bill wood’s research and bristol steiner free school

The new Bristol Steiner Free School — applying for state-funding as a free school — made a claim on their website about the success of former Steiner students, referring to an Australian study. I wrote a post about the Bristol Steiner school a while ago. After a while, Joe Evans, who is involved in the school, named and also managed to locate the study, or a part of it, which you can find here, or via Joe Evans’s comment here. It’s a study by Bill Wood. It’s worth reading the old thread to find out more; it contains an interesting discussion not only about results and elusive research but about how this prospective Steiner free school, like so many others, does not succeed to present (or perhaps even figure out) its connection to anthroposophy. The folks at the Bristol Steiner school hade found their information about Wood’s study and its results from the Australian Steiner school association which made these claims in this document (see p 5):

This means that they claim significantly more Steiner students than mainstream students go on to higher studies.

Ulf Ärnström has read Bill Wood’s study, and has focused on the percentage of waldorf school students entering university compared with students from other schools. He writes in a comment:

Hello again Joe – and others interested in the truth of the claims of superiority of Mount Barker Waldorf School. You can easily check the figures for yourself in the link provided by Joe above.

Now if you could raise the percentage of pupils entering university from 14-16% to 44% it would be truly extraordinary. And that’s what Steiner Education Australia says in the report which Joe found here: http://bit.ly/K4hsds

Fortunately for the Adelaide University which lends credibility to the report, that’s not what Bill Woods, the author, says. The figures are based on such an embarrassing misunderstanding it’s almost unbelievable. This is what Bill says:

” … the rate at which school-leavers entered university in South Australia during this period was approximately 40 percent.”

There are in fact percentages of approximately 14 and 16 percent mentioned elsewhere in the text, but intended for a completely different analysis, a “comparison of the ages of ex-MBWS students attending university and the ages of the wider university student cohort.”

So shouldn’t the Mount Baker school and Joe be happy that 4% more of their pupils enter university? I don’t think so. At least not until someone can show that the family background of their parents is comparable to mainstream schools. Usually Waldorf parents are better educated which means their children should be more successful academically. In the part of the report Joe managed to find, there is no data on this. Which also invalidates the figures about the better grades by those who entered the university doors.

I’m not saying Mount Barker is a bad or mediocre school. For all I know it could very well be a fabulous place of learning. And they are certainly not responsible for the lack of reading and mathematics skills of the author of the Steiner Education Australia text. I am saying that as far as I and Joe can know at the moment, we cannot even honestly testify that one single Waldorf school on the other side of the planet is better than mainstream schools.

And Joe, you and your friends in Bristol have even bigger problems than that. If you want to give parents and authorities an accurate and honest picture of the evaluations of Waldorf pedagogy, you should tell them something completely different. To make a long story short, there are no studies I am aware of which shows that Waldorf education is superior to mainstream education. Quite the opposite. The best so far, and the only one taking the influence of family background into account, is a Dutch doctoral dissertation by Hilde Steenbergen (2009). It clearly states that Waldorf is a bad choice if you care about reading, writing and math. Of course you might get something else from Waldorf pedagogy, but it seems you have to pay for that …

There are a few more things to say about this. With the Steiner students, the number 49% seems to include vocational studies too. I’m not sure if ‘vocational studies’ can be translated into ‘university studies’ straight off. Perhaps someone would enlighten us in the comments. At least, to be able to determine the true value of the claim, this has to be sorted out. Also, the number 49% (used in the Autralian document) appears to be wrong, and should be 44%, that is, 4 percentage points more students from the waldorf school attend university or vocational studies compared to students from other schools who go on to university.

MarkH also read the study and found that the claims that waldorf students do as well as other students, once they have entered university, might also be flawed. Mark writes:

Unfortunately, there’s a serious problem in the section on student grades once they’re at university, which I think invalidates your statement that ex-Waldorf students significantly out-perform their peers from other schools.

Woods considers the grades obtained by the entire cohort of ex-Mount Barker Waldorf School students, who attended 3 different universities: The University of Adelaide, The University of South Australia and Flinders University. His control group consists of students from only the University of Adelaide. Now, UoA is a very distinguished institution in the equivalent of the US Ivy League or the upper reaches of the UK Russell group. The other two universities… aren’t in the same league. Is it possible that courses are less demanding there than at UoA? Could it be easier to obtain higher grades? Woods doesn’t take this possibility into account at all.

If I were examining Woods’ thesis, based on this extract alone, I’d be tempted to fail him.

Mark’s comment is particularly relevant, since one of the claims Bristol Steiner school makes, based upon Wood’s study, is that ‘students who had been at Steiner/Waldorf schools […] significantly outperformed their peers from other schools’. This claim seems questionable.

This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive coverage of Bill Wood’s research. But it’s an indication that perhaps the Bristol Steiner school and others who might feel inclined to make similar claims should investigate these matters further. To attract parents to one’s school based upon a possible misrepresentation of research results is not the best idea. And everyone should always be wary when Steiner schools present research that supposedly shows glowing results for Steiner education (even worse when they do it without providing any references or when the study in question is almost impossible to locate). Sometimes they haven’t even read the research themselves, as was evidently the case with Bristol Steiner school, regardless of whether their appreciation of Bill Wood’s work was right or wrong.

