Category Archives: Steiner Waldorf schools

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) 

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

A new beginning for Steiner schools in England?

I was contacted today by a journalist in Europe who wanted to speak with me about Steiner schools in England. This is what she wrote:

“Dear Jeremy,

I am a journalist working for the Franco-German tv channel ARTE, at a weekly program about European issues and challenges called Vox Pop. I am currently preparing an investigative report about Steiner Schools in Europe, and will also do a focus in England given the current situation.

I believe it started with issues at Kings Langley School… Since this school has been part of your life for a long time, I’d like to talk with you, for a background , off the record conversation. Could I call you, for example tomorrow?

Thank you

Kind regards”

This is how I replied:

“Dear _______,

Since you are offering an ‘off the record’ conversation, I’m assuming that you are hoping for highly critical remarks about Steiner schools. This is not my position at all – Steiner education is among the very best kinds of education when it is done well. The remarks on my blog about the Kings Langley school were written more in sorrow than in anger, because my view is that the school lost its way quite badly and in its failings has done a huge disservice to Steiner schools everywhere.

Having said that, the Kings Langley school also gave a good education to my daughter and to many other pupils and this should also be recorded. The situation with many of the Steiner schools in England is currently giving concern and there is an article here by Sylvie Sklan which you may find helpful in this connection:

https://www.erziehungskunst.de/en/news/news/every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining-the-future-of-steiner-schools-in-england/

I’ve not worked in a Steiner school since 2014 and doubt if anything I could say would be up to date. I hope your report will be a rounded look at the education and not just a hatchet job.

Kind regards,

Jeremy”

 

The article linked to above by Sylvie Sklan (a former colleague of mine on the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship executive group) is a useful summation of the situation in the English Steiner schools at this point.

The Fellowship itself is moving on – Sylvie has retired, as have Kevin and Jane Avison, and the only one of my former colleagues still in post is the excellent Janni Nicol, who does a wonderful job of representing Steiner Waldorf early years education. A new team has come in, headed up by Fran Russell, who was instrumental in creating and nurturing the Greenwich Steiner School. Here is what the most recent Fellowship newsletter has to say about the current situation in the English schools:

“Steiner Education in England continues to go through turbulent waters, although we have certainly passed one cataract now with Ofsted having completed its round of the schools, as Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman’s letter signifies. While many people will have various reactions to this, it is important to appreciate that it concludes a period of uncertainty and whether good or bad, right or wrong, justified or not –to put it simplistically- we now know where we stand.

This can be seen as a new beginning with greater things to come. Certainly, in some countries that have gone through not dissimilar phases, something much stronger has emerged. It is probably important to remind ourselves that, while teachers, schools, school leaders and trustees, the SWSF and anybody who is interested in Steiner Education, navigate the emotional currents and turmoil of this wild water we are working towards a future where Steiner Education represents an established and well-respected stream within the educational landscape.

The Fellowship has engaged with Ofsted and the DFE in recent months through meetings and conversations and we have been able to establish a useful stream of communication, enabling us to maintain exemptions, advise on inspection styles going forward and inform the regulators regarding the content and context of Steiner Education. It is clear that in this context the Fellowship is invaluable as an associative body for Steiner Schools, as the DFE and Ofsted have stated that they will not engage with individuals or individual schools.

Furthermore, the Fellowship has also been actively engaged with Avanti and the Regional Schools Commissioners in order to ensure that, as far as possible, while the re-brokering of the academies is still underway, the commitment to the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum is maintained”.

To return to Sylvie Sklan’s article, in which she refers to the taking over of 3 out of the 4 publicly funded academies by a multi-academy trust, the Avanti Schools Trust: she says that “it remains to be seen as to how authentic a school ‘inspired by Waldorf principles’ can be”.

The omens are not promising; here, for example is a report in Schools Week that says Avanti has insisted that it never intended to keep the schools Steiner.

Sylvie also refers to the Avanti Foundation which has taken over the former Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, and which she says is separate from the Avanti Schools Trust. A report in the local newspaper Tring Today says that the new school is not being allowed to open by Ofsted as it has failed some pre-registration checks.

So it appears that the situation for Steiner schools in England continues dire. Can these schools in partnership with the new Fellowship gradually help themselves on to an upwards trajectory and away from disaster? Time will tell.

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

How objective are Ofsted inspections of Steiner schools in England?

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.

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

What next for Steiner Waldorf schools in England?

After my recent posts on the troubles affecting Steiner Waldorf schools in England, I’ve come in for a certain amount of criticism from some anthroposophists, who think that it’s not a good idea to wash dirty linen in public.

One friend and anthroposophical colleague, a former teacher, told me that I should be putting across a more hopeful message instead of reinforcing all the doom and gloom in the media. She also felt that my recent blog posts may have given the impression that I am a critic of Steiner Waldorf education rather than a supporter.

After this dressing-down from my friend, I got home to find the following in my inbox from the magazine Schools Week:

Two Steiner schools criticised by Ofsted over safeguarding failures have been warned they face being moved to new sponsors.

Steiner Academy Bristol and Steiner Academy Frome have been issued with termination warning notices by Lisa Mannall, the regional schools commissioner for the south west of England.

The schools, which follow the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, were placed in special measures following unannounced Ofsted inspections last November. It means three of the four state-funded Steiner free schools in England are now rated inadequate.

Inspectors said the schools did not have high enough expectations of pupils and warned safeguarding was “not effective”.

Staff at the Steiner Academy Bristol also “unnecessarily” used physical intervention, they found. Steiner Academy Exeter, which was placed in special measures in October, has already received a “minded to terminate” notice from the government, which was published in December.

The damning reports, published last month, along with “deeply concerning” findings in other Steiner institutions raised by chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman, prompted the education secretary Damian Hinds to grant Ofsted special powers to inspect all Steiner schools in England, including 21 private schools”.

