Category Archives: Michael Hall School

Re-imagining anthroposophical education for the 21st century

When Michael Hall, often regarded as Britain’s flagship Steiner school, reached its 90thanniversary in 2014, it published a splendid commemorative history written by Joy Mansfield and with additions and editing by Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen.

Called A Good School, the book’s title referred to an interview that four young women had had with Rudolf Steiner in 1923, while at the summer conference on education held in Ilkley that year, in which they asked for Steiner’s consent to their founding a school based on his educational methods.  Here is an account of that interview as related in the book:

“Steiner was seated at the end of a long table, Marie Steiner, his wife, was also present. George Adams (Steiner’s translator during his visits to England) put their case for them and he listened with close attention. They waited in trepidation. Then with great force and warmth he said one word: ‘Ja!’

After this confirmation of their decision, Steiner at once became extremely practical. They must realise, he said, how important it was that this first attempt should be a real success. They must think ahead to a modern, well-established school. It must not be a failure – and it was obvious that if it remained small and little known he would consider this a failure – or the whole possibility of spreading the educational work in England would be irredeemably weakened. It must not be amateurish in any way. They must see to it that it became a really ‘good’ school and acknowledged as such. It should be able to take its place in the educational life of the day.”

I referred to this story last February when introducing a talk by Aonghus Gordon at Emerson College, just before lockdown, on the theme of “Re-imagining anthroposophical education for the 21stcentury”. I then went on to say: 

“Thus was Michael Hall school born in 1925. Today, nearly one hundred years later, that really good school has been given a different verdict by Ofsted, the government quango which inspects schools in England. At the top of its inspection report dated 26thMarch 2019, Ofsted put the phrase: “This is an inadequate school.” And it’s not just Michael Hall: during recent rounds of Ofsted inspections of Steiner schools in England, nine schools were rated as “Inadequate” and a further seven were judged as “Requiring Improvement”.  We have also seen in the last few years the closure of a number of Steiner schools – Aberdeen, Canterbury, Michael House, Kings Langley – and recently Wynstones School was ordered by the Department for Education to close for an indefinite period due to safeguarding concerns.

So, however much we may disagree with Ofsted or question their methods, this is the situation of Steiner schools in England today; it is our present reality. In terms of what Steiner wanted – for our schools to be really good and acknowledged as such within the wider educational culture – as far as the public, media and government are concerned, we appear to have lost our way.”

It was against this background that Aonghus Gordon, founder of Ruskin Mill Trust, came to give his talk. Aonghus is an outstanding social entrepreneur whose educational work based on the insights of William Morris, John Ruskin and Rudolf Steiner is highly regarded both in governmental and anthroposophical circles. He founded Ruskin Mill Trust in 1981 as a centre for cultural development and it is now one of the UK’s leading educational charities working with learning disabilities, with twelve centres across England, Wales and Scotland. Thousands of young people have benefited from the integrative education method practised at these centres, which brings together the arts, crafts and work on the land. Aonghus has an ability to translate his educational method and the resulting successes for young people into terms that are measurable and visible to the eyes of the funding authorities and so has been able to secure public funding for his many projects. With apologies to Richard House who dislikes the phrase, Aonghus can not only render unto God that which is God’s but is also able to render unto Caesar that which the state requires of him – a skill which all Steiner schools need to acquire, if they are not only to survive but also to thrive in our current times.

Aonghus Gordon (photo via Ruskin Mill Trust)

It was therefore particularly interesting to hear Aonghus’s reflections on anthroposophical education in the 21stcentury and the kind of organising principle which may be needed to sustain us through these testing times. He began with a quotation from Rudolf Steiner:

“Anthroposophy herself is a human being. If she were not, she could not transform us. She makes another human being of us, is herself a human being. I say this very seriously: anthroposophy is not a teaching but has real being, is a human being. And only when our inner nature is wholly permeated by this, and when, like a person who thinks but also feels and has motions of will, she thinks, feels and wills in us, as, really, a whole human being – only then have we grasped her and possess her fully. She works as a being and enters modern culture and civilisation as a kind of being.” 1

This is a remarkable statement by Steiner and not at all easy to understand. Aonghus Gordon asked: Is he referring to the soul of the world and if so, how does this soul enter human consciousness and action? An example of this is the Statue of Khafre from Ancient Egypt, which depicts a Being, in the form of Horus, entering and embracing the pharaoh.

Rosicrucian thought from the 17thcentury can also offer a clue: the meta-soul in brotherhood draws itself down into individual practice. Rosicrucians feel connected to a meta-community but work as individuals. The Being they wish to express slowly enters and internalises.

Aonghus then observed the timeline of anthroposophy from 1913 to the present day, which he characterised as having four distinct phases:

1. 1913 to Rudolf Steiner’s death in 1925

This period is associated with the Sentient Soul connection and transformative relationships through Rudolf Steiner. There is a transfer of insight and knowledge and Steiner’s influence radiates through many individual biographies. This is a time when there is significant financial and personal giving for anthroposophical enterprises.

2. 1924 – 1990s

This period is associated with the Intellectual Soul and a certainty about how things are and what we need to do. During these years, anthroposophy consolidates and codifies itself. There is a rise in the number of anthroposophical institutions, which also receive individual, foundational and governmental support. Strong individuals hold a method and regard quality assurance as implicit.

