Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Very Modern Paradox

Small problems often present us with weaker, guileless , versions of greater, more deviously complicated phenomena. One such case is the paradox that confronts independent Steiner Waldorf schools in England, one Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship personnel are in the process of trying to resolve.

Steiner Waldorf Schools, in England, unless Academies, must register with the Department for Education & receive regulatory inspections, whose judgements are "outstanding", "good" "in need of improvement" or "failing". The judgements are made against key regulations, called the Independent Schools' Standards. These mirror the rules that apply to all types of school, except that a clause allows any independent school to set its own curriculum & base assessment  of learning on its own "aims & ethos". Our schools are "all-through schools", including kindergartens, which means that they are also regulated by what are called the Early Years' Foundation Stage (EYFS), applying to children in any type of child-care from birth to age five. 

When these were introduced, Janni Nicol, as part of her work for the Steiner Waldorf Schools' Fellowship, won a major concession; a small number of amendments, or exemptions to the EYFS learning goals in recognition of the schools' distinctive ethos. These exemptions covered literacy & numeracy skills which we see as inappropriate to the developmental needs of young children.

Waldorf practice includes the principle that from the first to the seventh year children learn through a process of inner modelling, or "imitation". The young child unselfconsciously & uncritically absorbs what they experience in their environment, their potential self functioning like a sense organ. Differentiation of self from surroundings is a gradual process & the rhythm & activities of the kindergarten are planned in order to educate indirectly, preparing the necessary pre-skills & underpinnings of formal learning through doing. As it happens, this, less pressured beginning to learning is more common across the world (including countries with the most successful education systems) than has been traditional in the British Isles, where the legal school age is five years old & a majority of children now start formal schooling at age four ("rising fives"*).

The paradox is this: exemptions to the EYFS end with the child's sixth year, but the Waldorf early years' curriculum extends into the seventh year, at which age children in our schools enter Class One. Thus there is an apparent  gap: & there lies the problem. There is nothing in the regulations intended to prevent Waldorf schools setting a later starting age for formal education, but pupil assessment is supposed to account for progression in terms of formal learning. The problem isn't insuperable, but it cannot be ignored as that risks schools receiving inspection judgements that are less than good. The solution involves describing things in a way that appears to contradict Waldorf principles: some dancing on semantic pinheads! A bureaucratic anomaly, perhaps, but the sort of thing that becomes increasingly common: a contemporary phenomenon.

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