These are dark and difficult times for Steiner Waldorf schools in England, so much so in fact that I fear for their survival.
I refer to England, rather than the rest of the UK, because it is the Department for Education (DfE) in England that oversees Ofsted which is responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions, including state schools and some independent schools within England, and which is currently concentrating its efforts on giving Steiner schools as hard a time as possible. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the situation is different and the Ofsted equivalents in those countries do not appear to have it as their mission to close down Steiner schools.
It was of course the disastrous failings at the now-closed Kings Langley school that provided the main impetus for this campaign against Steiner schools. As Tom Hart Shea, a former head teacher who commented on my “Death of a Steiner school” post observed, “I fear the knock-on effects of this saga for other Steiner Schools. By this I mean it would be irresponsible for the DfE not to look for similar failings in other College-run Steiner Schools”.
So it has proved, except that Ofsted is not just inspecting the independent Steiner schools to within an inch of their lives but is also coming down very heavily on the state-funded Steiner academy schools.
The Kings Langley failures led to a wide range of highly critical articles about Steiner education in the national media. On 24th June 2018, the Daily Telegraph published an article with the headline: “ ‘Rotten to the core’ flagship Steiner school to close, as it emerges concerned parents were sent gagging letters”. The article, by the newspaper’s education editor, Camilla Turner, went on to say:
“A flagship Steiner school is to close amid fears over child safety, after it emerged that parents who tried to raise the alarm about safeguarding lapses had been sent gagging letters.
The Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley (RSSKL) has told parents that it will shut down at the end of this term, following a string of damning Ofsted reports.
Steiner schools, which are favoured by liberally-minded middle-class parents, base their curriculum – which emphasises creativity and imagination – on the spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.
Parents have accused the school of attempting to “cover up” the full extent of its failings by trying to intimidate those who sought to voice their unease about the goings-on at the school”.
Camilla Turner returned to the theme in another Telegraph article on 20th October 2018, this time with the Steiner Academy Exeter in her sights:
“Ministers have been urged to order fresh inspections of all the Steiner schools in the country, as a second school is threatened with closure amid ‘serious’ concerns about child safety.
The Steiner Academy Exeter was warned by the government this week that it could have its funding cut off, after Ofsted discovered severe safeguarding and governance lapses.
Following the inspection, the regional schools’ commissioner took the unusual step of instructing it to close immediately while the issues were addressed, so it can ensure a ‘safe environment’ for its pupils. It re-opened a week later”.
On 6thDecember 2018, Sally Weale, an education correspondent for The Guardian, also wrote about the Steiner Academy Exeter under the headline:
“ ‘Inadequate’ Steiner school to be taken over by academy chain”. She went on to report:
“A state-funded Steiner school in Devon is to be transferred to a multi-academy trust after the schools watchdog said it was inadequate.
Ofsted inspectors raised serious concerns about safeguarding and lack of support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) at the Steiner Academy Exeter, which opened in September 2013.
The academy is one of a small number of Steiner schools set up as a result of the government’s controversial free school policy and paid for by public funds. Other Steiner schools in the UK are privately funded”.
Sally Weale followed this up with another Guardian article on 17th January 2019:
“The future of state-funded Steiner education has been thrown into doubt after a series of snap Ofsted inspections found that three of the four such schools set up under the Conservatives’ free schools programme were inadequate.
The four have been inspected in recent weeks – alongside private Steiner schools, a number of which have also been found to be inadequate – following an intervention by the education secretary, Damian Hinds, over concerns about safeguarding.
Ofsted reports for the Frome and Bristol Steiner academies are due to be published later this week and have been shared with parents. Copies seen by The Guardian reveal inspectors’ concerns about a wide range of issues including safeguarding, bullying and lack of support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
The Frome report accuses leaders and governors of failing to provide pupils with a safe and effective education, due to a lack of understanding about the current statutory requirements”.
