As mentioned in my last post, the Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley (RSSKL) closed its doors for the last time on Friday 13thJuly 2018, after almost seventy years of existence. The school had repeatedly failed its Ofsted inspections and its insurers were no longer willing to provide cover, so closure was inevitable. In its death throes, the school has caused tremendous damage, not least to the public reputation of Steiner Waldorf education. In my time at the school, which ended in 2014, I was already beginning to experience some of the forces that have led to this sad outcome and in this post I would like to reflect on what has happened.
My association with the school began in 1998, when my wife and I enrolled our daughter as a pupil, but it wasn’t until two or three years later when I joined a study group for parents that I began to get more involved. I was trying to understand more about what lay behind the education and this was the start of a quest that continues to this day.
In 2004 I applied for and was appointed to a part-time role as communications officer for the school. I soon realised that, if I was to do the job properly, I would need to be able to sit in on the meetings of the College of Teachers and listen to their discussions. (For those unfamiliar with Steiner Waldorf education, it should be explained that in many Steiner schools there is no head teacher and the responsibility for running the school resides with those faculty members who wish to take on this additional task.)
RSSKL’s College of Teachers kindly agreed to let me join their meetings so I began to get an insider’s view of how the school was run. College meetings were held on Thursday evenings, just after the weekly meeting open to all staff, which I also attended. At first I listened and observed at the College meetings and, as I was not a teacher, did not say very much; but after a while I began to speak whenever a topic came up about which I knew something. After a year or two the College felt sufficiently comfortable with me that they asked me to chair the meeting – and so I became, as far as I know, the only non-teacher ever to be College Chair in a Steiner school. This I did for around three years, before later taking up a full-time post at the school.
As my role then was part-time, and because my wife and I were paying full fees for our daughter at the school, I needed to take on another job. In 2008 I found part-time work for the other half of the week as communications officer with the executive group of the Steiner Waldorf Schools’ Fellowship (SWSF) and so was able to widen my acquaintance with other Steiner schools in the UK. It was an exciting time to be at SWSF: Christopher Clouder was busy making links with schools around the world and putting the case for Steiner Waldorf education within the European Union; Sylvie Sklan was putting in the spadework that led to the creation of the first publicly-funded Steiner academy schools in England; Janni Nicol was doing wonderful work in Early Years’ education and helping to create understanding in government of the Waldorf approach; Kevin Avison was travelling within the UK and Ireland advising schools on a whole range of issues, while also finding time to develop a quality scheme and arranging for Steiner schools to receive their Ofsted inspections via School Inspection Services Ltd, a new company set up by former HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education); while Jane Avison looked after administrative matters with great efficiency via the SWSF office in Stourbridge. Trevor Mepham and Alan Swindell, both soon to become principals in two of the new Steiner academy schools, were also active in the executive group at various times.
As part of my communications work with SWSF, I started to collect links to news items from around the world about, or of relevance to, Steiner schools . Each Friday during term time I would circulate these links to schools in the UK and Ireland, as well as to quite a long list of individuals who had asked to receive them. Thus it was that I became increasingly aware of the criticisms of Rudolf Steiner and Steiner Waldorf schools that were at that time starting to be widely disseminated online. I was upset by many of these criticisms, which did not accord with my understanding of Steiner or my experience of Waldorf schools. The sheer viciousness of the many misrepresentations I saw online led me to engage with some of these critics, in what with hindsight I now regard as naïve and well-meaning attempts to increase understanding and put the record straight. Today I would claim to have a more nuanced view of these criticisms, some of which were undoubtedly justified.
Back in 2004 a new chair of trustees at RSSKL, the excellent John Doherty (himself a parent at the school), was using his business expertise to steer the ship away from the rocks of financial disaster, caused largely by an over-lenient attitude from the school towards the collection of fees from parents. The trustees appointed a very good new bursar and John Doherty himself started to phone parents who were in arrears. Many of the outstanding fees started to come in, while some parents whose financial position was such that they would never be able to catch up with what was owed, left the school. These actions were not popular in some quarters, including with some members of the College of Teachers, but they saved the school from going bankrupt.