3. 1990s – 2000+

During this period the Consciousness Soul starts to come to the fore, and there is an emphasis on the individual as researcher and the concept of collaborative action research begins to emerge. A ‘Gap’ begins to show up between the core and the periphery. Individual research generates new methods, and a sense develops that Rudolf Steiner does not belong only to anthroposophists. There is a rise in external criticism of anthroposophical organisations and a number of institutions, including the Goetheanum, begin to face financial challenges.

4. 2020 onwards

There is a worldwide expansion of the Consciousness Soul and collaborative action research supports the discovery of the Being. Aonghus suggested that, as anthroposophists, we need to avoid ‘doing things’ to the world, an attitude which he sees as more befitting to the Intellectual Soul. What do we want to do to the world?  is an often- heard statement in anthroposophic circles. Collaboration is limited. We may be left to undertake the project on our own.  Fundraising is exceptionally hard work in this context. However, if we were to reverse the question to How do we want our world to be? we elicit interest. It builds an outside-in perspective. The Consciousness Soul is activated. How do we want our world to be? draws in financial and human capital. The Being becomes present.

Anthroposophists in the era of Rudolf Steiner himself formed a fraternity of devotion, a Sentient Soul relationship. People poured in their resources at every level, both spiritual and financial towards supporting anthroposophy.  However, after his death, a crisis emerged which may be regarded as the awakening of the Intellectual Soul in the Being.  (There is a very good explanation of the terms Sentient Soul, Intellectual Soul and Consciousness Soul here.)

The Intellectual Soul awakened in great activity after the Second World War. The Being in Anthroposophy was accepted on the basis of the authority and insights of Steiner’s successors. External qualifications were not demanded and recognised individuals themselves generated the mandate and quality assurance. It became codified. There was an expansion in institutional development right across Europe and North America.  The Goetheanum Sections further mandated the individuals. Financial support grew both privately and governmentally. 

But during the 1990s, a new era emerged, as the Consciousness Soul became more evident. An increasing requirement for the ‘how’, the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ was demanded and significant new challenges and what Aonghus Gordon calls ‘The Gap’ emerged. Organisations who declined to subject their content to outside scrutiny and to receive external qualifications/ accreditation/ endorsements/ standards began to lose recognition and traction. Many places started to show the first signs of financial decline, particularly after the Millennium. It may be argued that a new tension emerged between the inside and the outside of the institution. To a significant extent, the Goetheanum has also found itself in this predicament.  The emergence of the Consciousness Soul within the Being and its impact on spiritual science, required a particular approach to maintain a connection between internal and external.  In the Anglo-Saxon arena, action research became a valid method in a number of UK/US universities and institutions.  Action research can be argued to be the Consciousness Soul method of choice for spiritual scientific practice.  From an internal perspective, we may perceive that the Being awakens as an inside out emerging necessity.

What does Aonghus mean by ‘action research’? He quotes Peter Reason: “Action research is an approach to the generation of knowing which aims to bring knowledge and action together, to produce practical knowing.” Following this line of thinking Aonghus and his colleague Simon Reakes have suggested that Goethean science research is an approach to the generation of knowing which aims to bring knower and known together, in empathic knowing. Action research, informed by Goethean science, can be seen as a form of participatory spiritual practice. It aims to realise the spiritual as hālig (Old English, “whole”). The whole here, however, is in the process of becoming. It becomes through participatory action research in a community of practice, and through Goethean science, encounters the being/s of the world. 

In other words, it is no longer good enough for anthroposophists simply to quote Rudolf Steiner; the world is demanding more of us than the assertion of what we believe to be true. Instead, in this age of the Consciousness Soul, it is necessary for us to own our truth, and to be able to back up our assertions with evidence. Research and enhanced practice must take place to challenge spiritual scientific assumptions and opinions and to ensure a new personal ownership within spiritual science. This is the challenge for Steiner schools and other anthroposophical educational organisations today. Unless we can rise to it, we will not be able to realise Steiner’s original intention for our schools to be really good, acknowledged as such and able “to take their place in the educational life of the day”.

Which brings us back to Michael Hall. The school has appointed a head teacher to help in dealing with the issues highlighted by Ofsted back in March 2019.  The school has also been working with the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship and the Crossfields Institute to ensure that it can meet regulatory standards going forward. The teachers and staff were expecting to impress Ofsted with their newly embedded processes when the Covid-19 pandemic closed the school down and the inspection was postponed.

Michael Hall School, Forest Row, East Sussex.

Who would have thought that Steiner teachers could in these circumstances turn to remote learning and to make up lesson and activity packs for the younger year groups while also providing online lessons for the pre-teens and teenagers? And yet they have done all of this and much more, including a 3-5 year strategy for the school with a key focus on improving teaching practice and standards.  The postponed Ofsted inspection is now anticipated for early in 2021, when the school is hopeful of a return to a ‘Good’ rating. 

The School Council is in the process of updating the school’s purpose, aims, objectives and vision and at the same time focusing on student retention, marketing strategy, staff capability and capacity, and site development. To summarise, the school is embracing the age of the Consciousness Soul so as to deliver the best possible Steiner education with the child at the centre of the school, while demonstrating to Ofsted and the world at large just how it is going about this.

From an address to theologians in 1921 by Rudolf Steiner, found on p.310 in Volume 4 of Who was Ita Wegman (J.E. Zeylmans van Emmichoven) 


Filed under Aonghus Gordon, Michael Hall School, Ruskin Mill Trust, Steiner Waldorf schools