Humanists UK, which has for some years been campaigning against Steiner schools, tried to claim the credit for Ofsted’s actions:
“Humanists UK is calling for the urgent closure of three Steiner schools which were rated inadequate by the education inspectorate Ofsted after the schools failed to prove they could keep pupils safe. The inspections are the culmination of a long-running campaign by Humanists UK to expose the dangers of the Steiner school sector. (…)
Humanists UK has long standing concerns about Steiner schools and has consistently campaigned against state funding for these institutions. In 2014 it won an Information Tribunal case against the government, forcing it to publicly release briefings about serious problems with Steiner schools including the bullying of students and teaching racism.
Other concerns raised by Humanists UK included the presence of pseudoscience on the curriculum (including scepticism of evolution and vaccinations and support for homeopathy), homeopathy being given to pupils by the schools’ ‘anthroposophical doctors’, and the fact that a number of private and at least one state Steiner school have opted out of providing vaccinations.
The Guardian also reports that the School Inspection Service (SIS), which Humanists UK has long campaigned to see shut down on the basis of concerns about its efficacy, has now been closed. Ofsted has hitherto not inspected Steiner schools routinely as that has been the SIS’s responsibility. The SIS was set up by the Exclusive Brethren and also inspects Brethren schools, and Humanists UK had concerns about the quality and impartiality of its inspections. Humanists UK is seeking to clarify its reported closure with Ofsted”.
It is ironic, to say the least, that Humanists UK have been so keen to close down schools offering a thoroughly humanistic (though not atheistic) education. But their last point about the closure of the School Inspection Service (SIS) appears to be true, although I can find no mention of it on the SIS website. I am sad about this closure, because as I wrote in my Death of a Steiner school post, the ex-HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) of SIS were the best inspectors I have come across. They were headed up by Jane Cooper, who was formerly a highly respected Principal Inspector for Ofsted. SIS also inspected the Cognita Schools group, which was set up by the late Chris Woodhead, himself a former Chief Inspector of Ofsted. So I think we can be quite certain that SIS really knew their business. As I suspected, it seems likely that they have become the victims of a turf war with Ofsted.
The Guardian returned to the attack on 18th January with an article by their columnist Zoe Williams, headed: “These Steiner ‘failures’ are really a failure of the free school agenda”. Ms Williams had spotted an opportunity to have a go at the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who had been responsible for a huge expansion of the government’s free schools programme, under which four publicly-funded Steiner academies had been created:
“Ofsted inspectors have found three of the UK’s four Steiner state schools “inadequate”, in reports that will be published this week. Their core concerns are believed to be safeguarding, bullying and a lack of support for children with special educational needs. A number of private Steiner schools have also been deemed inadequate.
In a brilliant primer written in 2014, when free schools were still a jewel in the crown of the coalition government, the BBC journalist Chris Cook described the core controversies that might be thrown up by Steiner schools. At that point, and to this day, these are mainly private schools. In a way, the handful that opened on the state’s dollar were the apotheosis of Michael Gove’s promise to parents: if you want to replicate a private education, even at its very wackiest, and you have the energy, you have our blessing.
The headline contention was the very pronounced racism of Rudolf Steiner, who thought black people lived an “instinctual life”, and white people an “intellectual life”. Somehow, though, this was passed over rather mildly as an unfortunate tang of times past, nothing to do with his educational writing, according to the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) – just as a pro-choice campaigner today might shrug off the hardcore eugenicism of Marie Stopes.
Yet the two are not analogous, since Steiner’s white supremacism is a thread running through the rest of the creed, a mulch of reincarnation and homeopathy. One piquant detail of the BBC’s investigation was that four white teachers at a private school, on a diversity training day, when asked their ethnicity, “ticked every box” on the basis that they had only ended up white having passed through every inferior race in their reincarnation journey”.
Ah yes, racism and white supremacism. It is impossible to have any kind of public discussion about Steiner Waldorf education without these accusations being thrown at the schools, however much the schools may emphasise that they do not agree with Steiner’s racial theories. Here, for example, is a statement from the website of the Steiner Academy Hereford:
“Steiner Education is opposed to all forms of discrimination against any person or group of people on the grounds of race, gender, faith, disability, age and sexual orientation and is committed to promoting equality of opportunity and reflecting the diversity of the children, staff and parents served by Steiner schools. The following is taken from Steiner’s book, “The Universal Human”.
