Tag Archives: School leadership and management

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


Filed under Anthroposophy, Leadership in Steiner Waldorf Schools, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools

A few thoughts on leadership and management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools

Some years ago I ran a vision-building workshop for a Steiner school. 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 of teachers system.   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”.

Steiner schools are trying to work with a model of self-governance as laid down by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, in which there was no head teacher and in which each teacher took a measure of responsibility for the running of the school, above and beyond their normal teaching duties. Why did Steiner advocate this system, which the schools have tried to implement ever since?

Those of us who have struggled with the challenges of running the school in the college of teachers system have always told ourselves that Steiner gave this daunting task to the schools as a kind of necessary preparation for working in a way that will increasingly come to the fore as humanity develops, that is in a non-hierarchical, consensual system that gets away from top-down, centrally-driven thinking and decision making. There’s no denying that it does have some real advantages:

  • The sense that teachers have (or are more likely to have) of professional autonomy and of shared collective responsibility for the children and the school
  • The willingness that teachers have (or should have) to take a larger view of their role beyond their immediate job description
  • The opportunity that teachers have not only to meet and discuss anything related to teaching, curriculum and the pupils but also to share their experiences, take initiatives and learn from one another

Out of these conditions arise several benefits for the school and the pupils, which would otherwise be far less likely to exist. They include:

  • Better relationships between teachers and pupils than seems to be the case in many other schools
  • Pupils, who because of the Waldorf curriculum running alongside the examination courses, tend to be well-rounded and “interesting” individuals
  • A tangible quality of warmth about the education that makes for a supportive and encouraging atmosphere within the school
  • Teachers able to work as true professionals rather than classroom managers

However, if not handled well by all concerned, the college of teachers system can also display some more difficult aspects:

  • a management approach in which everybody has nominal responsibility but only a few take active responsibility
  • lack of time, and lack of expertise in complex areas such as employment law
  • lack of individual accountability
  • lack of clarity in the role of College (is it the spiritual heart-organ of the school, a permanent teacher training academy, a school management body, or all of these and more?)

The effect of these difficulties can sometimes lead to:

  • slowness in coming to decisions
  • poor communications with other parts of the school community, eg lack of clarity for parents about whom they should approach when faced with a problem
  • poor communications with teachers who are not on College
  • weakness in overall pedagogical management and inadequate self-management by some teachers
  • inherent risk of conflict of interest when teachers set their own standards
  • slowness in responding to difficult situations which then become crises
  • slow and sometimes inappropriate or inadequate responses to the outside world’s demands;
  • occasional failures to deal effectively and quickly with under-performance of teachers or difficulties within classes
  • problems in keeping up to date with advances in teaching practice, with legislation and with what is going on in other parts of the educational world
  • inadequate pastoral care for staff

There are additional complexities in running a Steiner school which do not apply to other schooling systems, and these are to do with the way in which Steiner’s teaching encompassed not only his method of education but also its spiritual basis in anthroposophy and its socio-economic basis in “threefolding”. For reasons of concision, these complexities are not dealt with here, although perhaps I will return to them in a future posting.

In a system so dependent on the astonishing insights of one man who died in 1925, the schools movement is now, to use a phrase originated by Steve Sagarin of Great Barrington Waldorf School, like a restaurant without a chef. Sagarin asks: “How can Waldorf schools address this absence? There is no single right or appropriate model. Democratic or aristocratic, consensus decision-making or mandates, it doesn’t matter. Each school community must solve this conundrum for itself.”

A former mentor and a good friend of mine, Helen Weatherhead, a very experienced Steiner class teacher, has said to me: “It doesn’t matter which system you have in place – what really decides whether a school works well or not is the constellation of people within the staff of that school”. And of course, that’s absolutely right – well-motivated people of good will, aligned around a single purpose, will make the best of any system of school management. Here we come back to the point Mick Crews made about the required degree of personal integrity, which in my experience is only sometimes higher in Steiner schools than that found in other walks of life. But perhaps it’s because Steiner schools aspire to such high ideals, and because parents invest so much belief and hope in the education, that when things go wrong or are badly handled by the school, the disillusion and anger expressed by these parents can be overwhelming.

If one reads the Conferenzen, (the record of the teachers’ meetings with Steiner at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart), it is clear that up until he became seriously ill in late 1924, Steiner and the teachers continued to evolve the management system in the light of difficulties that were experienced. At no point did they arrive at a definitive system and, indeed, it is ironic that up until his final illness, Steiner continued to act as a kind of visiting headmaster to whose views every one deferred.