This news item was yet another reminder that Steiner Waldorf schools in England are facing an existential crisis and why burying our heads in the sand is not a wise strategy. However uncomfortable it may be for supporters of Steiner Waldorf education (amongst whom I include myself, it should go without saying), we must nevertheless look this crisis clearly in the face and consider what needs to change now.  To quote from Amanda Spielman’s letter of 31st January 2019 to the Secretary of State for Education, referring to the nine inspections so far carried out by Ofsted:

“All the inspection reports have now been published on Ofsted’s website. Six of the nine ‘overall effectiveness’ judgements from full inspections were inadequate and three were requires improvement.

None of the schools was judged good or outstanding for overall effectiveness. A significant number were inadequate in all areas, and a number of the independent schools inspected failed to meet the department’s independent school standards”.

Here is the passage that worries me most in Spielman’s letter:

“Given the prevalence and seriousness of these issues across both state-funded and independent Steiner schools, they raise questions about whether these common failures are a result of the underlying principles of Steiner education. Across the state and independent sectors, there is a wide variety of educational philosophies, and successful schools can be run in a variety of ways. Ofsted does not have a preferred model. However, there are fundamentals that need to be in place: good governance, clear lines of responsibility and effective safeguarding procedures. While we did find some examples of this during these inspections, they were very much in the minority. I therefore urge you to consider and further investigate why so many of the Steiner schools inspected are neither protecting children adequately nor giving them a good standard of education”.

Damian Hinds has not so far responded to this request to approve an investigation into whether the “underlying principles” of Steiner education result in failures of leadership, governance and safeguarding but the prospect of such an intervention must be deeply concerning for the whole movement.

I’m told that a current trustee of the now-closed Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, when asked for her reflections on what had happened, said simply that the school had been unprofessional. If that is the case, and if that also applies to some of the other schools which have been recently inspected, then the challenge for other Steiner schools is: how can they become more professional in terms that will be recognised by Ofsted – but without losing the essence of Steiner Waldorf education?  This must be possible to achieve, because the Steiner Academy Hereford was rated Good in all areas by Ofsted in its latest inspection – which means that there is no inherent reason why other Steiner schools can’t do the same.

I was therefore pleased to hear that the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain is now funding someone with experience of Hereford’s methods to provide consultancy to other schools in England. The Society is also providing sponsorship for schools to send teachers to this year’s Easter Conference in April at Michael Hall, which will be on the themes of revival and renewal of Steiner Waldorf education. I was also heartened to see that the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship is inviting expressions of interest to undertake research at PhD or EdD level into the following questions:

  • What are the outcomes of Steiner Education in the UK?
  • What does a contemporary Steiner Curriculum look like in modern Britain?
  • What does the leadership/governance structure look like for a contemporary Steiner School in modern Britain?

As a result of a meeting of 17 schools at Rudolf Steiner House in London on 8th December, four working groups have been formed to look at Steiner Waldorf approaches to:

  • Assessment of children’s learning
  • Appraisal of teachers
  • Leadership and management training
  • Curriculum development

This is all good news and it fits in with what was said to me recently by a kindergarten teacher, that “this crisis will be the making of Steiner Waldorf education in this country”.

It’s not just in schools or in England that these challenges are being faced; anyone working in anthroposophical social care, for example, will be aware of what happened in the Camphill movement and how the model of care established by Karl König has had to evolve beyond the original in the face of increased regulatory requirements. The problem with governmental and societal demands for increased safeguarding and accountability is that they are always accompanied by a narrowing of the cultural and spiritual life, because of insurance-based risk aversion and ever-more prescriptive laws and regulations. But if Steiner Waldorf schools can show that, despite the increasing restrictions, they are improving and can mobilise their parents in defence of the education, then as has been seen in the USA with charter schools facing similar challenges, it becomes very difficult for a politician to close them down.

Even if the schools do manage to get overwhelming parental support, there will always be necessary improvement work for them to do and they cannot afford to rest on their historical laurels. For people working in those schools, the question of the division between leadership and the individual responsibility of each member of staff has to be addressed.  What are the qualities needed by leaders in Steiner schools and are they different from the qualities needed by leaders in mainstream schools? What forms of school organisation and governance will deliver a really well-managed and well-led Steiner Waldorf school nowadays?

Finally, how can we improve the training of teachers in Steiner Waldorf schools? It is clear that further developments are needed, but who is to do it and how is it to be resourced and accredited? There is also a need for conversion courses, for teachers in the mainstream schools who would love to work as Steiner teachers in a creative and fulfilling professional environment. In this connection, I was delighted to see that the Steiner Academy Hereford has received a small grant to set up a pilot scheme for qualified mainstream teachers who wish to convert to becoming class or subject teachers within Steiner Waldorf schools. They received 30 applications for this scheme, which shows there is a real appetite for working in a school environment which encourages imagination and creativity.

The Steiner Waldorf schools in England are currently facing huge challenges and some of them may be forced to close. This is the present reality. But those which can rise to meet and overcome these challenges will become stronger, more effective and yes, more professional. If these schools are to continue to offer an education in the name of Rudolf Steiner, then nothing less will do.

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Filed under Leadership in Steiner Waldorf Schools, Ofsted, Steiner Waldorf schools

Difficult days for Steiner Waldorf schools in England

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”.

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Filed under Ahriman, Free Schools, Humanism, Kings Langley, Ofsted, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

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

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

At a time of life when most people might expect to have retired and be putting their feet up, the anthropopper (who doesn’t think that retirement is good for people), counts himself fortunate to have not one, but two part-time jobs. Despite a colleague’s cynical observation that there is no such thing as a part-time job, only part-time wages, I love both these jobs and after a long and sometimes frustrating working life, I’m delighted to have work where I feel I’m making a worthwhile contribution, in organisations that are offering hope and practical solutions for some of the world’s problems.