‘ … the anthroposophical movement [ . . .], must cast aside the division into races. It must seek to unite people of all races and nations, and to bridge the divisions and differences between various groups of people. The old point of view of race has a physical character, but what will prevail in the future will have a more spiritual character.’
Nevertheless, even though Steiner’s ideas are based on a profound respect for the equality, individuality and shared humanity of all people, regardless of race or ethnic origin, his works do contain a number of statements on race that are inappropriate in a modern context.
Steiner education thrives on every continent, in every culture and within a wide range of ethnic contexts. For example, during the period of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the only school catering for mixed races was a Steiner Waldorf school and today there are schools following Steiner’s indications on education in diverse cultures and communities, including: Israel, Egypt, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil or Hawaii, over 60 countries in all”.
Schools can say this sort of thing until they are blue in the face but it will make no difference to the critics, who have found the accusations of racism provide an excellent stick with which to beat the schools out of existence.
Zoe Williams’ article produced a backlash from parents and supporters of Steiner schools in The Guardian’s Schools’ section letters page, including this rather clumsy defence from a governor of the Steiner Academy Bristol:
“I am dismayed by Zoe Williams’ caricature of Steiner education and her willingness to cite state-funded Steiner schools as an argument against free schools. Her description is based entirely on a piece written by Chris Cook in 2014, who conceded he had not looked at state-funded Steiner academies. He concentrated on the esoteric spiritual science of anthroposophy. But this has no place in the Steiner Academy Bristol. We teach all major world religions (certainly not anthroposophy!).
As for Steiner’s ugly racism, we completely dissociate ourselves from such attitudes. Ours is a multi-ethnic, multi-religion school with a sharply focused curriculum that seeks to develop the head, the heart and the soul in a rounded way. Where we do think Steiner was right was in recognising the need for age-appropriate learning that develops the whole child”.
One conclusion I drew in my Death of a Steiner school post appears to have been wrong. When I said that “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”, I was reckoning without the zeal of Ofsted’s witchfinders. I said that “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”.
Well, that last sentence is certainly correct. But I had not expected that three out of the four publicly-funded Steiner academy schools would have received such bad Ofsted reports. The Steiner Academy Exeter was forced to close for a week and has now been taken over by a multi-academy trust (MAT) and the principal, the highly respected Alan Swindell, has left the school and twelve trustees have resigned. This is very likely to mean that Steiner Waldorf education in Exeter will now be in name only. The Steiner Academy Frome, after previous ‘Good’ verdicts from Ofsted, has now been rated ‘Inadequate’ in every single area of inspection and the principal, the excellent Trevor Mepham, has left the school. The Steiner Academy Bristol has also received a damning Ofsted report, which has provoked the school into planning to take Ofsted to court after it was, like Frome, rated as ‘Inadequate’ under each area of inspection and consequently was put into ‘special measures’.
A similar reign of terror is being visited on the independent Steiner schools, with several which had previously been rated as ‘Good’ or even ‘Outstanding’, hurriedly being inspected and told that they are ‘Inadequate’.
What is going on? I suspect that something like the following has happened: a celebrity parent at Kings Langley wrote to the DfE, along with about 30 other parents, to complain about the school’s inadequate handling of their complaints about safeguarding. The celebrity parent’s letter will have been put onto the desk of the Education Minister, Damian Hinds, together with a dossier of hostile press cuttings about Steiner Waldorf education. Hinds will have said to his permanent secretary: “Get Spielman on the line (Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector) and tell her to put some stick about with these weird Steiner bastards. Make sure she closes down a few of their schools pour encourager les autres. And make sure I don’t get any more letters like this on my desk.”
