‘a different class’ (on steiner education in the guardian)

There’s a new article about Steiner education in The Guardian and I’m sure everybody has read it and is talking about it already. On the upside, some negative sides of waldorf schools are mentioned. On the downside, the article is pretty lame, as though the guardian of the newspaper threshold had been preventing a decent job on this topic. The comment section is only for the brave, those of you who can stand a certain amount of stupidity. Apparently, the waldorf drones have been brought out in daylight, to submit positive comments that reek of advertisement brochures. (Tell me, how can a parent who investigated Steiner education 20 years ago, and then decided not to go there, still regurgitate all the right buzzwords?)

Jeevan Vasagar starts out the article by presenting to the readers a picturesque portrait of the Hereford Steiner academy. Trevor Mepham, the academy’s principal, talks about common sense, curiously enough, and about vitality and twinkling eyes. As for mind-blowing wisdom, he proposes that the human being needs a ‘relationship with the natural world’. It’s difficult to understand why this would have to be obtained within the framework of Steiner education though. Or why people would be willing to compromise a good education to obtain, for their children, a relationship with the natural world — as if you couldn’t have both. Of course, Trevor Mepham thinks waldorf education offers both. Critics would say he’s wrong — perhaps even that it offers neither a meaningful contact with the natural world nor a good education.

Among the good things about the article is the space given to waldorf school science teaching and the findings of Mark Hayes, who has read a book on the Steiner science curriculum. One that, moreover, was recommended to him by the movement itself.

Darwinism, the book notes, is “rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics”, while homeopathy is given as an example of “an effect that cannot be explained”. A typical passage on biology reads: “A reductionist biology which states or implies that the human body is a machine … is not one which nourishes the adolescent’s deepest concerns. The current theories are just that – theories. They have not been in existence long and though presented as ‘truth’ they will inevitably change.”

Mark is right to point out that anthroposophy is the basis of the education. This, of course, should have been the focus of Trevor Mepham’s lyrical exposition, but waldorf proponents frequently leave that side of it out. Better, they think, to talk generally about sufficiently nice but rather unspecified things, and let the parents make their own interpretations to suit their own minds, than to spell it out: anthroposophy. Jeevan Vasagar also makes his own interpretation, one which suggests that maybe he’s not too familiar with how, when and why anthroposophy influences Steiner education:

There’s little evidence of this philosophical backdrop [ie, anthroposophy /a] in the Herefordshire school’s everyday life, however.

Perhaps, I conclude, he just doesn’t know what to look for. (Perhaps he didn’t really get access to all aspects of the school’s everyday life, either.) He continues:

It’s clear from talking to the pupils that they don’t regard Steiner as a religious movement.

This, of course, comes as no surprise whatsoever. Their parents and teachers don’t regard the school as a religious/spiritual movement — at least not in public, even if they are anthroposophists. So why would the children do that, and especially children who may not even have heard much about anthroposophy? You see, that’s just not how it works. Steiner schools don’t ‘preach’ anthroposophy (if they did, I’m sure people would be less deluded and more capable of making decisions not regretted later). They work with anthroposophy as their foundation and immerse children in an anthroposophically ‘appropriate’ environment. That’s the point of it. What you get from talking to the children is a consequence of this approach. That they don’t recognize Steiner education, or even anthroposophy, as a religious/spiritual movement is all par for the course — it’s supposed to be that way.

Another highlight is, of course, the presence of Melanie Byng (woof!).

She feels embarrassed to admit that the aesthetic was part of the appeal. “An ordinary nursery seems messy, crowded, full of plastic. In a Steiner kindergarten, they use natural materials – wood, wool, everything very neatly and pleasingly arranged.”

But the academic part of the experience showed itself to be quite a disappointment, she says. I think not a few parents have discovered the same. And it isn’t embarrassing to fall for the aesthetic part. Even I could do that, and I should know better. Ironically, going back to the beginning of the article and looking at what Vasagar writes, one gets the impression he’s falling, at least a little, for the same things.

