Category Archives: Margaret Cross

Death of a Steiner school

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Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley from the south – the older building in the middle is Priory House, one of the two original buildings acquired when the teachers broke away from Miss Cross in 1949. On the left are the classrooms for Classes 1 and 2, while behind them is the theatre fly-tower. To the right, is one end of the main classroom block. Much of this was built by the teachers themselves in the 1950s.

 

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.”

 

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Filed under Kings Langley, Leadership in Steiner Waldorf Schools, Margaret Cross, Ofsted, RSSKL, Steiner Waldorf schools

Margaret Cross, Rudolf Steiner and the school at Kings Langley

Friday 13th has been regarded with superstitious dread for many years, so it is perhaps appropriate that Friday 13thJuly 2018 marked the end of the Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley. Barring unforeseen developments, the school has now closed its doors for the last time after falling foul of Ofsted, and the future of its historic site and the present school buildings are currently uncertain. As a result of the closure, parents and pupils are having to search around for any new schools that still have room to take them, and the teaching and administrative staff will be scrambling to find new jobs after being made redundant.

I worked at the school for a number of years up until 2014 and my daughter received a good education there, so naturally I am sad that the school has come to such a sorry pass. I will have more to write about all of this in a future post but first I would like to give some idea of how the school came to be founded, together with an appreciation of the rich heritage that is now being so carelessly destroyed.

The school sits on the site of the 13thcentury royal palace of Kings Langley, built by Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Edward I, between 1279 and 1281.  The king and queen had a great interest in the work of the Dominicans, and they may even have met the Dominicans’ most prominent teacher, Thomas Aquinas, during their travels in the Mediterranean, where they had been four years on crusade.

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Edward II receiving the crown of England. (Image from a contemporary manuscript, copyright of the British Library Board)

Their son, Edward (who became Edward II in 1307), inherited the lands and the palace in 1302, and he established a Dominican friary there in 1308. Edward had grown up at Kings Langley and it was one of his favourite places. He was often under the influence of his court favourite, Piers Gaveston, and they may have been lovers; whatever the reason, his reign was considered to be disastrous for England and he was eventually deposed in 1327 by his wife, Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. Before this, in 1312, an assembly of barons had hunted down and killed Piers Gaveston, to the king’s great distress. Gaveston had been excommunicated and so a proper burial for his beheaded body could not be arranged until the king had arranged a papal absolution for his favourite. This happened in 1315 and Gaveston’s body and head were brought to be buried in an elaborate ceremony in the Friary at Kings Langley.

Other kings and queens of England also lived at the palace: Edward III, who used Kings Langley as his seat of government during the Black Death in 1349; his fourth son, Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York and the founder of the White Rose faction in the Wars of the Roses, has his tomb in the parish church; King Richard II held court and issued proclamations from the palace, and his court spent Christmas at Langley. The palace at Kings Langley is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Richard was assassinated in 1400 and his throne was seized by the man who became Henry IV. After Richard’s death, Kings Langley went out of favour as a royal palace, although Henry V spent some time there in 1414. In 1431 there was a disastrous fire that caused extensive damage, after which no kings or queens lived there. The Friary church, which was consecrated in 1312 and could hold up to one hundred friars, survived until the 1500s when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and seized their assets for himself. In 1631, Charles I sold off the palace and priory to pay off debts owed to the City of London. This ended three centuries of royal association with Kings Langley.

Today there are no visible traces of the palace and only one building that remains from the Friary, which is nowadays somewhat confusingly called the Priory. This royal and religious history was as much as I knew about the site, until one day I was visited in my office by the school’s excellent librarian, Daniel Bryan. Daniel told me that he had been walking in the churchyard of Kings Langley Parish Church and had come across an unusual and interesting grave, with a bench besides it that was obviously connected with the grave.  The grave was in a poor state and had been vandalised and was covered with litter and rubbish, but there was something about it that made Daniel want to clear it and investigate further.

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The remains of the grave of Hannah Clark in the cemetery of Kings Langley Parish Church.

