with a Ford Mondeo on the drive and seeking a plane we can fuel with a few wafers of shredded wheat, these revolutionary vehicles – according to Steiner – would not work today as the air in the time of Atlanteans was much much denser than today (http://bit.ly/peyE6w). Don’t you hate it when the air gets much thinner and renders a revolutionary form of transport redundant? Although back in the field of education and child development Steiner did have an excellent diagnosis for why some children are ‘weak-minded’. It appears they have ‘worms’, but a good dose of carrots can cure this unfortunate affliction. Apparently carrots have the ‘forces of the earth’ in them and can work their way up through the blood to the head (http://bit.ly/oyKZxI). All sound and sensible stuff I am sure you would agree, definitely the basis on which to build a philosophy of education.
Steiner education (also known as Waldorf education) is a humanistic pedagogical system, according to the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship:
This philosopher and scientist’s insights inspired what has become a worldwide movement of schools that espouse and promote universal human values, educational pluralism and meaningful teaching and learning opportunities.” (http://bit.ly/nmB5i5).
So far so good, but this is a little vague I feel and I struggle to take from it any real sense of how a Steiner/Waldorf education is different. After all, what schools would seek to promote ‘meaningless teaching and learning opportunities’? The website of the Frome Steiner Academy uses much the same kind of language, opining that ‘successful education is education which is in tune with the child’s developmental needs’. This is hard to argue with on educational terms, but you could visit 100 state funded primary schools in England and find exactly these same values being stated and put into practice in the classroom.
Other research into the Steiner/Waldorf model of education reveals that it is Piagetian in its structure, with a clear sense of child developmental stages. In the early years children are encouraged to learn through play and the teacher encourages a multi-sensory approach to exploring the world with frequent trips to explore the world outside the classroom.
the teacher presents a curriculum that has structure and sequence but that relies on lessons unaccompanied by textbooks. This approach fosters an integrated multi sensorial approach to learning and expression, with more emphasis on oral listening and memory than is found in other childhood models for the primary years (http://bit.ly/olRkmd)
What is interesting about this is how far it is from the official line on early years being touted by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb. They are concerned with the lack of reading skills in young children and have taken every possible opportunity to promote the use of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ as the best way to teach reading (http://bit.ly/pF5xjX). So the simple question here is whether the state funded Steiner Free School will be using synthetic phonics or not. To do so would seem to compromise its espoused educational values (this approach is heavily predicated on text rather than oracy), but not to do so would put the school in direct conflict with the pedagogical approach being heavily promoted by the Secretary of State and the Schools Minister.
Other aspects of Steiner pedagogy also appear to be heavily in conflict with the paymasters back in Whitehall. Nick Gibb has frequently spoken of how schools should get back to teaching facts, giving students the building blocks of knowledge and not falling prey to foolish modern fads in learning. Gibb has stated: “What is to be criticised is an education system that has relegated the importance of knowledge in favour of ill-defined learning skills,”(http://bit.ly/qFJnMv). You know where you are with Nick Gibb, he likes knowledge and facts and he dislikes trendy approaches to learning. He’s a no nonsense kind of a bloke, old school. He’d probably cane you if he could get away with it. So will he be making a visit to the state funded Steiner school to see the students interpret the spirit of Great Expectations using ‘eurythmy’, an expressive form of performance art? And would he be happy to talk of this experience in one of his speeches extolling the virtues of the Free Schools approach? After all, the students need to know who ‘Miss Havisham’ is, of that we are certain; but presumably how they express this knowledge is largely irrelevant and surely a funky dance in a floaty dress is as good as an essay?
This was not an attack on Steiner education per se, a quick search on the internet will reveal many sites which are critical of the approach. This post is rather a call for coherence and honesty in policy making, a coherence and honesty which is sadly lacking when the Secretary of State can approve a Free School in the Steiner/Waldorf model and commit tax payers money to this project.
So ‘free’ schools are definitely NOT free in the sense of cost to the tax-payer (of course). Schools which were previously privately funded are now being state funded at a time when public expenditure is under an unprecedented contraction. This appears to be a lavish misuse of public money to prove a narrow ideological point. Where areas need more school places, use the existing schools to provide these, a process which would be far more cost efficient than creating bizarre boutique schools dotted randomly around the country. Free Schools are of course free of local authority control and they are free to apply their own curriculum and employ staff on local contracts and conditions. Paradoxically they are also FREE of the self same strictures which the government is placing on state schools in terms of what they teach and how they teach it. The rush to create new free schools appears to have created a situation where even schools which are directly contradictory to official policy are given state funding whilst existing schools are forced to bear the brunt of ministerial meddling.
And if the thrust of Free School funding is to raise standards and achievement as we are told so often, then visit this link (http://bit.ly/pVthwG) which compares the Steiner Academy in Hereford’s results with its nearest school. With no figures entered for any of the tests (most parents withdrew their children), this school is the lowest performing primary school in the entire country. What might the tax payer make of that?