After my recent posts on the troubles affecting Steiner Waldorf schools in England, I’ve come in for a certain amount of criticism from some anthroposophists, who think that it’s not a good idea to wash dirty linen in public.
One friend and anthroposophical colleague, a former teacher, told me that I should be putting across a more hopeful message instead of reinforcing all the doom and gloom in the media. She also felt that my recent blog posts may have given the impression that I am a critic of Steiner Waldorf education rather than a supporter.
After this dressing-down from my friend, I got home to find the following in my inbox from the magazine Schools Week:
“Two Steiner schools criticised by Ofsted over safeguarding failures have been warned they face being moved to new sponsors.
Steiner Academy Bristol and Steiner Academy Frome have been issued with termination warning notices by Lisa Mannall, the regional schools commissioner for the south west of England.
The schools, which follow the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, were placed in special measures following unannounced Ofsted inspections last November. It means three of the four state-funded Steiner free schools in England are now rated inadequate.
Inspectors said the schools did not have high enough expectations of pupils and warned safeguarding was “not effective”.
Staff at the Steiner Academy Bristol also “unnecessarily” used physical intervention, they found. Steiner Academy Exeter, which was placed in special measures in October, has already received a “minded to terminate” notice from the government, which was published in December.
The damning reports, published last month, along with “deeply concerning” findings in other Steiner institutions raised by chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman, prompted the education secretary Damian Hinds to grant Ofsted special powers to inspect all Steiner schools in England, including 21 private schools”.
This news item was yet another reminder that Steiner Waldorf schools in England are facing an existential crisis and why burying our heads in the sand is not a wise strategy. However uncomfortable it may be for supporters of Steiner Waldorf education (amongst whom I include myself, it should go without saying), we must nevertheless look this crisis clearly in the face and consider what needs to change now. To quote from Amanda Spielman’s letter of 31st January 2019 to the Secretary of State for Education, referring to the nine inspections so far carried out by Ofsted:
“All the inspection reports have now been published on Ofsted’s website. Six of the nine ‘overall effectiveness’ judgements from full inspections were inadequate and three were requires improvement.
None of the schools was judged good or outstanding for overall effectiveness. A significant number were inadequate in all areas, and a number of the independent schools inspected failed to meet the department’s independent school standards”.
Here is the passage that worries me most in Spielman’s letter:
“Given the prevalence and seriousness of these issues across both state-funded and independent Steiner schools, they raise questions about whether these common failures are a result of the underlying principles of Steiner education. Across the state and independent sectors, there is a wide variety of educational philosophies, and successful schools can be run in a variety of ways. Ofsted does not have a preferred model. However, there are fundamentals that need to be in place: good governance, clear lines of responsibility and effective safeguarding procedures. While we did find some examples of this during these inspections, they were very much in the minority. I therefore urge you to consider and further investigate why so many of the Steiner schools inspected are neither protecting children adequately nor giving them a good standard of education”.
Damian Hinds has not so far responded to this request to approve an investigation into whether the “underlying principles” of Steiner education result in failures of leadership, governance and safeguarding but the prospect of such an intervention must be deeply concerning for the whole movement.
I’m told that a current trustee of the now-closed Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, when asked for her reflections on what had happened, said simply that the school had been unprofessional. If that is the case, and if that also applies to some of the other schools which have been recently inspected, then the challenge for other Steiner schools is: how can they become more professional in terms that will be recognised by Ofsted – but without losing the essence of Steiner Waldorf education? This must be possible to achieve, because the Steiner Academy Hereford was rated Good in all areas by Ofsted in its latest inspection – which means that there is no inherent reason why other Steiner schools can’t do the same.
I was therefore pleased to hear that the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain is now funding someone with experience of Hereford’s methods to provide consultancy to other schools in England. The Society is also providing sponsorship for schools to send teachers to this year’s Easter Conference in April at Michael Hall, which will be on the themes of revival and renewal of Steiner Waldorf education. I was also heartened to see that the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship is inviting expressions of interest to undertake research at PhD or EdD level into the following questions:
- What are the outcomes of Steiner Education in the UK?
- What does a contemporary Steiner Curriculum look like in modern Britain?
- What does the leadership/governance structure look like for a contemporary Steiner School in modern Britain?
As a result of a meeting of 17 schools at Rudolf Steiner House in London on 8th December, four working groups have been formed to look at Steiner Waldorf approaches to:
- Assessment of children’s learning
- Appraisal of teachers
- Leadership and management training
- Curriculum development
This is all good news and it fits in with what was said to me recently by a kindergarten teacher, that “this crisis will be the making of Steiner Waldorf education in this country”.
It’s not just in schools or in England that these challenges are being faced; anyone working in anthroposophical social care, for example, will be aware of what happened in the Camphill movement and how the model of care established by Karl König has had to evolve beyond the original in the face of increased regulatory requirements. The problem with governmental and societal demands for increased safeguarding and accountability is that they are always accompanied by a narrowing of the cultural and spiritual life, because of insurance-based risk aversion and ever-more prescriptive laws and regulations. But if Steiner Waldorf schools can show that, despite the increasing restrictions, they are improving and can mobilise their parents in defence of the education, then as has been seen in the USA with charter schools facing similar challenges, it becomes very difficult for a politician to close them down.
Even if the schools do manage to get overwhelming parental support, there will always be necessary improvement work for them to do and they cannot afford to rest on their historical laurels. For people working in those schools, the question of the division between leadership and the individual responsibility of each member of staff has to be addressed. What are the qualities needed by leaders in Steiner schools and are they different from the qualities needed by leaders in mainstream schools? What forms of school organisation and governance will deliver a really well-managed and well-led Steiner Waldorf school nowadays?
Finally, how can we improve the training of teachers in Steiner Waldorf schools? It is clear that further developments are needed, but who is to do it and how is it to be resourced and accredited? There is also a need for conversion courses, for teachers in the mainstream schools who would love to work as Steiner teachers in a creative and fulfilling professional environment. In this connection, I was delighted to see that the Steiner Academy Hereford has received a small grant to set up a pilot scheme for qualified mainstream teachers who wish to convert to becoming class or subject teachers within Steiner Waldorf schools. They received 30 applications for this scheme, which shows there is a real appetite for working in a school environment which encourages imagination and creativity.
The Steiner Waldorf schools in England are currently facing huge challenges and some of them may be forced to close. This is the present reality. But those which can rise to meet and overcome these challenges will become stronger, more effective and yes, more professional. If these schools are to continue to offer an education in the name of Rudolf Steiner, then nothing less will do.