This is a tricky one. My first reaction was: there are two alternative interpretations here, either the people at Leeds Steiner school don’t know what they’re doing or they’re trying to mislead or deceive the public. Neither alternative reflects very well on Leeds Steiner school, which is a member of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF). But… and there is a but: the question asked provided the school with a cop-out. As everybody knows, waldorf schools claim they don’t teach the children anthroposophy or the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. This is a ‘truth’ worth discussing though. Sometimes what Steiner taught his anthroposophists is actually taught to waldorf school children. The teachers study Steiner’s work when they study to become teachers. (We’ve recently talked about history education and the culture epochs on an other blog thread; one might reasonably ask if this is not a school subject where the ‘facts’ of anthroposophy seep through to the students in a direct manner. And, in any case, teaching a subject such as eurythmy is to teach anthroposophy. What else would it be?) This said, anthroposophy is always indirectly present. Let me get to that.
But here’s the question that left Leeds Steiner school with the opportunity to exclaim ‘No anthroposophy, no Steiner values’:
First, no they won’t teach the national curriculum, they have their own Steiner curriculum. Second, here’s the problem. Steiner schools claim they don’t teach anthroposophy to students and, of course, if someone asks if they will be ‘teaching anthroposophy’, it’s pretty easy to deny it (and hope there won’t be any more questions). This does not mean that anthroposophy is not the foundation of the entire school down to every detail of the curriculum. This in no way implies the school isn’t immersed in anthroposophy. But Steiner schools aren’t supposed to teach anthroposophy; I think even Steiner was clear on that: the tenets of anthroposophy weren’t to be taught… but he doesn’t object to teaching some of the ‘facts’ derived from ‘spiritual research’ and waldorf schools have done so in the past and will most likely continue to do this (or at least they’re unable to distinguish between scientifically established facts and spiritual fancies and thus getting things mixed up due to ignorance).
All this means is basically that waldorf school teachers won’t stand in front of their classes giving lessons on anthroposophy. It’s more likely anthroposophy will never be mentioned, but still have a huge, though less direct, influence on everything that happens in the school, from the subjects that are taught, how they’re taught, when they’re taught to how teachers interact with students to the traditions and rituals that are observed. But anthroposophy won’t normally be talked about. (Given the influence it has, I think it should be talked about. The children, at least when they’re older, deserve to know about it, in a direct way, in order to help them make some sense of what they’ve experienced.)
This, unfortunately, means that Leeds Steiner school probably felt honest and upfront about the answer, even though it is, in effect, an answer with a potential to mislead. The reason is that people are possibly unaware that there exist, in this context, some welcome opportunities for waldorf schools to deny teaching anthroposophy while still operating fully according to anthroposophical beliefs and adhering strictly to ‘Steiner values’. As they should do, if they want the label ‘Steiner’.
Sometimes it appears as though, when speaking or writing publicly, Steiner schools would rather denounce Steiner and anthroposophy. They’d rather not be too tightly associated with Steiner’s name or with anthroposophy, even though they really should thank anthroposophy and Steiner, without whom they would just be… schools, and probably not very interesting ones at that. (Even the SWSF has wished to ‘rebut’ Steiner.)
I would seriously want to ask a school like the Leeds Steiner school why they’re so happy to announce their lack of committment to anthroposophy and Steiner values — if this is what they’re doing in the reply to Jan; certainly they don’t seem too eager to expand on their actual association with anthroposophy and we’ve certainly seen similar behaviour from other schools and waldorf proponents –, when, in fact, they’ve chosen to use the name ‘Steiner’ and when they’ve chosen to belong to the Steiner movement. Because, actually, Steiner, waldorf and anthroposophy are not concepts without content. They mean something, and choosing such a school (or avoiding it) is a decision based upon what these schools are. Well, at least — that is how it should be. But waldorf schools are sadly all too happy enrolling the children of uninformed parents — and are constantly surprised when it turns out that parents are sometimes not all that happy when they find out more.
As said, Leeds Steiner school is a member of the SWSF. This means the school has to adhere to the criteria set up by the SWSF.
SWSF, in turn, collaborates internationally. The anthroposophical movement’s pedagogical center is the pedagogical section at the Goetheanum, Dornach. The Hague Circle — now reportedly renamed the ‘International Forum’ — is one interesting entity to look at; The Hague Circle has held conferences on important topics, and I’d recommend Leeds Steiner school (and everyone else) to read more about this one, which is especially pertinent to the topic at hand here. SWSF’s membership criteria are perhaps a little less clear about anthroposophy than the Hague Circle is (see my earlier blog post for references). Nonetheless, the SWSF states that
Steiner Waldorf education centres are independent, self-administering bodies that have chosen to associate in order to promote, advance & develop the method of education, founded upon Spiritual Scientific activity & study as indicated by Rudolf Steiner.
Further down SWSF lists some provisions, among them
a) There has been adequate preparation, including anthroposophical study,
b) An Anthroposophical impulse lies at the heart of planning for the school, including the Waldorf curriculum
c) A registered company with charitable status has been established which includes a wording to the effect that the purpose of the activity is to provide education based upon the principles of Rudolf Steiner (or similar)
On SWSF’s website’s main page, it is stated that the purpose of the association is ‘to safeguard the Steiner ethos’. This, too, actually means something. They’re not just random words we don’t need to take seriously. (By the way, the SWSF’s own description of Steiner waldorf education is lamentably inadequate.)
Leeds Steiner school ought not be so eager and happy to announce ‘no anthroposophy, no Steiner values’. Instead they should make a real effort to explain what exactly this means and to make sure to represent, openly and honestly, the role of anthroposophy in the school.