Vasagar’s lack of real insight shows most spectacularly, however, when he writes that ‘eurhythmy‘ is ‘a Steiner exercise involving stretching and hopping to music.’ Stretching and hopping to music, well, that’s a description that could work for comical purposes (perhaps), but as information it’s simply pathetic and entirely inadequate. He ends the article by saying:

But it’s not just a matter of attractive wooden furnishings and organic food – Steiner schools offer a radically different take on the world.

They do indeed ‘offer a radically different take on the world.’ What a pity that The Guardian fails to tell us much at all about that take on the world. Because an account of what that ‘take on the world’ entails would have been truly interesting and informative.

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Read also the BHA’s comment on the article.

hereford steiner academy and the software ag stiftung

Hereford Steiner Academy is the first — and still the only — state-funded Steiner school in the UK. It’s situated in the small village of Much Dewchurch in Herefordshire. The school is, in fact, bigger than the entire village. For the Steiner school movement, establishing and receiving funding for one Steiner school is a big step — it gives an indication that further funding, of more Steiner schools, is an open option. And it shows there’s a possibility to gain free school status for several more — or even all — Steiner schools. In short, the Hereford Steiner Academy signified hope. The Hereford Steiner Academy had to be a pioneer, and it had to be successful (how successful it really is has been discussed in previous comment threads on this blog — from the inspection reports, it turns out, maybe not so).

In an old article in TES, tweeted by @lovelyhorse_ this morning, it is told that the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship has received money from two private donors:

The Steiner fellowship has raised nearly a million for the project from two sponsors – a parent and a German software firm. The rest will come from the Government.

(In fact, it has turned out, a lot of money; not just for the education, but the school also asked for £ 16 million for their buildings. Some more info and arguments here.)

One might ask why a German software firm wants to invest money in a Steiner school in the UK. One might ask why, were it not already apparent. The software firm is the Software AG in which the Software AG Stiftung (the foundation) holds shares. This foundation is well-known for donating money to various anthroposophical enterprises and causes. The company was founded by Peter Schnell, an anthroposophist, who is still active in the foundation’s board of directors. There’s nothing peculiar about anthroposophists wanting to establish a foundation to further anthroposophical projects, of course. There’s no reason for them not to. And this foundation sits on a lot of money; in 2008, almost £ 700 million. In that year (the Hereford Academy was established in 2008, which is why I chose 2008 as an example), the foundation donated £ 7 million to educational causes alone. (Here you can read the annual report.)

The more interesting question is why the foundation is not mentioned by name in the UK documents. In Hereford Steiner Academy’s Expression of Interest (a form submitted to the government’s Department for Education), there’s only a reference to a donation by ‘Stiftung AG’ (which is just pure nonsense: it would be like saying there’s a donation from ‘ltd foundation’, and leaving out the actual name that distinguishes this legal entity from others, it’s name is Software AG Stiftung). The document reads:

The Steiner School Fellowship is the sponsor and they have found sponsorship monies from Stiftung AG, and a private donor with connections to Steiner schools.

Why does the SWSF not want — or is it just a mistake? difficult to know — to reveal the actual name of its donor? Is that because it would become apparent that strong anthroposophical interests are involved in the establishment of the first state-funded Steiner school in the UK, because it’s supposed to pave the way for further funding? The Software AG Stiftung is quite clear about its intentions; they see state-funded alternative education as a right that should be promoted. And they’re speaking about waldorf education, of course. The projects the foundation gives funding to are anthroposophical. Nothing wrong with that. But why does the SWSF not want to say so? Maybe because the organistion has done a lot to tone down the allegiance to anthroposophy. These are ‘just’ schools with a great pedagogy… nothing to do with odd, esoteric beliefs. Of course, if the SWSF was really thinking of rebutting Steiner or discarding of anthroposophy, then there’s no believable reason why they would be getting money from this foundation. Anyway, it doesn’t stop here.