This grave turned out to be the burial place of Hannah Clark (1845 -1935), one of the two founders of the first school on the site of the palace and friary. I decided to do some further research into more recent history and discovered that Hannah Clark was a pioneering teacher who had started a co-educational boarding school – this must have been a daring concept in Victorian times. Sometime in the 1890s, she was joined by another teacher, Margaret Cross (1866 – 1962), who had been educated at the University of Cambridge but, being a woman, was not allowed to graduate. (Although women entered Cambridge lecture halls slightly earlier than those at Oxford, Oxford was the first of the two to admit women to degrees and full status in 1921 and, astonishingly, it would be another 26 years before Cambridge followed suit in 1947.)

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The ruins of the Priory at Kings Langley in an engraving from 1816. It can’t have looked much better in 1909 when Miss Cross and Miss Clark decided that this was where they would build their new school.

By 1899 Hannah Clark was running a school in Coombe Hill House, East Grinstead, Sussex. In 1909 Miss Clark and Miss Cross had found another site for their school, the ruins of the Priory at Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, which was being used as a farm outbuilding. They engaged the leading arts and crafts architects of the day, Parker & Unwin (also responsible for Letchworth Garden City) and got them to restore and extend the Priory and outbuildings so as to provide a home for the school, which was soon to be renamed The Priory School. The school opened in 1910 and the 1911 census records Miss Cross and Miss Clark as joint principals, living there with the 80-year old Norman Cross, Margaret’s father. At that time there were sixteen pupils, three servants and two assistant teachers.

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A photo of unknown date, believed to be of Hannah Clark.

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The ruins of the Priory, before Parker & Unwin began their work.

priory after alterations

The Priory transformed by Parker & Unwin, with the addition of two wings to the older building – a most attractive and sympathetic piece of architecture in the arts and crafts style.

Miss Clark and Miss Cross were advanced educationalists and decided to run their new school on Montessori lines. In around 1920, the two women became interested in Rudolf Steiner’s new Waldorf school in Stuttgart, and in December 1921 Miss Cross was invited to join the New Ideals in Education committee on a visit to a course given by Rudolf Steiner at Dornach. The trip was organised by Millicent Mackenzie, who was a professor of education at University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, the first female professor in Wales and the first appointed to a fully chartered university in the United Kingdom. She wrote on the philosophy of education, founded the Cardiff Suffragette branch, became the only woman Parliamentary Candidate in Wales for 1918, and was a key initiator of Steiner Waldorf education in the United Kingdom.

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Professor Millicent Mackenzie in 1915.

Millicent Mackenzie, who had first met Steiner in August 1921, arranged for him and some of the Waldorf teachers to give a lecture cycle and supporting programme for British teachers to take place at the Goetheanum at Christmas 1921. Around forty people responded to her invitation, travelling from England to Dornach, where Rudolf Steiner held the lecture cycle Soul Economy – Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education in the White Room of the newly-built Goetheanum, that same room in which the disastrous fire was to break out just a year later.

Miss Cross knew not only Latin and Greek but was also fluent in German, so my assumption is that this is why she, rather than Hannah Clark, went to Switzerland to take part in the course. According to Helen Fox, who also attended the lecture cycle, “it was on the occasion of this Dornach course that Miss Cross, headmistress of a boarding-school at Kings Langley, offered her school to Dr Steiner, to be remodelled on anthroposophical lines.”

According to another attendee, Alexander Strakosch: “From talking with English listeners it was especially interesting to hear how little state officials in England interfere in the essentials of education and teaching. They have there a whole lot of non-state schools, and anyone who just wants to put pedagogical ideas into practice or to live out of good ideas will not have numerous difficulties put before them. At first many of these English teachers therefore had little understanding for the concept of free spiritual life. They thought (…) that in their country they already had it, for they could do what they liked. To grasp the concept of free spiritual life was hard for them.” How very ironic such a statement will seem to Steiner school teachers today…

Rudolf Steiner around 1922

Rudolf Steiner circa 1922

On her return to Britain after the lecture cycle, Millicent Mackenzie then initiated a conference on the themes of Shakespeare, drama and education in Stratford-on-Avon in April 1922,to which she invited Rudolf Steiner. Miss Cross invited Steiner to visit the Priory School on his way to this conference and thus it was that on Sunday April 16th 1922 the school at Kings Langley became the only school in the UK ever to have been visited by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner himself gave an account of this visit when he got back to Dornach:

