The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship would not normally comment on Professor Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review, as our schools teach the international Waldorf curriculum and are therefore not affected by changes to the National Curriculum. However, we are very interested in anything that affects the quality of childhood and we are also, since the inception in September 2008 of the Steiner Academy Hereford, part of the state education system.
Were Dickens alive to rewrite Hard Times for our own hard times today, he would undoubtedly cast Mr Gradgrind in a senior education policy role: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
It would take a writer of the calibre of Charles Dickens to convey a full picture of what has happened to primary education over the last twenty years or so, but Professor Alexander does his best:
“In these severely utilitarian and philistine times, it has become necessary to argue the case for creativity and the imagination on the grounds of their contribution to the economy alone… We assert the need to emphasise the intrinsic value of exciting children’s imaginations.”
That Professor Alexander should feel the need to remind government of these things is tragic, but he is hardly a voice in the wilderness. The report of a 10-month inquiry from the National Association of Head Teachers in 2007 said that tests and league tables are “deeply damaging” the quality of schoolchildren’s lives and their education. According to the NAHT, the obsession with national assessment that has seen pupils in England become the world’s most tested is putting huge pressure on children, stigmatizing them as failures and forcing teachers to narrow the curriculum.
This report was hard on the heels of another report from the influential Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which listed a series of “damaging side effects”, including teachers drilling children to pass tests and the “unreasonable pressure” of continual testing.
The Cambridge Primary Review confirms these earlier findings and goes on to argue that the education of many primary school pupils has been “impoverished” because key subjects – such as dance, music, PE, history, geography and science – have been squeezed out of the curriculum. From the Steiner schools’ point of view, it is good to see Professor Alexander’s recognition that the aims of primary education should be grounded on evidence of children’s development, in contrast to the Rose Review’s alarming proposal that summer-born children should start school in the September term after their fourth birthday
Professor Alexander implies that micro-management by the DCSF and confusion between national agencies and national strategies have been deeply unhelpful. The net effect in some schools, though not in all, is that rigid concentration on the three Rs and teaching to the test for 11-year olds have taken away from pupils what should be a given – a broad and balanced curriculum.
Education doesn’t have to be like this.
Steiner schools work with a model of child development which considers the period from birth to six years old as being of critical importance in establishing the learning attitudes that children will take with them throughout their lives. Only when a child is physically, mentally, socially and linguistically ready should he or she be considered properly ready for formal education. In many cases, children are not ready before their seventh year.
In Steiner schools, the teacher is allowed to be a professional, trusted to take each subject of the Waldorf curriculum and recreate it anew each day. There is no divide between “the basics” (protected) and the rest of the curriculum (viewed as dispensable). Instead, education itself is seen as an art and each subject is taught in an artistic way, whether it be reading, writing, maths, history, science or languages. Teacher appraisal is done by one’s colleagues, while formative and summative assessment of pupils is carried out by the teachers. Discussion on all aspects of teaching, the sharing of professional experiences, child study, curriculum development, subject research etc, take place in the weekly meetings of the College of Teachers. There is no head teacher, and “distributed leadership” is the norm.
Steiner schools believe that they have much to give to the maintained sector as well as much to learn. The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship wishes to develop workable ways of exploring mutual dialogue and learning between the Steiner and maintained sectors for the benefit of all our children.