If you then try to access the Hereford Academy’s funding agreement — an agreement between the academy and the Department of Education — you’ll soon notice something odd. If you look at the table of contents, there’s a reference to ‘Other relevant funding’ (on p 3). However, when you try to view the paragraphs in question (64-67), they’re simply not there. In fact, the entire page has been redacted, and the document jumps from page 19 to page 21. There is no page 20, where paragraphs 64 to 67 ought to appear. Apparently, the public is not supposed to see where the ‘Other relevant funding’ comes from. Why is this information not public? It does not seem to be something to keep confidential. So what if a wealthy German foundation donated money for an anthroposophical cause? So what? If the private donor (said to be a parent, and a person with connections to the movement) had legitimate reason to demand privacy, the same cannot be said to apply to the Software AG Stiftung. Actually, I don’t see why the Software AG Stiftung would not be proud to have helped established the first state-funded Steiner Academy in the UK. But perhaps the SWSF is embarrassed. Perhaps it doesn’t want to be asked the question: why does this German foundation show such an interest in British education?

(Neither the website of the SWSF itself, nor the website of the Hereford Steiner Academy, mentions the Software AG Stiftung. It would seem as though they don’t want to credit the foundation.)

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Edit: It hit me when I read the funding agreement that Annex 1 (of 6) was missing (5 and 6 are also missing). I was just sent an email about something called Annex A, which I presume might be the same as Annex 1. Quote p 1 in the funding agreement: ‘Whilst releasing the majority of the Funding Agreement will further the public understanding of Academies. The whole of the Funding Agreement cannot be revealed. If Annex A was to be revealed under the FOI act, DCSFs’ commercial interest would be prejudiced, which could result in the less effective use of public money.’ [Removed emphasis. /a] I wonder if any formal decision has been made to withold p 20, sections 62-67 in the agreement document itself as well? Where is it, if so? On what grounds was it made, is perhaps an even more interesting question. (Edit, again: sorry for previous misquote, the document does not allow copy-paste.)

toilets in keeping with the ethos

Thanks to ThetisMercurio who tweeted about this. The state-funded Steiner Academy in Hereford has toilets that are ‘dramatically brighter than most toilets’, apparently. How nice! Who doesn’t want dramatically brighter loos? Let’s turn to the project manager:

“They look great” she said “and fully in keeping with the ethos of the Steiner Academy”.

Well, that’s just splendid, the toilets are in keeping with Steiner ethos. I always wonder about their ethos.

Certain Steiner quotes on brain substance and poop come to mind. But I guess that’s not what she was thinking of.

hereford academy’s visions

The first — and still the only — publicly funded Steiner school in the UK is the Hereford Steiner Academy. This is from a document entitled Report of the governors for the year ended 31st August 2010. It seems to be a statement of their vision:

To enable children to have a full experience of childhood that can nourish and develop their innate gifts and potentials, so that they may become responsible, free individuals who think clearly, observe perceptively and act considerately and constructively for the good of the world.
The ethos and educational activity in the Academy is informed by a developing body of work initiated by the scientist, philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Essentially, the education is based on an understanding that each child develops through a sequence of physical, emotional and cognitive stages through an integrated approach to teaching and learning which emphasises the dual aspects of care and learning. Hence the curriculum content & materials and teaching methods relate to the age and developmental needs of the pupils. The teacher is guided by observing and understanding the nature of the growing child and accordingly responds to each child’s potential, emergent capacities and developing qualities with a belief that this education provides nourishment for the body, the soul and the spirit.

I can’t help but think they need to really explain a few words and concepts better, because this text paints an innocuous and deceptive picture. It’s filled with half-truths. Sure, if you know the Steiner texts and previous anthroposophical publications, you know a little about what they’re talking about. Lots of people don’t, however, and may make the wrong decision based upon reading this text and similar (they are by no means unusual). The Academy’s representatives need do be explicit about what they mean by ‘full experience of childhood’, child development and its stages (as envisioned by anthroposophy), ‘innate gifts and potentials’, ‘free individuals’, what’s ‘good’ for the world, what ‘relates to the age and developmental needs’, the teacher’s ‘observing and understanding’, what the ‘nature’ of the child is, ‘child’s potential, emergent capacities and developing qualities’, and, last but not least, ‘the body, the soul and the spirit’. The vision statement is totally inadequate — either you explain what you mean, or you can just as well leave it to everybody’s imagination. This wouldn’t be such a big thing, were it not for the fact that this text has to be interpreted in the light of anthroposophy, and everybody who supports the Steiner Academy ought to know exactly what this means. My hunch is that it isn’t unusual that they don’t. And the school, like most waldorf schools, is perfectly prepared not to be explicit about its foundation and its beliefs. Instead it serves us the usual fluff words that could be taken to mean just about anything — until you know the background of these words and concepts and can decipher them. Instead of talking broadly about child development and the nature of the child, they need to be explicit that their beliefs don’t coincide with mainstream beliefs about development and nature.