John and his fellow trustees felt with some justification that the College was not sufficiently responsible or knowledgeable about the school finances to continue to decide on such matters; and so the trustees (who are in law responsible for everything that happens in the school) decided to reserve to themselves all decisions about finances, fee levels, bursaries, health and safety, property maintenance etc, while devolving responsibility for pedagogy and curriculum to the College. Their view was that the College did not have time or sufficient expertise to deal with many of the matters related to running the school, such as preparation for Ofsted inspections, employment issues, dealing with complaints and so on. I think it was at about this time that some of the teachers began to resent the work of the trustees, though I should also record that a previous body of trustees had felt it necessary to resign en masse some years earlier, following what they perceived to be persistent and prolonged non-cooperation from the College.
In 2009 John Doherty invited me to take up a new post at the school, that of education facilitator, with responsibility for many of those issues that the trustees felt that College could not look after adequately. I accepted this on a half-time basis so that I could continue with my SWSF work; but it soon became clear that each job in reality required full-time attention so after a while I had to choose between them. I decided to relinquish my SWSF role and concentrate on the job at RSSKL, which had the advantage of allowing me to be at home more often and also, as a full-time member of staff, entitled me to a discount on our daughter’s school fees – which was very helpful for our family finances.
Very soon after taking up the education facilitator post at RSSKL, I was thrown right in at the deep end – a phone call was received from the lead inspector announcing that Ofsted would be sending in an inspection team the following week. This, in the days when Ofsted gave 48 hours’ notice of inspection, meant a frantic, up-all-hours period of work for me to try to get ready. Needless to say, apart from the work of one retired class teacher, the school had made hardly any preparations for this inspection, and I had to fall back on paperwork that had been done for the previous inspection in 2006. Nor did many people on College show the slightest interest in helping me, although I was grateful to the retired class teacher and a couple of other teachers who did take the matter seriously and helped to write some updated material for the inspectors to read.
This Ofsted inspection was the last one to be carried out at the school by “official” Ofsted, all subsequent inspections over the next few years being done by the excellent and highly-experienced former HMIs from School Inspection Services Ltd. (SIS). As an aside, I was always bemused by those critics who suggested that Steiner schools had somehow secured for themselves a more lenient form of inspection by way of SIS taking on the Ofsted contract for the inspection of the independent Steiner schools; this is absolutely wrong. As someone who in later life briefly became a lay inspector with SIS, I can tell you that these ex-HMIs were absolutely the best inspectors I’ve come across – formidably experienced and highly knowledgeable, they knew exactly where any bodies were likely to be buried and they were assiduous in digging out all our weak points. They did this while also taking the trouble to inform themselves about Steiner Waldorf education, and they behaved with charm and courtesy throughout the inspection. They didn’t miss a thing, however, and in their feedback at the end they were not only forensic in their report of what they had seen but – and this is where they really scored –their intention was that the school should find the inspection as useful as possible in identifying areas for improvement. I honestly felt that it was a privilege to be inspected by these people.
This first Ofsted inspection in 2009, however, was not such a happy experience. The lead inspector did not seem to know much about Steiner education, although she had attended some kind of briefing about it, nor did she seem to be much impressed by what she had heard. She did, however, ask me to set up a meeting for all the teachers in the staff room on the day before the inspection proper began, so that she could explain more about the process and answer any questions that the teachers might have. I shall never forget the acute feeling of embarrassment I had when only a handful of teachers bothered to attend this meeting. It was a direct snub to Ofsted by most of the teachers and the lead inspector was keenly aware of it.
This first inspection led to the school being rated as “Satisfactory”, which in Ofsted terms actually means “not good enough.” It was a baptism of fire for me but it also gave some useful indications of those areas for improvement which needed attention. In most schools, this would be a relatively straightforward, although arduous, process. Between the end of one inspection and the onset of another, the school would be expected to work on those areas identified by the inspectors. At the next inspection, the inspectors would look to see what progress had been made on the areas previously highlighted.
At RSSKL, however, working on our weaknesses was not a straightforward or easy process. There was a mix of cultural and organisational factors which made it very much an uphill struggle. No teacher enjoys Ofsted inspections but at RSSKL there was a strong sense among some teachers that the state and its quangocrats in Ofsted should have nothing whatsoever to do with what the school was offering. This attitude was encouraged by one or two experienced teachers who should have known better, who would say absurd things in College meetings such as: “We should just refuse to let Ofsted through the doors – what could they do to us anyway?” Well, the teachers who thought like that now know only too well what Ofsted could do to them.
