Steiner schools are hoping the time could soon come for them to be given state funding. Are they right?
From The Guardian, Tuesday 1 December 2009, by Adharanand Finn
“Children should start school at six”, screamed the national newspapers a few weeks ago on the day the biggest review into primary education in 40 years, the Cambridge Review, was published. It was a strange moment for the 31 Steiner schools across the country. Here was a central plank of their philosophy, which on every other day of the year was regarded by many as marginal, woolly and even backward, being proclaimed to the nation as the answer to its educational woes.
Of course, the Cambridge Review was about more than the age children should start formal education, but those headlines rang like a great call to action through the Steiner community. The Steiner Fellowship, the umbrella organisation for the mostly fee-paying schools, immediately issued a response welcoming the report.
“We are convinced that a later start to formal learning allows children to experience the joy of learning without unhealthy stress or the risk of early burn-out,” it said. “We hope the findings
Theresa Trapp, a kindergarten teacher at the Exeter Steiner school, was less diplomatic. “It’s about damn time,” she said. “Children learn so much through play. It’s about time we realised that.”
The Cambridge Review also seemed to concur with the Steiner approach on a number of other issues, such as the need for a broader curriculum, less focused on “the three Rs”, and that testing pupils for the sake of school accountability, namely Sats, was detrimental.
Everything seemed to align further when, a few days later, the archbishop of Canterbury condemned the English education system as “oppressive” for prioritising test marks over children’s spiritual or emotional happiness. Steiner has long trumpeted its aim of addressing the needs of the “whole child”, including its spiritual and emotional wellbeing.
The optimism all this generated in Steiner schools was only slightly tempered by the immediate rejection of the Cambridge Review’s key findings by the government and the Tory party.
But behind the scenes the Conservatives had been making friendly noises towards Steiner schools. The shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, paid a visit to the Meadow Steiner school in Bruton, Somerset in June and came away “very impressed”.
“From my visit today,” he said, “it is clear to me that the children at the Meadow school benefit from a very nurturing environment, and while the education is based on alternative principles, they also end up with an impressive record of literacy and numeracy. This is just the kind of environment and parental interaction that we should be encouraging.”
This was followed by the announcement of the Tories’ new schools policy, which would make it easier for independent schools based on alternative methods to access state funding. The policy is based in part on the successful charter schools in the US, many of which are Steiner schools.
A few weeks ago, the Steiner movement held a special pre-election seminar, Moving Forward, with Conservative special adviser Sam Freedman, who turned up to explain how Steiner schools could benefit under a future Tory government.
To qualify for funding, schools would need to have a business plan, to be non-selective, to be inspected and, for reasons of accountability, reach a certain minimum benchmark in terms of exam passes, he said. The schools would also need to demonstrate enough parental demand. Most Steiner schools would happily meet these requirements.
Sylvie Sklan, from the Steiner Fellowship, however, is keen to point out that though the Tories may make state funding more accessible, the big breakthrough for the public funding of Steiner schools has already happened – when Britain’s first completely state-funded Steiner academy became a reality in Hereford last year.
“The precedent that Steiner schools could be state-funded was set then,” she says. “And we have to be thankful to the Labour government for that.”
Despite long waiting lists for pupils to join the academy, the reason a raft of other state-funded Steiner schools haven’t followed in its wake, says Sklan, is not a lack of political will, but “because of resistance from local authorities whose strict regulations are designed for standard schools”.
Crucially, however, under the Tory plans authorities would not have the same powers to block new schools opening.
On the same night as the Moving Forward seminar, the world premiere of the film We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For took place in Leicester Square. The film, produced by Lord Puttnam, is a critique of all that is wrong with the state education system.
The film argues that by focusing too much on rigid academic skills, schools are failing children. It suggests that, at its best, our education system is turning out foot soldiers who may struggle to adapt. At its worst, it is a “scandalous waste” of young people’s talents.
Sklan says Steiner education avoids these pitfalls by not simply focusing on the transfer of knowledge and skills, but on “nurturing capacities and supporting the development of the whole child”. This, she says, leads to adults who are able to think for themselves and excel in an ever-changing world.
Along with the Cambridge Review and the encouragement from the Tories, many involved with Steiner are beginning to think of this as a “moment” for the schools. With one state school up and running, it remains to be seen if Steiner can capitalise on this alignment of voices in its favour and make the leap into the mainstream, as it has in other countries such as Germany and the US; or whether, once all the noise has died down, its unconventional methods will remain on the fringes of our educational approach.