The first of these jobs is at Tablehurst Community Farm in Forest Row, East Sussex. While I was there the other day, I found myself having a sudden flashback to an emotion I recognised – it was how I had sometimes felt when I was a small boy at primary school in the 1950s. It came and went in seconds but I was intrigued as to why I had had this sudden recall of something from my early schooldays, now well over half a century ago. What had made me remember this feeling from so long ago, seemingly out of the blue? Trying to analyse my state of mind at that moment, I realised that I had a feeling of wellbeing, knowing I was in the right place for me and glad to be working on a community-owned farm in which the land, plants and animals are cared-for and where the people are friendly, supportive and look out for one another. I was, in fact, in a situation that I suspect is hardly ever experienced in most workplaces these days. This then led me to the further realisation that, if how I was feeling that day was reminiscent of how I had felt during my early schooldays, then there must have been something warm and secure and nurturing about my primary school and the way in which the teachers and pupils treated one another back then. This was not a Steiner school, it was an ordinary state primary school in the 1950s, long before the days of Ofsted, SATS, league tables etc. Somehow I grew up with the notion that the world was on the whole a safe and welcoming place, that adults and policemen were mainly benign, there was joy and beauty in nature – and I also had a sense of how to behave and how not to behave. This gave me something to rebel against when I was a teenager in the 60s. My generation was lucky to have had these positive experiences, as recent alarming reports indicate that many schoolchildren today have quite a different experience of school.

An international study by the Children’s Society in 2015 found that English children are among the unhappiest in the world. Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared to other countries, and it is truly shocking that thousands of children are being physically and emotionally bullied, damaging their happiness. School should be a safe haven, not a battleground.”

And now in a report dated 9th March 2016, the online Spectator magazine’s Health section has said that: “There has been a large increase in the number of British children prescribed anti-depressants, according to research published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology. The research, led by Dr Christian Bachmann of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital, found that prescription rates increased by 54 per cent between 2005 and 2012. In Denmark the figure is higher still, at 60 per cent.”

What on earth is going on? Clearly, something very disturbing is happening with our young people. Rudolf Steiner, in a lecture given in Berlin in 1919, said:

“What the individual human being experiences consciously when he (sic) strives to attain clairvoyance in the spiritual world, namely, the crossing of the threshold, must be experienced unconsciously by the whole of mankind, during our fifth post-Atlantean epoch. Humanity has no choice in regard to this; it must experience this unconsciously — not the individual human being, but HUMANITY, and the individual human being together with humanity.”

So are our young people starting to experience this crossing of the threshold between the physical and spiritual worlds, but unconsciously, without preparation? And if so, what part of the spiritual world are they accessing?

My second part-time job is with Emerson College in Forest Row, East Sussex, where I organise a programme of public talks and workshops by leading thinkers. On 9th March 2016, we were privileged to hear a talk by Lisa Romero, an adult educator, complementary health practitioner and teacher of meditation from Australia.

Lisa’s theme was: Developing the Self – Meditations and Exercise for our Inner Growth. During the course of her talk, she had some interesting things to say about the difficulties and challenges that teenagers are experiencing today. She suggested that teenagers are crossing the threshold into the elemental part of the spiritual world. Lisa enlarged on this in her book, The Inner Work Path:

“Humanity has begun to break through this threshold, the boundary between the physical and elemental world. If those who cross over are unprepared, we will see more mental disorders in our community. As fascination with the occult, psychic powers, and the supernatural continue to grow, all sorts of false paths of ‘inner development’ will become more and more popular. Consciousness-altering substances that exploit a form of gate-crashing to enter the other dimensions will increase. Using these substances to enter different states of consciousness will be seen as an acceptable and inevitable path for our young people.”

Some schools are now teaching their pupils meditation and calling it “mindfulness” so as to avoid any association with the spiritual; but Lisa thinks that this “will lead ultimately to a weakened relationship to the spiritual world, and thereby leave them open to all sorts of potentially harmful influences by stepping backward, not forward, in their incarnating process. All those who truly know the path of inner development know that a healthy relationship to the spiritual world is acquired by completing all the necessary developmental stages of childhood first. These various occurrences that we already see are signs that humanity is crossing the threshold unprepared. Rudolf Steiner describes this unprepared entry into the elemental world, likening it to putting your head into an ant’s nest.”

Where is anthroposophy, and where are anthroposophists, in all of this? One of the things which teenagers need to know at this time is that not all spiritual beings are divine beings. Some of these beings are working to divert humanity from the path of evolution, by encouraging us in our materialism, reinforcing our egotism and selfishness, magnifying our false self and deepening our lower ego – while at the same time supporting our premature access into the spiritual world. Anthroposophists ought to be helping young people to understand that the right path for humanity and each one of us is to align freely with the beings of progression, the beings of the divine spiritual world – but for that to be possible, we must find the progressive being, the divine being within ourselves. Are we, should we be, finding ways of telling that to young people? Are we making sufficient efforts to communicate with teenagers in ways that they can access? I don’t think so. In the meantime, anthroposophy as we have known it is dying. Lisa told me that there are now only 130 society members in the whole of New York City.

The situation appears to be no better in the UK. As Marjatta van Boeschoten, general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, says in the Spring 2016 Newsletter of the society: “This question (of how anthroposophy can best fulfil its given task) occupied me greatly during the Holy Nights, especially when a range of initiatives in the ‘daughter’ movements in Great Britain are either closing, struggling, in conflict or in financial crisis.” To add to Marjatta’s worries, the ASinGB has revealed that 55% of members pay nothing at all towards their annual membership. What is the future of the society if more than half of its members, out of their own free choice, are making no financial contribution whatsoever?