Now some people may say: What is the problem here? All the schools need to do is to adhere to Ofsted guidelines, particularly on safeguarding, and they will be passed as ‘Good’ or even ‘Outstanding’. Schools need to be more professional in their approach and they need to get this right.
What this ignores, however, is the probability that the schools are now being faced with a highly politicised war of attrition in which the government is determined to close down some Steiner schools so as to avoid embarrassing headlines in the future. In the past, when schools were under the control of local education authorities, Secretaries of State for Education could blame the town halls and civic centres for any lapses in school standards. As Zoe Williams has noticed, the free schools programme means that the responsibility for school failures now ends up on the desk of the Minister.
And now there’s a truly chilling development from Ofsted: Steiner Waldorf education is now to be accused of thought crimes. Amanda Spielman was reported in Schools Week as having written to Damian Hinds, the education secretary, on Thursday after snap inspections of nine Steiner schools – state and private – found six were “inadequate” and three “requires improvement”. Spielman wrote that senior leaders at one school “blamed pupils with SEND for all the problems”, while others witnessed “inappropriate physical handling” of pupils. Some parents who complained were “intimidated”. Spielman has now demanded an investigation into whether the Steiner philosophy is contributing to the failures.
Apart from the aftermath of the Kings Langley closure, why are Steiner schools in such a pickle at the moment? These days I’m pretty much removed from the whole business, since I left Kings Langley in 2014, but my feeling is that the Steiner schools’ movement in the UK, because of its historical allegiance to schools self-administering through a College of Teachers, has not been able to develop a cadre of school leaders able to cope with the latter-day demands of Ofsted and particularly the Safeguarding aspect of school regulation. How many of them will come through this period unscathed I can’t say – but I’m glad my own daughter was able to have a Steiner education, at a time when History of Art was still available as an A-level (Gove removed this as a subject). It has stood her very well in her subsequent university and career path and I hope that, despite the current Ofsted reign of terror, other children will also be able to benefit from Steiner Waldorf education for many years to come.
Critics who laud Ofsted for moving against Steiner schools should be careful of what they wish for. The main beneficiaries of this confected angst about Steiner schools and safeguarding are the manufacturers and sellers of 6’ high perimeter fencing materials, in which schools are forced by Ofsted to turn their schools into fortresses against the world. What children learn from this is that the world is a dangerous place and adults are scary people, not to be trusted. It also leads to the absurd and offensive situation in which kindergarten parents wanting to collect their child from school have to sign in at the school office, wear a lanyard, be escorted across the grounds by a member of staff to the kindergarten and then be escorted back to the school office where they have to sign out and return their lanyard. If that’s the kind of school that Humanists UK are agitating for, then all I can say is that it’s not my idea of a humane or humanist education.
As I’m an unashamed and unabashed anthroposophist, and despite any embarrassment this might cause to school governors wishing to repudiate everything about Steiner except his educational teachings, I will finish with a quotation from Rudolf Steiner which I commend to all Steiner school teachers who are seeing their best efforts crumbling to dust at the moment:
“However good the right may be that you want to bring to realisation – it will turn into a wrong in the course of time. Benevolence will after a time become prejudicial behaviour. And however good the right may be that you want to bring to realisation — it will turn into a wrong in the course of time. The reality is that there are no absolutes in this world. You work towards something that is good, and the way of the world will turn it into something bad. We therefore must seek ever new ways, look for new forms over and over again. This is what really matters.
The swing of the pendulum governs all such human efforts. Nothing is more harmful than belief in absolute ideals, for they are at odds with the true course of world evolution. (…)
It is (Ahriman) who will and must be the bearer of our future civilisation. This is a harsh truth, but it is important. It is intimately bound up with the fact that destructive powers will have to enter into the future progress of civilisation. Above all — (…) — destructive powers will have to enter into the whole field of education, and especially the education of children, unless the matter is taken in hand with wisdom. Because of the general trend of civilisation, and the customary practices and emotions of people, destructive powers will also enter more and more into the whole social sphere. They will above all bring more and more destruction into the actual relationships between people”.