Those of you who are familiar with my recent posts about the current intensive Ofsted inspections of Steiner schools in England will be aware that I have my suspicions about the motives behind this scrutiny blitz by inspectors.
One of the puzzling features is that schools which have previously been awarded a ‘Good’ rating are now being told that they are ‘Inadequate’. A recent example is that of Michael Hall in Forest Row, East Sussex, often seen as the flagship Steiner school in the UK, which in October 2018 was found by inspectors to be ‘Good’ in five areas and ‘Outstanding’ in Early Years; and just six months later was suddenly ‘Inadequate’ in four out of eight areas. What lies behind this sudden 180 degree turn away from previous inspection findings?
Ofsted would no doubt say that the main factor behind this change is that they have taken back in-house the inspections of Steiner schools previously carried out by School Inspection Service Ltd (SIS), whose inspections were themselves inspected annually by Ofsted and found recently to be insufficiently rigorous. SIS has now apparently taken the decision to close itself down, though there is nothing to indicate this on their website.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman wrote to Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State for Education (ie the government’s education minister) that: “The results of our monitoring work of SIS (…) gave me cause for concern: the inspections we monitored lacked rigour, particularly in relation to safeguarding. (…) I am aware that SIS has taken the decision to cease operating. I know our officials are already working together, along with the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), to ensure that all schools previously under the SIS umbrella are inspected by an alternative inspectorate.”
I have to declare an interest here, as for a brief period in 2014/15 I was a lay inspector with SIS and accompanied the inspectors on a few of their visits to Steiner schools. Part of my role was to advise these very experienced inspectors on aspects of Steiner Waldorf education with which they may not have been familiar, but my work was not a statutory part of the inspection process. As readers of previous posts on this topic will know, I formed a high opinion of the inspectors with whom I worked, all of whom were formerly Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education (HMIs) and who were led during my time by Simon Bennett and then by Mrs Jane Cooper, herself a former principal officer at Ofsted.
Indeed, Amanda Spielman wrote to Jane Cooper in March 2018 enclosing a copy of Ofsted’s report on the inspections carried out by SIS and said: “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your professionalism during the year”. This may be a standard sign-off but it is hardly the comment one would expect to see about the head of an organisation whose contract Ofsted were about to close down.
So what happened that made Ofsted decide to terminate SIS? In a nutshell, the Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley happened. My assumption is that, following concerns expressed by RSSKL parents writing to Ofsted and the government minister about safeguarding and other issues, Ofsted took over the inspections at the school which had previously been carried out by SIS. The school then failed several inspections in the period up to its closure in July 2018. The failures of RSSKL inevitably put Ofsted’s spotlight on all the other Steiner schools in England (the other UK home nations have separate school inspectorates), with the results we are seeing today.
These results, although definitely a cause for concern about the future of Steiner schools in England, are somewhat mixed. To give just two examples, St Paul’s Steiner School in Islington, North London, was inspected in March this year and was rated ‘Good’ in all areas – a wonderful achievement for a small school housed in a redundant church building and facing all kinds of difficulties. By contrast, Wynstones School, on the outskirts of Gloucester, founded in 1937 and one of the longest-established Steiner schools in the UK, was also inspected in March 2019 and was rated ‘Inadequate’ in each category. At its previous full inspection in 2016, it had been rated as ‘Good’.
The inspectors found that Wynstones had failed to carry out all the necessary checks and training for staff and volunteers, and had not adequately monitored the quality of teaching, learning and assessment – the latter being a common finding in Ofsted’s recent inspections of Steiner schools. They also noted that the pupils’ “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is strong”. This is also a common finding during inspections of Steiner schools. The pupils are in very good shape, despite what Ofsted perceives as failings in teaching, learning and pupil assessment.
It seems unlikely that this situation has occurred only recently, so how was it that SIS apparently missed these shortcomings and Ofsted has since picked up on them? One clue to why this may be so can be found in the latest report on Michael Hall school, in which the inspector noted, among other things:
- Leaders and trustees have an overgenerous view of the quality of education that the school provides. In particular, leaders’ monitoring of teaching and learning is ineffective.
- Teaching, learning and assessment are weak in some phases of the school. This means that many pupils do not make the progress they could.
- Systems to assess pupils’ progress are underdeveloped, impacting negatively on the progress pupils make.
- Too often, teachers plan learning that does not meet the needs of pupils of different abilities.
On the other hand, the inspector also recorded that:
- The sixth form is effective. Students do well because the quality of teaching and learning is consistently good or better.
- Pupils’ social and emotional development is served well by the school’s curriculum.
- Safeguarding is effective. Pupils’ welfare, health and safety have a high priority at the school.
- The curriculum provides particularly well for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. There are also strengths in certain subjects that are delivered by specialists, including languages and gymnastics for instance. Dance, drama and music are also strengths, as is the delivery of eurythmy.