“I and other friends took up an invitation from Miss Cross, who showed us over her school at Kings Langley. (…) We could see how a number of children are brought up and educated in a boarding school of this kind. It is extremely interesting how children are (…) brought into proximity with life out of certain ideals of the present. The roughly forty to forty-five children in the boarding-school have to do everything; there are actually no servants there. The children have to get up early and care for the whole institution themselves, as well as cleaning their own shoes and clothes. They have to make sure there are enough eggs through breeding poultry, which they also do, and various other things you will be able to think of. They clean everything themselves, cook everything themselves and look after the garden. They have themselves first grown, harvested and cooked the vegetables which come onto the table, and then also eat them. A child is thus led into life in a many-sided way and learns a whole mass of things.

During the Christmas course Miss Cross formed an intention to organise this boarding-school in the manner of a Waldorf school. This is being considered as a quite serious plan. Mrs Mackenzie, who was also one of the chief moving forces for my being invited to the Shakespeare festival, is very much in favour of our school movement, supported by anthroposophy, winning a certain terrain in England. There is now an endeavour to form a committee for organising this school from an anthroposophical background, according to our education.

This will be a very significant and important step forward. If so energetic a will stands behind it as exists in the personalities of Miss Cross and Professor Mrs Mackenzie, it can be taken for granted that after various hindrances are overcome, something of the kind will be able to come about.”

The Priory School, Kings Langley in 1922, as Rudolf Steiner would have seen it when he visited in April of that year.

The Priory School, showing the additional wings by Parker & Unwin on each side of the remains of the old Priory building. This is how the school would have appeared to Rudolf Steiner during his visit on Sunday 16th April 1922.

Millicent Mackenzie and Arnold Freeman (warden of the Sheffield Educational Settlement) then joined together to bring awareness of Rudolf Steiner’s educational ideas into English teachers’ organisations and arranged a further conference in August 1922 at Manchester College, Oxford on “Spiritual Values in Education and Social Life”.  Millicent Mackenzie also organised a public lecture by Rudolf Steiner on education on 30 August 1924 in Essex Hall, London, under the auspices of the Educational Union for the Realisation of Spiritual Values and she gave the welcoming address. Through her efforts the founders of Steiner Waldorf education in the United Kingdom were introduced to these ideas and built up the first schools.

Oxford Conference group

Almost the only photo I have been able to find of Miss Cross is in the group picture taken at the Oxford conference in 1922. Apart from Rudolf and Marie Steiner, there are some distinguished anthroposophists in the photo, including Edith Maryon, Eugen Kolisko, Harry Collison, Margaret McMillan, Millicent Mackenzie, Caroline von Heydebrand, Ilona Schubert, George Adams, Baron Arild Rosenkrantz, Juliet and Vera Compton-Burnett and several others. Miss Cross is at the top right of the picture, on the end of the 6thor 7throw, the small lady without a hat standing just below George Adams.

So as to help Miss Cross with the new direction for her school, a committee was formed to provide practical training support in Waldorf methods. A teacher was sent from Kings Langley to the Waldorf school in Stuttgart, with Miss Cross herself soon to follow. Steiner also sent to Kings Langley from the Goetheanum two English women (Juliet and Vera Compton-Burnett, sisters of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett) who had trained at Dornach. George Adams, who was Steiner’s translator whenever he was in England, was also a member of this committee. A little later, Adams, Miss Cross and the Compton-Burnetts were present at the Goetheanum to attend the lecture cycle on The Spiritual Communion of Man at New Year’s Eve on 1922, and thus they were present when the Goetheanum was burnt to the ground. The same group was also present at the 1923 Christmas conference, when Steiner gave the Foundation Stone Meditation – so these people took part in some of the seminal moments in anthroposophical history.

In December 1922, Rudolf Steiner sent a Christmas present to Margaret Cross. It was a verse, now known as the Kings Langley Grace:

As quicken the roots in the night of the earth,

As the leaves unfold through the power of the air,

As ripens the fruit in the might of the sun,

 

So quickens the soul in the shrine of the heart,

So unfolds man’s spirit in the Light of the World,

So ripens man’s strength in the glory of God.