Nearly a century after Steiner’s death we have vastly different educational and political circumstances to deal with. To mention only the most obvious, teachers’ workloads have increased, external regulations and inspections have multiplied, employment law, health and safety regulations and child protection legislation have made running a school a truly complex operation; and everyone working in a school wants to maintain a healthy work/life balance rather than spend many evenings and weekends in teachers’ meetings.

Despite all of this, most Steiner schools have persisted with the college of teachers system or variants, although it doesn’t work well in terms of managing the school in today’s circumstances. The independent Steiner schools, which have so many excellent qualities, are usually not at their best either in customer care or quality control and they are perhaps twenty or thirty years behind in their attitudes to these concepts when compared with what is happening in the other parts of the schools’ sector in the UK.

I except from this the newly founded Steiner academies, which are publicly funded and required to maintain more stringent governance than is usually the case in the independent schools. The UK government has made it a condition that there should be a principal in each of these schools who is personally accountable to them for the running of the school. It will be interesting to see in the coming years what sort of modus vivendi will evolve between the principal and the college of teachers (where there is one) in these Steiner academy schools.

The leadership and management roles of the council of trustees should also not be forgotten. Indeed, the idea that Steiner schools are run by the faculty through the college of teachers is only partially correct. It would be more accurate to say that, under current charity law, the council of trustees is responsible for everything that happens within the school and that they devolve certain of their responsibilities to the college of teachers. At the school with which I am most familiar, the trustees reserve to themselves decisions about financial, legal and regulatory matters, while devolving responsibility for all pedagogical matters to College.

I have myself been a trustee at a much smaller Steiner school of more recent creation, and it has very different problems and issues from the larger and longer-established schools. For a time, its trustees, who were mainly parents at the school, had to micro-manage everything and there was no college of teachers, although there were regular faculty meetings. The school is now moving towards a system in which the school management team (on which faculty, trustees and administration are represented) assumes more and more functions devolved from the trustees. Another Steiner school of which I’m aware has done away completely with its college of teachers and replaced it by a system of mandates and teacher-meetings. Several schools have appointed education facilitators (full-time educational administrators) whose role it is to deal with those many aspects of running a school that the teachers do not have time for in their College meetings. The Steiner Academy Hereford, the first of the new publicly-funded Steiner schools, appointed a principal and deputy principal to work alongside the college of teachers, and this is a pattern that may be repeated in schools that are currently seeking to become academies under the government’s “free schools” initiative. All of these examples serve to illustrate Sagarin’s point that each school must work out its own solutions according to its own unique situation.

This ‘unique situation’ or the exceptional autonomy of each Steiner school is also both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength inasmuch as autonomy allows each school to develop its own character and culture to the maximum. It’s also a weakness because a wide range of autonomous individual schools makes coordinated responses to movement-wide problems very difficult. This lack of centralised authority makes it almost impossible to fix problems that individual schools have been unable to solve for themselves.

A recent conversation with Christopher Clouder has led me to question whether we might not in any case have misunderstood how Steiner’s indications for school management came about. Christopher said that he had been looking through some of the books in Steiner’s library, which is stored at the Goetheanum in Dornach. While turning the pages of a book on educational reform written by someone called Kirschlager, Christopher noticed some passages which had been heavily underscored by Steiner. They contained the same thoughts with which we are familiar in any discussion of leadership in Steiner schools: there should be no head master, the school should not be dictated to by the state, the school should be a republican academy. If these ideas were current in educational circles in Germany in the 1920s, is it possible that Steiner, rather than bringing a vital concept for the development of humanity in the future from his vast spiritual insight, was simply aligning himself with the advanced educational thinking of his time? If this really is the case, then we can surely now free ourselves from the letter of what was done in Stuttgart all those years ago and concentrate instead on translating the essence of Steiner’s intentions into the very different circumstances of today.

How easy it would be if Steiner was still around to tell us how to do things in the very changed circumstances of the 21st century! What wouldn’t we give to be able to ask Steiner for more information, for greater detail, on a whole host of issues? But we can’t – and so it is necessary for the movement to have the courage to adapt and move on in response to the needs of our times. As Steiner said to Margarita Woloschin: “One is never ready for a task, one evolves into it.”


Filed under Anthroposophy, Free Schools, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Threefolding