I used to try to get College to understand what was at stake by saying things like: “If you run a car, there is a legal framework you operate within – you need to have car insurance, a road tax disc and a MoT certificate of roadworthiness. If you run a school, there is also a legal framework within which you have to operate – you need to be aware of issues such as pupil safeguarding; you need to have Ofsted inspections, which means that they will want to see your lesson plans, pupil assessments and sit in on your lessons. You cannot avoid this. In schools as in life, you need to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s.” But too many teachers were not prepared to render unto Caesar that which the state required of them. Some of them seemed to have a problem with any kind of authority; I remember one upper school teacher devising a show for pupils to perform, which he called: “Ofsted – the musical.” The climactic moment of the piece was an Ofsted inspector being done to death with the copper rods from eurythmy lessons. All very amusing, no doubt, but utterly irresponsible and childish in people who had taken on a serious commitment to run the school as a collegiate.
As education facilitator, I was under a triple disadvantage: I was not a teacher; I had been appointed by trustees rather than College; I had no authority other than moral persuasion to compel staff to co-operate. I tried to explain to teachers that if the school decided to follow wholeheartedly the best practice recommendations of the SWSF Code of Practice, then we would not only be a really good Steiner school but we would also sail through future Ofsted inspections. I don’t think many of them heard me, or if they did, they usually felt there were more important priorities for them to discuss in their weekly teacher meetings.
I also had to spend a certain amount of my time defending and explaining the College of Teachers system to trustees and bending over backwards trying to make it work, because I believed that it does have the potential to offer some real advantages to a school and that, despite the problems, this was how a Steiner school should be organised. What I didn’t recognise sufficiently was that this should have been a two-way process requiring goodwill from the teachers and a willingness to work towards improvement. A few teachers had this but not the majority, who seemed to think that the way they had always done things was just fine.
Despite the many difficulties, I did make some progress – our next Ofsted inspection under SIS in 2011 rated us as “Good”. In hindsight, I should nevertheless have acknowledged to myself that the task was insuperable and recommended to the trustees that they should impose the appointment of a principal with a teaching background to run the school. This would have caused a huge ruckus at the time but it might have saved the school from subsequent closure. Perhaps even this would not have been enough; in my worst moments I felt that the only thing that would save the school would be to close it down, make all the teachers redundant and then re-open with a new structure, a new culture and new teacher contracts.
I have written elsewhere about my thoughts on a school trying to run itself via a College of Teachers but I can’t resist re-telling this anecdote: some years ago I held a vision-building workshop at RSSKL as part of our Inset Days. To help me, I invited a very experienced businessman and friend, Mick Crews, not only because of his track record in similar workshops for big companies but also because he liked what he had already heard of Steiner Waldorf schools. As part of our preparations, I explained to Mick the ways in which the school sought to manage itself through the College. He listened very carefully and then he said: “It strikes me that, for your system to work, it requires a degree of personal integrity in the staff that you don’t find in any other walk of life”.
He was right, of course, and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t find that degree of personal integrity in the RSSKL College either. Some of the difficulties I came across were to do with the College’s failures to monitor teachers’ behaviour, to discipline members of staff or to handle complaints properly. There were one or two members of staff who in my view should not have been allowed to continue teaching. Everyone knew who they were, but it proved impossible to ease them out of the school. This was partly due to an endemic weakness of will and misplaced kindness but it was also partly down to what I call the “chumocracy” that ran the school. Teachers primarily thought of their colleagues as friends, which is admirable in one way but is not helpful in a school where professional standards must come before friendship.
Teachers must be prepared to report on their colleagues if they suspect anything less than ethical is taking place, and in really serious situations the College must support the disciplining, sacking and reporting of these colleagues to the local authority and the police, regardless of any feelings of friendship – because the needs and safety of the children must come first. I remember saying to College on one occasion that I had never felt so lonely as I did in my job as education facilitator. This was received with surprise and some indignation but it was how I felt. In that job, one could be friendly but not true friends with colleagues because there might come a time when, as once fell to me, it was necessary to suspend a teacher from the school, report his gross misconduct to the local authority and the police and then end his employment. This obviously had a huge impact on the man and his family, and was not calculated to make me popular with his friends in the school, who at first didn’t believe that he had done that of which he was accused.