 

And root and leaf and the ripe fruit’s blessing

Support the life of men on earth

And soul and spirit and the strong deed’s action

May raise themselves in gratitude to God.

 

But by August 1923, Miss Cross had somehow managed to fall out with most of her committee of helpers. Steiner wrote to Edith Maryon from Ilkley in Yorkshire, (where he was giving another course of educational lectures, presided over by the excellent Margaret McMillan) in which he said: “The committee once created to reorganise the Kings Langley School now consists only of Mrs Drury-Lavin; all the others have resigned. The plan of doing something with Miss Cross they consider hopeless. She herself is most distressed about it.”

The problem, it seems, was that Miss Cross could never quite reconcile herself to the idea of the school being run by a College of Teachers; and so it was that Michael Hall, formed in 1925 as the result of a request to Steiner at that Ilkley gathering, had the honour of being acknowledged as the first proper Waldorf school in the UK.

Miss Cross nevertheless persisted with her school along Waldorf lines, even after the death of her partner Hannah Clark in 1935. It must have been at that time that Miss Cross designed the grave and the bench, as a memorial for both Hannah Clark and her late father, Norman Cross. Both the grave and the bench bear powerful testimony to the creative and intellectual distinction of Margaret Cross. There are two name plaques on the grave, one with wording in memory of Hannah Clark, the other one is blank – perhaps Miss Cross had envisaged that the second plaque would be for herself – but I do not think that she was buried there, and I’ve not yet been able to find out where her remains now lie.

inscriptionThe wording on Hannah Clark’s plaque is:

“In Sacred Memory of Hannah Clark

February 15th 1845 – June 17th 1935

Lebe Liebe getragen und

Licht beschenke nach Oben.”

Daniel Bryan tracked these German words down to a lecture by Steiner: Der Tod – Die Andere seite des Lebens (Death – the other side of life) and translated them as follows: “Live carried by love and Blessed by light ever upwards.”

grave

cornerstone

Both the grave, or what is left of its sculptural work, and the bench, which is still complete, are striking examples of the arts and crafts style. The beauty of the wings around the inscription seem to be the wings of love as described by the quotation from Steiner. The details of the cornerstones depict four crosses, a reference to the Christian symbol and the family name.

bench

The backrest panels of the bench are of great interest as they appear to depict anthroposophically significant motifs: celestial lemniscates right and left, and on the right centre panel the tree of life, with a cocoon, a caterpillar, a butterfly and seedlings encompassed by a heart, all executed with great craftsmanship.  My assumption is that all of this was designed by Margaret Cross.

tree of life

After Hannah Clark’s death, Miss Cross continued to run the Priory School. Then in 1949, in apparent deep frustration at her unwillingness to change, almost all of her teachers broke away from her with the intention of starting a new school. This they did, buying two buildings right next door to her school, and taking with them most of Miss Cross’ pupils.  This led to a court case against them, which was reported in great detail by the newspapers of the time. Miss Cross alleged that the teachers had formed themselves into an association in 1945 which had gradually sought to obtain the control of the school from her. She claimed a declaration of her right to the ownership of the school and certain furniture, and also sought an injunction to restrain the teachers from starting a similar school in the two houses adjoining her premises.

The judge trying the case was obviously intrigued and amused by everything he was hearing and said at one point: “Steiner seems to have told the teachers how to do everything except how to get on together without a row.” He gave judgment against the teachers, or “this very peculiar body” as he called it: “What conceivable right they had to sack the head mistress passes my comprehension. They took leave not only of their manners but also their senses. In this particular case the College of Teachers got its heads so far into the clouds that it forgot or omitted to keep its feet on solid earth.”

The Daily Express was also amused by the case, reporting that “Miss Margaret Frances Cross – ‘I am over 70, but I don’t see why I should make my age public’ – (she was actually about 83 years old at the time) arrived in Kings Langley last night and surveyed the school for which she had fought and won – the Rudolf Steiner School. One hundred yards away six teachers against whom she had gone to law were arriving back at Priory House, one of two hostels they own as an association.”