In this document, a new book is mentioned; it is about Steiner education and will be published in April by Routledge. See description here. Already in the title, we’re faced with a somewhat insidious assumption: that Steiner schools are ‘meeting the child’. It’s written by people involved in Steiner education, so I guess what is to be expected from it. Another assumption is that other school types can learn from waldorf; interestingly, waldorf educators rarely seem to think they may learn anything from others or from mainstream education. It’s usually more like this: they’re here to save the world and rescue childhood from these dreadful materialistic practices. Other schools should reform and become more like waldorf, while they never need to do anything differently at all. It makes me wonder: what about all those children for whom waldorf is a really bad fit? Why don’t waldorf ever talk about these children before failure is a fact? Then, and only then, does it suit waldorf to say: ‘Oh, but waldorf is not for everyone…’ What about the children waldorf schools can’t meet but who are still stuck in these schools?

Mary Jane Drummond and Sally Jenkinson are two of the authors who contribute. Here’s an earlier post on one of their projects. (Book cover image from Routledge.)

To return to the Hereford report:

The Academy works with the school doctor in order to gain advice and support for all the children who are moving from kindergarten into class 1.

An (anthroposophical, I assume) doctor is called upon to give advice about children who are to begin first grade. Why? Do medical doctors possess special pedagogical knowledge about school readiness?

Speaking of school doctors, parents who wish to enroll their children at the Hereford Academy have to sign an agreement. It’s called a ‘home-school agreement’ and can be downloaded from the school website. Assuming that the school doctor is an anthroposophical doctor, this should scare the hell out of any parent, because he or she would have to agree to:

Enabling my child to see the School Doctor at the Academy’s request and taking my child to any therapy sessions or special needs assessment required by the Academy. I understand this is necessary to support my child accessing the education and the teachers’ ability to meet his/her needs.

Not only will an anthroposophical doctor assess the child’s readiness to begin school (using anthroposophical knowledge to do so), he will also prescribe anthroposophical therapies. This means, e g, curative eurythmy and similar therapies with no real-world effects at all. Luckily, if the therapies are pure fantasy, so are most of the diagnoses made. (The school doctor in my school thought I would die soon. Presumably because my reincarnating spirit was gangrenous.) Another document (entitled Homeopathy Policy) from Hereford makes clear that homeopathy is used to ‘treat’ children.

Also among the things parents are required to agree to is this:

Protecting my/our child from unsuitable and unwarranted access to some of the concerns and worries of the adult world and from unmonitored exposure and un-mediated access to media such as television and DVD, computer games, internet chat-rooms and so on. Medical research shows that screen-based activity such as TV, videos, films and computer games can have a negative effect on children (brain activity, concentration, heart-beat, emotional balance and well-being). The younger the child, the greater the effect. For the well-being of your child and their ability to access the education and programme of teaching and learning, please allow no regular screen-based activity/watching for under 8s, no more than 3 hours a week for 9 to 14s and moderate and selective use for young people aged 15 and over. Please try to make sure TVs and computers are not kept in your child’s room so that his/her bedroom is free to be a place of rest and comfort. (Further reading ‘Remote Controlled’ by Dr Aric Sigman & ‘Toxic Childhood’ by Sue Palmer, amongst others)

I wonder if it is ok for a publicly funded school to interfere in this manner with a student’s home life? And is it really morally acceptable for an educational institution to spread unfounded and misleading junk? Clearly, the intention is to scare parents who don’t know better. Equally obvious is that what science says isn’t what informs waldorf school policies. They only refer to science when they think it reinforces their beliefs. And they will never acknowledge science which contradicts their beliefs. Thus they back up their convictions with stuff like Toxic Childhood. Besides — why can’t a TV in the bedroom offer comfort? (I don’t think it would be a bad idea at all for children who, like I was, are insomniacs.)