There were other unpleasant things going on. A group of teachers and parents briefed by these teachers had come together in their opposition to the school’s property strategy, which was intended to improve the school’s buildings and facilities, including the Priory, which after Miss Cross’ death had eventually come into RSSKL’s ownership. This was a Grade II listed building which had been sorely neglected for many years to the point where English Heritage was sending us warning letters about the need to maintain it properly. Most of the school buildings were also in need of proper maintenance and no new buildings had been put up since the construction of the Gym in the early 1970s.
For reasons which I still don’t wholly understand, some teachers took against the property strategy, which they seemed to think was being imposed on them by trustees. RSSKL had used the Priory for teacher accommodation rather than for classrooms and there were several teachers and their families living there. Under the property strategy, which envisaged bringing the Priory back into use for teaching purposes, two or three families would have been asked to move elsewhere, but would have continued to enjoy the benefit of subsidised accommodation. All sorts of stories about this were told to parents, and then some of the parents began to circulate various documents and emails, alleging that there was something wrong with the administration of the school’s finances and that there was power-seeking and corruption in the trustees and the school management. When I reported on some of this to the whole school staff meeting, someone present secretly recorded my remarks and passed the recording to the cabal of parents. I subsequently received a threatening letter from one of these parents, a high-powered lawyer, delivered by motorcycle courier for maximum dramatic effect. There was much, much more going on but even today it is probably not prudent for me to give further details. The person who had leaked the recording was never discovered. Clearly, any basis of trust for collegial management of the school had broken down irretrievably. Suffice it to say that in this atmosphere of sabotage and betrayal, it was impossible for the school to function properly or to deal effectively with these attacks.
I urged the College to tell these parents that they must desist in their undermining activities or else they would be asked to remove their children from the school. This the College did not do, being by this time so weak and divided that it was incapable of effective action. I came to realise that there are some teachers and many parents who, like children, need to understand where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie. When adults don’t find any boundaries and keep pushing, still with no response, then just like children, it becomes deeply worrying for them and they cause even more disturbance. Through the agitation and deep unpleasantness towards some members of staff and trustees from some teachers and parents, the property strategy fell by the wayside and a really good opportunity for the school to upgrade and improve its whole estate for the benefit of the children and teachers alike was lost. With the closure of the school, those teachers who currently live in the Priory or elsewhere on school premises will soon be facing the loss of their homes. It could and should have been very different.
After I left the school in 2014, I cut all ties and made no attempt to stay in touch, sickened by my experiences there. I have not kept up with all the twists and turns of more recent events and have no comment to make on them. I know, however, that the College did not replace me despite some desultory attempts to do so; and the school then managed to fail six Ofsted inspections within 18 months. Eventually the trustees appointed a principal (at around three times the average teacher salary) who specialised in turning around failing schools. Sadly, it was all too little, too late.
I looked online at the final Ofsted inspection report of 10thMay 2018 that led to the school’s closure, which listed a catalogue of continuing failures. I noted the name of the second inspector on this occasion; it was the same person who had been lead inspector during my first traumatic experience of Ofsted, the woman who had been snubbed in the staff room by so many of the teachers.
What conclusions do I draw from this whole sorry story?
First of all and despite my own difficult experiences as a member of staff, I am very sad that a school which provided a good education to my own daughter and to so many other children over the last seventy years, has had to close because of the weakness, cowardice and malice of teachers and parents who were unable to see what the consequences of their own behaviour would be for the school. While I was experiencing these difficulties at the school, my daughter was gaining three A* grades at her A-level exams and going on to a successful university career. There were some really good teachers at the school, and the exam results were much better than the national average. The Waldorf curriculum taught alongside the exam curriculum at the school produced articulate, well-rounded and well-socialised young people who go on to do very well by society and in life. I want to celebrate what the school did well and remind myself that not all Steiner Waldorf schools should be damned because of RSSKL.