Surely these symptoms are telling us that the present form of anthroposophy is in serious decline. What are anthroposophists doing about this crisis? My own sense is that another form of anthroposophy is seeking to be born, but it is having an extended labour and a difficult birth. It won’t come from trying to persuade people to read difficult lectures or books, it won’t come from attending the same old meetings with a rapidly diminishing number of elderly anthroposophists (not that I have anything against elderly anthroposophists – far from it – I hope to be one myself before too long) and it certainly won’t come from spending too much time online arguing with the critics.

On the other hand, it may emerge from people who become inspired by one or more of the practical applications of anthroposophy, such as biodynamics or education. I’m struck, for example, by the number of young people who are coming to work at Tablehurst Farm, which now employs nearly 30 people, some of whom are starting families there – this in marked contrast to what is happening on conventional farms, where the average age of a British farmworker is 59 years and where a farm of 300 hectares will be run by one or two men with machines and lots of chemicals. It may emerge if we can find practical, clear and sensible ways of speaking about the spiritual realities behind what is happening in the world, as Lisa Romero is doing. Lisa is part of the Goetheanum Meditation Initiative, which is involving young people from many countries. (Incidentally, Lisa Romero will be returning to Emerson in June for a talk and weekend workshop.)

The times are serious and demand people and organisations of initiative. Places like Tablehurst Farm and Emerson College are seeking to play their parts.  Finding ways in which to meet the very real human needs of today’s young people can offer hope and practical solutions not only to them but to anthroposophy as well. Christopher Fry expressed our opportunity in his play, A Sleep of Prisoners:

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to meet us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride man ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise

Is Exploration into God.

Where are you making for? It takes

So many thousand years to wake

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Emerson College UK, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

No, Mr Dugan, Steiner Waldorf schools are not cult schools.

Following the anthropopper’s last post, my attention was drawn to comments on the Waldorf Critics’ forum alleging cult-like behaviour in Steiner Waldorf schools. Such criticisms have been around for some time, of course. Several long-standing allegations of cult-like behaviour have come from Dan Dugan of the organisation PLANS (People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools) in the USA. Dan listed nine “cult-like characteristics of anthroposophy” on the Waldorf Critics’ website on February 9th 1999.

Just a year or so before that, my wife and I decided that we wanted to send our daughter to a Steiner Waldorf school. Our daughter had had a happy first year of school in the Reception class of our local state primary school. I remember her skipping down the road on her journey to school, eager to get there to meet her friends and enjoy the day. This changed, unfortunately, when she moved into Year 1 and the National Curriculum kicked in. We began to notice some distinct and disturbing changes in our daughter. She started to become clumsy and was often falling and bruising herself. This happy, outgoing child started to become pale and withdrawn. Most alarming of all, the spontaneous dancing and painting and drawing she had previously done just stopped.

At this point we decided we had to act. We went to visit various Steiner schools with our daughter where she met the teachers and the pupils in her age group and took part in sample lessons. Eventually she decided that she wanted to go to the Kings Langley school. Things moved fast from that point; our house went on the market in July and sold within one week for our asking price; we went on a frantic house search process and eventually found a house we liked and could just about afford. We moved in at the beginning of September 1998 and our daughter started at the Kings Langley school three days later.

Why did we want to send our daughter to a Steiner school, even though any rational assessment would show that we couldn’t afford the fees and that we faced the prospect of years of scrimping and saving and few, if any, holidays? There are so many reasons but here are just a few:

  • A truly child-centred curriculum that allows children to develop at their own pace and to have a proper childhood
  • A method that uses art and creativity to teach every subject
  • The main lesson system which allows subjects to be studied with both depth and breadth
  • A noticeable quality of warmth in the schools and friendly relations between staff and pupils but also mutual respect

I would like a school with such qualities to be available for every child who might benefit from it, especially for those whose parents can’t afford the fees of the independent schools. That is why I am so pleased for those parents who live within the catchment areas of the new publicly-funded Bristol, Exeter, Frome and Hereford Steiner Academy schools. I wish there were many more, throughout the country, to supplement the good work of the independent schools.

Dan Dugan’s own history with Waldorf schools is interesting and has been set out in some detail here. Dan describes himself as a “secular humanist” but his humanist values do not seem to prevent him from engaging in campaigns of misinformation, defamation and myth-making. In the USA, of course, with the separation of church and state, schools have a delicate balancing act to perform, which PLANS has sought to exploit by bringing legal cases against Waldorf schools – which PLANS have subsequently lost. In seeking to make his case that Steiner Waldorf schools are religious schools, Dan has listed what he calls their cult-like characteristics.

These alleged cult-like characteristics, as identified by Dan, are shown below in bold while my comments on these are shown in italics.

Cult-like characteristics of Anthroposophy include:

1. It clings to rejected knowledge. 
(The heart is not a pump, etc.)

Here’s an extract from an article on the AnthroMed Library website which deals with this question:

 “To any doctor trained in today’s medical schools, the idea that the heart may not be a pump would, at first sight, appear to be about as logical as suggesting that the sun rises in the West or that water flows uphill. So strongly is the pump concept ingrained in the collective psyche that even trying to think otherwise is more than most people can manage. Yet Rudolf Steiner, a man not given to unscientific or slipshod thinking, was quite clear on the matter and reiterated time and again that the heart is not a pump. “The blood drives the heart, not the heart the blood.”

This topic requires more space than is available here, but anyone wishing to find out more might wish to start with this article from the Journal of Anthroposophical Medicine. There is also a useful description of what is taught about the heart in Steiner Waldorf schools here.

A further interesting fact, which medical science is unable to explain, is that in embryological development, the blood starts circulating in the embryo before the heart organ has been created. In other words, blood circulation in the embryo pre-dates the heart.