- The school’s extra-curricular offer is strong. Pupils enjoy a wide range of trips and educational visits to enrich their main lessons. The lead inspector enjoyed an impressive choral performance given by the upper school during the inspection. Older pupils look forward to their annual tour of Italy towards the end of their time at the school. Younger pupils benefit from the use of the school’s extensive grounds and gardens.
- Pupils are increasingly well prepared for life in modern Britain. The school’s curriculum promotes tolerance and respect well. Pupils’ understanding of equality and difference is strong. This is particularly the case with older pupils, who are eloquent and well equipped to understand the different issues that living in modern Britain brings.
It is inconceivable to me how a school which has achieved all of this for its pupils can be characterised at the top of the report by the phrase: “This is an inadequate school”. It is clear that this verdict is grossly unjust.
Putting aside my suspicions of an instruction from government ministers to Ofsted to fail a few Steiner schools pour encourager les autres, what it indicates to me is that, while the SIS inspectors were of course aware of disparities between mainstream expectations of teaching and learning and the practice in many Steiner schools – and took good care to point these out as areas for improvement – they also took a holistic view of Steiner education, because they could see the results in the pupils at the top of the school. SIS inspectors made great efforts to understand the education and what the teachers are trying to achieve, and so could take a rounded view of the outcomes; while perhaps it is possible that Ofsted inspectors come in to the schools with their standard model and assumptions and find that Steiner education does not conform to it.
Now I am not arguing that there are no inadequacies in Steiner schools, because there most certainly are. As I’ve written elsewhere, my view is that the College of Teachers model of school management, unless very carefully carried out by people of great integrity and selflessness, is not fit for purpose in today’s conditions; and in particular the College system tends to bring about situations in which there may be insufficient leadership of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum development in some Steiner schools. My contention is that, if Steiner schools in the UK can find a way to overcome their reluctance to allow individuals to exercise leadership in key parts of the school, then some truly wonderful achievements will come about that could offer inspirational examples for other parts of the education sector. If Steiner education is to survive in England under the Ofsted inspection regime, amended leadership models and wider professional development work will have to become an imperative.
Amanda Spielman has written: “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”.
Ofsted may not have a preferred model and Ms Spielman’s points about good governance etc are well made; but I question whether Ofsted understands or is really open to systems which are different from what is found in the mainstream. Take, for example, this experience of an Ofsted inspection as related by a Montessori school. This is a highly detailed and forensic taking-apart of the inadequacies of an Ofsted inspection as applied to a school in the Montessori system and it raises questions in my mind about whether Ofsted can usefully inspect an education method if it does not fully understand it. I could wish that some Steiner teachers would apply a similar analysis to their own experiences of recent Ofsted inspections.
I mentioned Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley earlier. It was the school that educated my daughter and where I worked for several years and which was a huge part of my life from 1998 to 2014. The school is now planning to re-open in September 2019 as the Langley Hill Independent School under the sponsorshipship of the Avanti Schools Trust, which is also a sponsor of state-funded Hindu faith schools in the UK. Langley Hill describes itself as a Waldorf-inspired school. This may be a path on which a number of Steiner schools strike out in the future and reminds me irresistibly of Graeme Whiting, a former teacher at RSSKL who, with his wife Sarah, wanted to start a Waldorf-inspired school without the complications of trying to manage it through a College of Teachers. Their school, the Acorn School at Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, is very successful, as the latest Ofsted report attests.
RSSKL’s sad fate, coming after my own testing times there, has been a source of frequent angst and agonising for me. Recently I decided that I needed to bring some kind of closure to all this and so resolved to get rid of all my documentation relating to RSSKL. One evening I lit a fire in our garden and then solemnly burnt every single file and paper relating to my time at the Kings Langley school. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the next evening I got a call from a friend, a very experienced former teacher at RSSKL, who on the night of my bonfire had attended a public meeting at the school to meet Adrian Hubbard, who she told me had just been appointed as the first Principal of the new school. Mr Hubbard, whom I don’t know and had never heard of before, has been teaching in China and flew back there after this meeting. When he introduced himself to the assembled parents and friends of the school, he began by saying: “I owe this job to Jeremy Smith. I have been reading his blog while in China and decided to find out more about the school and in the process discovered that it is seeking to re-open and was advertising for a principal. I applied and here I am.”
I told my friend that Mr Hubbard will have done himself no favours with some of the people there by mentioning me – but of course I was delighted, as this seemed like a natural and positive completion of my own long, karmic journey with the school at Kings Langley. And as Mr Hubbard is apparently a follower of this blog and may be reading these lines while still in China, I hope he will accept my very best wishes for the successful renaissance of a good and special school – no longer a Steiner school but nevertheless a Waldorf-inspired one, which will always have a place in my heart.