Second, in my view no Steiner school nowadays should attempt to run itself with a College of Teachers as its main management body. It is unrealistic to expect a school to be run satisfactorily by a body of teachers meeting once a week after a long day of teaching, even with a system of mandates running alongside it. The College of Teachers is worse than useless as a school management body in today’s conditions, despite anything that Rudolf Steiner may have had to say in its favour nearly a century ago. I don’t think it even worked very well in Steiner’s own time, when despite recruiting leading talents from across Europe to become the first teachers in the Stuttgart Waldorf School, the school experienced all sorts of problems and never managed to come to a definitive form and role for its College – and throughout it all, Steiner still found it necessary to act as the de facto headmaster. Where the College is still worthwhile is in areas such as pedagogical discussions, child study and the sharing of research; and where the College includes administration staff as well, it can help to establish a sense that the school is the responsibility of everyone, and all staff whatever their job titles, are educators. This sense of common purpose was never achieved at RSSKL. To run a truly complex organisation like a school in today’s regulatory environment, I think it is necessary for a principal and senior management team to work alongside the College to achieve the best results.
What of the role of Ofsted in all this? I have no means of knowing for sure but I strongly suspect that there was some kind of turf war going on between “official” Ofsted and the former HMIs of SIS Ltd. Long after I had left the school, when parents began writing to Ofsted to complain about the way the school had handled their safeguarding concerns in connection with a teacher (as they were fully entitled to do), it seems likely that Ofsted saw it as an opportunity to step in and over-ride the inspectors from SIS, who would have been perfectly capable of dealing with the matter. But given everything that was happening at the school, it was inevitable that Ofsted would at some point have to pull the plug. I recently met a parent and former trustee of RSSKL, who said: “Thank God for Ofsted – and I never thought I would find myself saying that.” This was of course before the school was forced to close.
A major weakness of the Steiner schools in the UK is the fact that the exceptional autonomy of each Steiner school makes coordinated responses to movement-wide problems very difficult. This lack of centralised authority also makes it almost impossible to fix problems that individual schools have been unable to solve for themselves. RSSKL has now tarnished the name of Steiner Waldorf education far and wide – the BBC and national and local newspapers have carried extensive reports of the problems, leading figures in education have been quoted as saying that this should be a wake-up call for government to intervene, and of course the whole fiasco has been a gift to online Waldorf critics. One looks in vain to Dornach, the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, or the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (now somewhat reduced in staffing and resources) for a response.
Yet a response and positive corrective actions are surely needed. There are, for example, real deficiencies in some of the Steiner Waldorf teacher training courses. If I were recruiting teachers for a Steiner school now, I would do my best to employ only people who already had acquired QTS (qualified teacher status) and who had then decided to convert to the Steiner Waldorf system. That way a school would have some chance of getting gifted teachers who are also familiar with lesson planning, pupil assessment, record-keeping, classroom discipline etc., and all those issues on which RSSKL was judged to be failing.
I’m concerned that, because they have not sufficiently evolved and developed their administration, professional practice or the curriculum, the independent fee-paying Steiner schools are slowly declining. In recent years schools in Aberdeen, Canterbury, Glasgow and now Kings Langley have closed. It is possible that more will follow. There are of course also some excellent independent Steiner schools such as Edinburgh, Elmfield, Michael Hall, Wynstones and others; but my main hope for the future of Steiner Waldorf education in the UK now resides with the publicly-funded Steiner academy schools at Hereford, Exeter, Frome and Bristol. It is ironic that SWSF was criticised by many in the independent schools for supporting Steiner academies, on the grounds that public funding was likely to lead to government interference with the Waldorf curriculum, or that free Steiner schools would threaten the existence of the fee-paying schools. What these people forgot is that the government can and will intervene at any school, whatever its status, which is perceived as failing. Because the Steiner academy schools receive public funding, they are held much more accountable by government – but because they are now part of the maintained sector, they are seen as a valid part of the pluralistic education system in England in a way that the independent schools never managed to achieve. Not the least of RSSKL’s disasters is that it makes it far less likely that any government will wish to allow any more publicly-funded Steiner academy schools to be created.
My final conclusion is that to hold today to the letter of what Steiner did, rather than seek to express the essence of what he was really about, is to doom your school to irrelevance. I recently found a quotation from Karl König, founder of the Camphill Movement, which put this rather well: “Tradition is nurturing the flame, not worshipping the ashes.”