2. It requires teachers to commit to the world-view for advancement in status. 
(college of teachers).

Many Steiner Waldorf schools do not have a head teacher or principal but are instead organised by a body of staff (mainly teachers but often including administrators) called the College of Teachers. The criteria for becoming a College member usually include a commitment to working meditatively on oneself, thus seeking an active connection between oneself and the spiritual worlds; on being on a continuous path of personal and professional development; and on taking an active part in the running of the school beyond one’s normal teaching or administrative duties. Becoming a member of College does not lead to any increase in status, nor to any increase in pay. What it does lead to is a deeper commitment to the work of the school and a fuller realisation of the seriousness and responsibility of the task of the educator.

3. Its core doctrines are not published. 
(First Class).

It is true that what are called the class lessons of the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science have not been published – although these can now be found online, published without support from the society. During the refounding of the Anthroposophical Society at Christmas 1923/24 as the General Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner also introduced the School of Spiritual Science, which was intended to have three classes, leading from one to the next. Owing to Steiner’s death in 1925, he was only able to provide lessons for the First Class. His intention was that there should not be any published texts of these lessons released for personal reading but that the content of the lessons should be passed on by word of mouth. It was also his intention that anyone who wished to belong to the school should be “a worthy representative of anthroposophy before the world.” The reason for this is that the lessons are steeped in esoteric knowledge and require much background preparation from the student. They are not to be read or talked about like stories from a newspaper, or thought about with our everyday kind of thinking. “One can accomplish nothing whatever in esoteric life if one does not know that in esoteric life truth – absolute truth – must prevail, and that we cannot merely speak of truth and still persist in taking these things in the way one would in the profane, external life.” So these texts are not for intellectual or casual reading, but require a certain cast of mind, as well as preparation and commitment, before engaging with them.

4. It is exclusive. 
(Only Anthroposophical knowledge of man leads to right education.)

It’s not obvious what Dan has in mind here – Steiner Waldorf schools of course teach all kinds of knowledge from many different sources, as does any school. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, is not taught to the children, nor is it necessary to be an anthroposophist before teaching in a Steiner Waldorf school. Clearly, the schools hope that anyone who comes to teach in a Waldorf setting will have an interest in anthroposophy and will want to find out more; but it is not a requirement and teachers do not have to sign up to any particular set of beliefs.

5. It guards revelation of “difficult” knowledge. 
(Prospective parents won’t be told about the role of Lucifer.)

When Dan Dugan wrote this list of cult-like characteristics in the late 1990s, it was probably a fair criticism to say that prospective parents were not told much about anthroposophy in many school prospectuses. I don’t believe this was for any sinister reason, but simply because it would be difficult to know where to begin with such a complex and extensive body of knowledge. However, in the light of criticisms from organisations like PLANS, school websites and prospectuses are nowadays much more likely to be more forthcoming about anthroposophy, and this is very much to be welcomed. Parents should of course do their own online research and reading about educational systems, as well as pay visits to the school and talk to other parents before committing their child to any particular school.

6. It is a closed system. 
(Almost all publications referenced are from Anthroposophical presses and periodicals, all writers refer to Steiner.)

Inasmuch as it applies to anthroposophy, this is probably a fair criticism. I think such a criticism might also apply to other specialist areas originated by a towering figure, eg Jungian psychology, in which new territory was being opened up by the founder. The passage of time will change this, as is already being seen within anthroposophy, where the contributions of people such Bernard Lievegoed, Otto Scharmer, Arthur Zajonc and other highly respected thinkers are building on Steiner’s foundations.

Inasmuch as it applies to Steiner Waldorf schools, the same situation applies, with Steiner’s educational ideas gradually being added to by other experienced educationalists. Steiner Waldorf schools have been to a certain extent insular in their relations with the wider educational world. There are reasons for this, of course, in that the Waldorf system deplores much of what it regards as the excessive pressures and unreasonable demands put upon children and schools by modern politicians; and does not see many of its own ideas understood or referred to in mainstream educational publications. Clearly, however, it is not ideal for the schools to be isolated from the educational culture of their countries and Steiner would undoubtedly have wished there to have been much more interaction between Waldorf and other school systems. I have written more about this here. In those countries (now including England) where Steiner Waldorf schools are able to receive public funding, there is much more of a sense that the schools are part of a pluralistic educational culture.

7. It uses Jargon that redefines common terms. 
(Child development)

When Steiner Waldorf schools talk about child development and age-appropriate education, they have in mind the importance of not bringing any form of knowledge to a child before he or she is developmentally ready to receive and benefit from it. Rudolf Steiner has given the schools a model of child development which has been tried and tested now for over 90 years, and on the whole it works very well, because it accords completely with the actual nature of most children.

8. It maintains separation from the world by generating fear and loathing. 
(Denigrating public schools, “us vs them” attitude, paranoia)

I’ve not heard any reports of this from schools in the UK but there are certainly allegations of this nature made in the USA. If this has ever happened in any Steiner Waldorf school, it would certainly be deplorable and would be completely contrary to the intentions of Rudolf Steiner.

9. It suppresses critical dialogue, resulting in elaboration but no development of theory. 
(Consensus government, “like it or leave,” Shunning)

It is, of course, very difficult in any school if a parent or group of parents starts to create serious unrest in the parent body with vociferous complaints. In such cases, if the parents do not respond to offers of dialogue and discussion but continue to spread disharmony, then they may be asked to leave. The challenge for schools is to be as open as possible about anthroposophy before parents enrol their children; and then to provide plenty of opportunities through parents’ evenings, study groups and orientation days for any issues to be discussed before they become contentious and divisive. If the school attended by Dan’s son had been more open all those years ago, perhaps Dan would have realised in advance that it was not somewhere he would choose for his son’s education.