How very galling it must have been for Miss Cross that these teachers had set up their new school right next door to her school, had poached most of her pupils and left her with just two teachers. Likewise the teachers must have had their difficulties with Miss Cross, who was reluctant to have a College of Teachers, didn’t pay them well, probably kept them short of necessary resources and whose style of teaching they may have found impossibly old-fashioned.

So the New School, as they rather unimaginatively called it before the name was changed to Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, was founded as a result of disagreement and was located on a site which had seen a great deal of historical, spiritual and political turbulence. Have the energies of this place contributed to the present disastrous outcome, I wonder?

Miss Cross continued to run The Priory School with much diminished pupil numbers until 1955, and she died at the age of 96 in 1962.

priory interior 1

An interior at The Priory School, showing the simple, austere yet tasteful style adopted by Miss Cross and Miss Clark.

priory interior 2

One end of the room in the old part of the Priory which Miss Cross called the Locutorium, where her visitors would be received.

pupils in chapel

A classroom in the old part of the Priory.

pupils in barn

An art class in the Barn, one of the outbuildings at the Priory.

Although Miss Cross was an educationist of considerable standing, a highly educated and cultured woman, perhaps it could be said that in her school she wasn’t able to give expression to the full potential of Steiner Waldorf education. But she was also a pioneer of the Christian Community and one of the founders of anthroposophical agriculture in the UK, someone without whom the beginning of biodynamics in the UK could hardly have taken place. Carl Mier published some “Recollections of Margaret Cross” in the autumn 1962 issue of Star and Furrow:

“When I met Miss Cross first, she already gave the impression of an old person, old in the sense of ageless, and she hardly seemed to grow any older in the succeeding years. She was of small stature, bent, with a wrinkled face, but sparkling eyes. Her fingers were gnarled, her feet were encased in heavy shoes. One never met her but in heavy tweeds, carrying a large bag with papers and books. She lived in surroundings which seemed most befitting to her: a largish holding with many trees and bushes and shrubs, which gave at first sight the impression of neglect, until one discovered that more care was bestowed on it all than one thought. In the centre, the buildings of an old Dominican priory, modernised rather cleverly earlier this century, with farm buildings around. There was the same air of austerity in the house as one encountered in Miss Cross herself: an austerity in body-comforts, in meals, in light and warmth. And yet, it all had style. House and owner belonged together. When one opened the old-fashioned latch of her front door a spotlessly clean room greeted one, with that polish and almost loving austerity one meets in monasteries and convents. The bread she offered was home-made, the vegetables and fruit came from her own garden. All was simple, but all was the expression of Miss Cross.

She was one of the most learned and truly educated people I have ever had the privilege to meet. Her knowledge of English language and literature was profound, and alive. She was a classical scholar. And at my very last meeting with her – a few years before her death – I had a real surprise. She had broken her leg, and I asked whether I might see her to discuss a difficult matter over which in the past we had never quite come to an agreement. I was shown into her bedroom – furnished like a cell. There she was, undaunted by her age and her broken leg. She looked healthier than I had ever seen her before (it was probably the first time for years that she was warm and rested and properly nursed). She was in the most amiable mood, and our problem was settled within minutes. During a most animated conversation which made me forget her almost 90 years, I looked at the pile of books on her bed and bedside table. Next to a few books by Rudolf Steiner there was a whole collection of volumes on very advanced higher mathematics. ‘At last I have a chance of reading something about this. I have wanted to do so for a long time!’ Her eyes sparkled, and with her gnarled fingers which could hardly move she showed me some passages which had ‘thrilled’ her.

I think Miss Cross was a lonely person longing to do what this life had made difficult for her to accomplish. She was so strong a personality that co-operation with others did not come easily to her, and thus one missed in her school, for instance, that ‘College of Teachers’ which is an integral part of a Rudolf Steiner School. But she loved children so much that she taught almost to the end of her life.”

 

What Margaret Cross and the other teachers who worked so hard to establish Waldorf education at Kings Langley, and who are now in the spiritual world – I’m thinking of people like Nat, Philip and Moana Bowron, the Compton-Burnetts, John Wells, Heather Thomas – must be making of the present debacle, I can scarcely imagine. I shall be contributing my own thoughts on this death of a Steiner school in a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

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