Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Independent School

Education – a Steiner Waldorf Perspective

John Stuart Mill was clear about it: the State has a responsibility to ensure its citizens are educated, but the freedom of citizens is in jeopardy when governments determine what is taught. The protection of the rights of children is one thing; State definition of education quite another. Yet the drift towards increasing political control seems irresistible. Not surprising, then, that recent Civitas research (Inspection, Inspection, Inspection by Anastasia de Waal) concludes that Ofsted has moved from monitoring & advice to a role of State “enforcer” in a situation “in which the government has created a monopoly over what counts as quality in education”.

Waldorf schools in Germany, named after the first school, founded in 1919 for the children of workers of the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Factory, are also referred to as “free” schools. In the UK that term tends to confusion with schools such as the late A.S. Neil’s Summerhill & the former Dartington Hall School. But on the continent, the phrase “free school” has a narrower meaning: institutions not administered by the State. Nonetheless, in a majority of countries in continental Europe including Germany, Steiner schools are publicly funded wholly or in part (as they are also in New Zealand, Australia, for example). UK Steiner schools have had to come to terms with being reluctant occupants of the independent sector, struggling for recognition that their’s is an independence resulting from educational philosophy & practice rather than exclusivity or business interests (all UK Steiner Waldorf schools are registered charities & take their charitable status seriously). The recent progress towards a Steiner Academy in Hereford, under the government’s “diversity agenda”, is an indication of the movement’s intent to become even more inclusive than is possible at present. This too involves uncomfortable compromise, of course.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an influential Austrian philosopher of science & writer on mysticism conceived education as a process involving developing enactive, affective & intellectual capacities based on a view that each person is an individual expression of the human spirit. The features that make Waldorf schools different are founded on this recognition of the fundamental, distinctive integrity of each human being & of the universal processes of development that each encounters in their own way. Both need to be taken into account if education is to lead to a purposeful sense of freedom within meaningful communities. Schools certainly have a duty to enable children to gain the means to become effective citizens, but schooling becomes oppression when this done at the expense of developing their unique qualities & creativity; our current system does appear to be tipping the balance towards that humanly expensive option.

Waldorf schools set out to be learning communities. The continuing self-education of staff is the substance out of which the children are taught, Steiner’s philosophy informs the work of the teachers, but is not taught to the children. Steiner stressed that teaching is an art & staff work collegially (without a formal pyramid of power-based leadership) coaching & mentoring one another in developing of the craft & art of education. Lessons are handled in an extensive, thematic, multi-disciplinary, multi-facetted way with emphasis upon the need for co-operation in learning. Competition has its place, but competing to avoid the humiliation of being judged a “failure” is no basis for future societies. The qualities & expressive potential of the arts also play an important part, both in the way subjects are taught & in the way children are encouraged to make use of colour & line, musical form, movement, speech & drama. This approach enhances personal investment in learning. It is bound together by an evolving curriculum, based on Steiner’s original indications, that matches the needs & qualities of each stage of childhood with appropriate activities & content. Distinctive features such as the later start (usually age six) for formal, or academic, teaching, & the play-based curriculum of the early years are aspects in the context of “all-through” schooling designed to address the needs of young people from early childhood to university entrance. In the UK a relatively small number of institutions are able to provide the full range of classes, with a larger number of schools finishing with Class 10 (age 16) & some operating as Primary schools or Early Childhood Centres. A more complete description of the curriculum, lists of members & other details can be found at

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