Conclusion

I am not an uncritical defender of Steiner Waldorf schools and I do recognise that on occasion, things can go wrong. Some schools seem to have an unfortunate knack for upsetting parents and then failing to deal properly with the consequences. The reasons for this can be many and complex and in my post on leadership & management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools, I’ve listed some of these. Improved teacher training, school management and customer care are required before these problems will start to disappear. But I also think that when Steiner Waldorf education works well, as it does for many thousands of children (including my own daughter), it’s one of the best, and most human, systems of education you can find.

I hope it is clear from what has been written above, and in my previous post on anthroposophy, that Steiner Waldorf schools cannot legitimately be described as being part of a cult, or cult-like. But it is also clear that Steiner Waldorf schools need to be as open and transparent as possible with parents about anthroposophy and the part it plays in the approach that teachers take to their teaching. I believe that most Steiner Waldorf schools today are more aware of these issues and that school brochures and websites are far less reticent about anthroposophy than used to be the case. It is not in the best interests of any school to have parents who do not support the Waldorf system or who feel that somehow the school has been less than straightforward with them about what lies behind the education. Well-informed and supportive parents, who understand what the teachers are trying to achieve and who are prepared to work with the school for the best outcomes for their children, are the bedrock of any school system, Steiner Waldorf or mainstream.

Further reading

There are several posts on this blog about Steiner Waldorf education, or which touch on aspects of it. For ease of reference, here are the links:

September 4th 2014 – Rudolf Steiner visits Margaret McMillan

September 11th 2014 – The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools

September 16th 2014 – Karma and the Steiner Waldorf teacher

September 27th 2014 – Why some atheists like anthroposophy

October 2nd 2014 – The issue that isn’t going away – leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools

October 4th 2014 – Different strokes for different folks

October 9th 2014 – A few thoughts on leadership and management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools

February 15th 2015 – “Every school could use these methods…”

December 1st 2015 – “A right good evening, the best of cheer…”

December 13th 2015 – Guest Post: Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf schools

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Guest Post:Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf Schools

This is the first guest post to appear on the anthropopper’s blog!

It’s from Bernard Thomson in Australia, who is particularly interested in the question of leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools.  The anthropopper is also interested in this issue and has previously written on the topic, here and here.  It was these posts that prompted Bernard to visit me when he came to England recently and, although we have differing views, I invited him to write a post setting out his thoughts. We both hope that this will start a discussion on an issue of vital importance to the development of Steiner Waldorf education.

But first, here is Bernard writing about himself:

“I grew up in the Midlands and attended Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School. In 1973 I went to Germany to complete my education returning to the UK in 1978.  I studied philosophy of science and economics at the LSE followed by a year at the Centre for Social Development at Emerson. In 1987 I moved to New Zealand and in 2003 arrived in Australia where I became a business manager at a Steiner school south of Adelaide. After 12 years I began to work as a freelance consultant initially specialising in leadership and governance in Steiner schools. My career and work experience has been predominantly in social welfare organisations, both Steiner based and ‘mainstream,’ with an ongoing interest in social and organisational development.”

 

Leadership & Organisational Structure  in Steiner Waldorf Schools

by Bernard Thomson

The issue of leadership and organisational structure in Waldorf schools is not new. Indeed one could argue that it began in the early years of the first school in Stuttgart and in one way or another has continued ever since. And this should be no surprise since organisations are living systems which defy any permanent structural solutions.

However this topic is pressing and engages many of us concerned with Waldorf education and its capacity to survive and thrive in an ever changing social, political and economic environment. To date the argument has often been between assertions as to what Steiner said or meant about school leadership and the pragmatic response to perceived and, indeed, evident failures in organisational governance and leadership. Steiner did say there shall be no headmaster and he did say that every teacher was to act in full personal responsibility without recourse to the comfort of receiving directions from an overarching authority*

In this contribution I will not debate the pros and cons of College versus Principal structure as I believe this misses the real question.

I take as my starting point that a school organism, like any other social organisation, needs a structure together with process leadership to guide its performance. And it requires such a structure and leadership that best supports its purpose and function. Unlike a production industry where the purpose is an efficient process to deliver goods to willing customers, a school is in the people business; its product is what goes on between human beings namely teachers, students and parents. The human relationships are the fabric which supports the pedagogical practice. The latter cannot exist without the former and the efficacy of educational practice is directly related to the health of the human relationships.

In the production industry, which can be considered as a system of inputs, process and outputs, we might conclude that it can be optimised through specifications which precisely control as many factors as possible. Frederick W. Taylor gave his name to the first so-called scientific management system which sought to do just that. Centralised control from the top appears to be the logical answer to co-ordinating a diversity of inputs and processes. However this authoritarian structure is being challenged because it fails to take account of human (f)actors whose motivation and hence productivity is directly affected by the workplace environment and culture. Indeed there is an increasing number of organisations which are being reimagined as living entities in which ecological systems thinking replaces the mechanistic logic of direct and control, cause and effect. The human subsystem (according to Lievegoed’s phases of organisational development) is, I believe, what is here being developed as part of a move towards the third phase of integration. This accords with my understanding of consciousness soul activity where we do not seek nor expect answers to the challenges we face to be available in a model or formula. Instead the ongoing engagement with other thinking human beings forms the basis for our decision-making processes. And this is the same for both production industry and human services.

This means abandoning certainty (or the illusion of it!) and becoming comfortable with the unknown, the ambiguous, in other words, the creative process. A recent book by Fredric Laloux, “Reinventing organisations” describes various approaches to this challenge, in a range of diverse industries. What they share in common is the removal of central control in favour of distributed authority in which accountability is achieved through clearly defined processes, a system for effectively disseminating information for maximum transparency.

The widespread shift in Waldorf schools across the globe to a more top down or principal leadership structure is mostly justified by the failure of a collective approach to school management. There are many examples of this failure, with which I am also personally familiar. The apparent solution, however, is also producing many failures if these are to be determined on the basis of school performance as judged by staff and parents. Indeed, in Australia at least, there has been a continual turnover of school leaders (variously called administrators, heads of school, directors, principals, etc.) where the common denominator is an authority structure in which the school board or council appoints the school leader with full authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the school. Accountability is one way, and that is up.

Now there are also good examples of leadership performance that build collective strength and support a strong collegial culture within the school. Thus we invariably conclude that it is not the structure but the people that make the difference, and this is true. So are we faced with either a collective approach which may work if there is a high level of individual and social competence, or a single authority which may also work if the “right” person is in charge? Is there nothing more to it than to simply hope or pray that we can get the right people in the right places? And who chooses the right people?

As I mentioned above we are in the people business in which human relationships are key. We are also in the human development business in which role modelling has a powerful influence and we don’t need Steiner to tell us that the character of the teacher, or indeed of all adults, is central in supporting healthy development in young people. So we can confirm Steiner’s vision that the school must be led by a culture of learning and human development, which he called a republican teachers’ academy.

I believe in the notion that you start working in a way that is congruent with the aim. If it is true that for the students, “Our highest endeavour must be to develop individuals who are able out of their own initiative to impart purpose and direction to their lives”(1), then we found teacher practice on personal initiative and self-responsibility. The supporting school organism supports and strengthens this by creating a culture of personal initiative and self-responsibility. The leadership culture embodies this.

In his 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline” Peter Senge introduced the concept of the Learning Organisation which has 5 key features which include personal mastery, building a shared vision and team learning. I suggest that in the Learning Organisation we find a close similarity with Steiner’s vision of how a College of Teachers and Waldorf School management is to be understood.

Steiner’s vision for school leadership and governance recognised the fact that the cultural/ social mission of Waldorf education requires a new form for human learning and collaboration. This insight is now finding resonance in a growing understanding of organisations as social organisms. The “Newtonian” mechanistic model is being replaced by a living systems approach (see “Leadership and the New Science” by Margaret Wheatley).

Organisms have an ecology which connects all the elements together in a living dynamic. They are not run or managed in the conventional sense, but may be said to operate and self-regulate according to a guiding motif. The guiding motif acts as a point of self-reference. In an animal organism we speak of the unique animal instinct which guides behaviour; in the human social organism we must speak of the mission or spiritual ideal. It is just this that Steiner said must replace the headmaster by becoming the focus for the College work. As self-responsible adults participating in a self-regulating school organism we move with our experiences from the periphery to the centre and take out to the periphery our newfound intentions. The task of leadership is to facilitate the collective learning which informs the mission and to guide the processes which transform the mission into individual resolve.

Social understanding and discernment is of course necessary for leadership. Leader-guides must be selected who have the maturity and social skill to advance leadership throughout the school. The school processes must be transparent and accountable and include practical methods for review and evaluation. But the old form where adults make themselves subservient to an “outside” authority which “knows best” has to be left behind.

This process requires a new understanding of leadership as something akin to an alchemical process in which everyone participates. The idea of an “external” reference point or standard against which to guide practice will be seen as always provisional and temporary and must ultimately be abandoned in favour of self-referencing also known as self-governance.

* Address by Rudolf Steiner 20 August 1919 on the evening prior to the lecture course translated as “Study of Man” (also known as “The Foundations of Human Experience”)

(1)Marie Steiner

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“A right good evening, the best of cheer…”

Throughout the Advent period and up until the end of the Autumn term, teachers and other staff in Steiner Waldorf schools around the world are to be found busy in rehearsals for one or more of three Christmas plays, which they perform as a kind of gift to the pupils, their families and friends over the holiday period.

These plays – the Paradise Play, the Shepherds’ Play and the Three Kings’ Play – are known as the Oberufer Christmas Plays, after an island in the Upper Danube where these plays were first noted down and collected by  Karl Julius Schroer.

Karl Julius Schröer (1825 - 1900), who collected the Oberufer Christmas Plays and brought them to the attention of Rudolf Steiner.

Karl Julius Schröer (1825 – 1900), who collected the Oberufer Christmas Plays and brought them to the attention of Rudolf Steiner.

For Rudolf Steiner, who grew up in the rural Austro-Hungarian villages during the latter part of the 19th century, Christmas was still a time which was not primarily about consumerism, but was instead a festival when love, philanthropy and what you might call “right living” was given a fresh impetus in human hearts. As Christmas approached, these villages were suffused by a mood Steiner later described as a kind of magical breath that filled the homes and streets with joyful, hopeful anticipation. Even the poorest peasant householder would dedicate a corner of their dwelling to a nativity scene made from figures they had carved themselves from wood.

As a boy, Steiner would see these nativity scenes when visiting his neighbours. It’s easy for us to forget that he was born into the rural working-class and this was the milieu in which he grew up. As an adult, he expressed his empathy with poor working people as a natural result of having grown up among them. The villagers of Steiner’s childhood not only decorated their homes with nativity scenes but they also took part in traditional seasonal pageants. On Christmas Eve they would re-enact the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Paradise; and on Christmas Day the story of the Shepherds as told in the Gospel of St Luke. Despite their simple settings, props and costumes, the villagers took these plays very seriously, with preparations beginning at the end of the harvest season and with rehearsals taking place by lantern and candlelight. The actors were men and boys only, including those playing the roles of Mary and the angel. Those taking part in the plays had to observe certain rules and uphold high moral standards.

Steiner tells us that from his own observations of knowing the people involved, there were what he calls “utterly good-for-nothing fellows who would not dare to be dissolute as the days shortened. At Christmas time those who were invariably the most quarrelsome, quarrelled less and those who quarrelled only now and then stopped quarrelling altogether. A real power was active in souls at that time of the year and these feelings abounded everywhere during the weeks immediately before the Holy Night.” Steiner went on to say that “anyone who has lived among village people knows what the first rule of conduct signifies. The first rule was that during the whole period of preparation none of the actors might visit a brothel.” (I trust that the Waldorf teachers today are showing similar restraint. 🙂 ) A second rule was that no-one was allowed to sing bawdy songs or get drunk and the boys taking part were expected to be God-fearing and be capable of absorbing into their character the essence of the Christmas mood. The actors were also obliged to learn how to speak in strict rhythm and rehearse every movement and gesture in minute detail.

So when in later life Steiner was introduced to the Oberufer Christmas plays by his university professor Karl Julius Schroer, he immediately recognised what he described as the same “warm, magical breath of the Christmas mood” that he remembered from the village plays of his childhood. Schroer had collected these three plays in the local dialect from the island community of Oberufer in the Danube, where they had been performed for hundreds of years.

A photo of trainee teachers at Antioch University performing the Paradise Play.

A photo of trainee teachers at Antioch University in New Hampshire performing the Paradise Play.

I think we can be fairly sure that Steiner further adapted Schroer’s texts of these plays. First, he separated the Shepherds’ Play from the King’s Play, which over the course of the centuries had been intermingled. Secondly, he recreated lost passages such as the part of the Tree-singer in the Paradise Play and the Shepherds’ supper scene. Thirdly, he corrected corrupt and meaningless passages. And finally, he adapted the language of the plays to a kind of Austrian folk dialect, which of course as an Austrian he was able to do. We may also assume that Steiner brought out and strengthened the ancient wisdom inherent in the plays. We know that he gave much time and attention to the rehearsal and production of the plays at Dornach, and he provided a spoken introduction to every performance whenever he could.

A production of The Shepherds' Play from the Waldorf School of the Peninsula.

A production of The Shepherds’ Play from the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, Los Altos, California.

In common with some other traditions of Waldorf education that could benefit from a little updating, it seems likely that performances of the Oberufer plays have changed not one jot in the one hundred-odd years since they were first produced. As someone who trained as an actor before becoming involved with Waldorf education, I sometimes found that there was more than a touch of The Art of Coarse Acting about these school productions – and I suspect for many of the older pupils, these performances are received not so much as a gift from the teachers but more as a kind of reassuring but boring annual ritual that they have to sit through.

A production of the Three Kings' Play from Highland Hall School.

A production of the Three Kings’ Play from Highland Hall School, Northridge, California.

Despite the forgotten lines, the all-purpose mediaeval costumes, the Mummerset accents and the naff productions, I nevertheless found there to be a special, intangible quality about acting in these plays. It may sound fanciful but I experienced this as a blessing, a sense of grace. I found this particularly to be the case when playing Balthasar in the Three Kings’ play, but also when playing God in the Paradise play (typecasting, some might say). 🙂  Of course, those playing the Devil or Herod might have quite a different experience!  There is certainly plenty of scope for gifted directors, designers and actors to make something really good in an artistic sense from these plays but all too often in the schools, there is usually no time to do anything different than has been done for umpteen years before.

There is real wisdom in each of these plays and the text repays careful study and attention. Take the Paradise Play, for example, and the final speech that God makes just after Adam and Eve have been cast out of Paradise and after he has rebuked Satan for beguiling Adam and Eve into tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It’s both powerful and thought-provoking:

“See now this Adam, such wealth he has won

Like to a god he is become

Knowledge he has of Evil and Good

He can lift up his hand on high

Whereby he liveth eternally”

I was playing the part, so I had to try to make sense of these lines. They reminded me of an earlier scene in the play, just after God has created Adam, and is showing him the Earth for the first time. God says to Adam:

“The earth with hills and mountains steep

I give thee – fishes of the deep and

Birds of Air, that by this hand I made,

I give to thy command.

Share thou with me my domination

And be the lord of all creation.”

God has invited Adam to become a co-creator, the steward of the Earth, although a steward who is so far lacking in the wisdom to run things properly.

So what do those last two lines mean, when God says that Adam “can lift up his hand on high, Whereby he liveth eternally”? Through acquiring premature knowledge of good and evil, before he was evolutionarily ready to take this on, Adam has become like a god. The image of Adam lifting his hand on high (and surely it’s his right hand he lifts) reminded me of a king with orb and sceptre. Picture a king with a sceptre in his right hand, which is used for directing and willing and with the orb in his left hand, which is used for receiving and holding – so Adam has become like a God or a co-creator with God and who now must learn to use his power with wisdom, which implies that there will be all kinds of painful lessons to be learned as mistakes are made along the way. And isn’t that a perfect image of humankind today, as we grapple with cloning and nuclear energy and genetic modification and all kinds of new technologies? We have the godlike powers but we are still trying to learn the godlike wisdom to use them properly.

What are the plays about? We could perhaps say that the Paradise Play is to do with the forces of Will, depicting as it does the beginning of Humankind.

We might say that the Shepherds’ Play is about Feeling and the light that gives warmth to simple shepherds’ hearts. It’s about empathy, the wisdom of the heart, the caring for one another that the birth of Jesus will reinforce and strengthen throughout the world.

And we could say that the Three Kings’ Play is about Thinking – and indeed it seems to me the play most closely aligned to anthroposophy, because the Three Kings are a kind of image of the seeking after of higher spiritual knowledge or the truths of esoteric Christianity.

I will be writing more about the Three Kings’ Play nearer the time of Epiphany, which is when it is supposed to be performed. But in the meantime, if you get an opportunity to go to one or more of these plays at a Waldorf school or elsewhere, why not give them a try and see what you think? And as the Angel says to the audience: “A right good evening, the best of cheer, The Lord of Heaven grant each one here…”

A Happy Advent Season to you all!

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