‘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.

‘schools of pseudoscience’

Steiner education poses as great a threat to children’s science education as creationist schools, it is claimed in a letter to The Observer this morning:

‘However, not enough attention has been paid to two equally grave threats to science education, namely Maharishi and Steiner schools. Maharishi schools follow the educational methods of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru of the transcendental meditation movement, while Steiner education is based on an esoteric/occultist movement called anthroposophy, founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (“Holistic unit will ‘tarnish’ Aberdeen University reputation“). […] Anthroposophy is centred on beliefs in karma, reincarnation and advancing children’s connection to the spirit world.’

Perhaps this little push will at least help journalists and even the Steiner schools themselves to present Steiner more honestly. No, he wasn’t simply a scientist, philosopher and educationalist. He was indeed a mystic who founded an esoteric, spiritual movement, and the waldorf school movement came into being as a part of this anthroposophical movement and based its methods upon its founder’s anthroposophical ideas. It’s not always easy for people outside the movement to know what is actually taught as science in these schools. This post is worth reading again, too. Should someone want to explore the waldorf/steiner from waldorf/steiner proponents themselves, this little book is potentially of some use, though I fear it gives a far more reasonable picture than reality.

perhaps not entirely honest (about bristol steiner free school)

One of the prospective Steiner free schools, Bristol Steiner Free School, offers this presentation of Steiner education. To begin with, they neglect to present Steiner himself in an honest way which would shed light on who he was and what he accomplished not as an academic but as a founder and leader of an esoteric movement.

The school boasts about ‘joy in learning’ and ‘experienc[ing] the richness of childhood’; one can argue that these are misleading claims, or, in any case, that waldorf education does not set itself apart in this regard. But I will focus on a few other aspects of the presentation. This is a particularly bold claim:

The Steiner curriculum is a flexible and adaptable set of pedagogical guidelines.

For a type of education that has looked pretty much the same for 90 years, that shuns development and new ideas, that avoids to bring in anything modern (including technological aids), the statement would be surprising, were it entirely honest. An education which, many decades later, diligently follows the advice and ‘indications’ presented by its founder, Rudolf Steiner, the ideas about child development put forth by anthroposophy (more or less considered immutable truths, as far as education is concerned; at least, so-called spiritual science is not doing anything much to improve on or modify these ideas) and is ultimately governed by the anthroposophical movement (which, on the whole, has not proven itself to be particularly flexible and adaptable). Moreover, whatever the Bristol Steiner Free School claims, there’s not much room in waldorf education for flexibility and adaptability concerning the education of the individual child. The education is for the most part a collective experience — the children all do the same thing, at the same time, at the same pace. For example, there are no text books, so all students are supposed to copy the subject matter at the same pace from the blackboard and be able to follow the teacher’s instructions, given verbally and collectively. But these are just examples. The school explains: ‘Whole class, mixed ability teaching is the norm’. What that means, in this context, I do not know.

Let’s continue to another bold claim, no, an audacious claim.

‘… Steiner schools have an enviable reputation for imbuing an ethos of intellectual curiosity, motivation, creativity and self-expression.’

Is that so? Not only a reputation, but an ‘enviable’ one. I agree that some former waldorf students are capable of self-expression, but having seen some others express themselves, my respect, over all, is quite weak. The claim about the ‘ethos of intellectual curiosity’ leaves me quite baffled. What does the Steiner school offer to back up this ‘enviable reputation’?

For example, an Australian study comparing the academic performance of students at university level found that students who had been at Steiner/Waldorf schools (the terms are interchangeable – the Waldorf School was the first school run according to Steiner’s educational principles) significantly outperformed their peers from other schools in both the humanities and the sciences.

So that’s another study — I haven’t read it, and first didn’t know what they were talking about.* They don’t offer a reference, so how are people going to know and how are they going to be able to check it out for themselves? Often with these studies, there is a lot to be said about methods, interpretation and, finally, the presentation of the results by the waldorf movement for promotional reasons, which is why providing a proper reference is paramount. In short, the research, upon closer inspection, is often found lacking rigour, it is flawed and interpreted dishonestly… and presented deceptively. As for this study, I don’t know it. (There are other studies. I’d like to recommend Ulf Ärnström’s comments in this thread, and here.) In general, good research on waldorf education is sorely lacking. In addition, they then claim that the ‘Steiner Academy Hereford has built a strong record of educational excellence within the state-funded sector’, a claim which is highly questionable. (Hereford and its results have been discussed in several places on the blog, for example here, there are relevant links to inspection documentation in that thread.)

The new free schools, they write

… can have a great deal more freedom in how they teach and in how they measure success.

This, of course, is what waldorf schools have always wanted. More money, less accountability. They want to teach their own curriculum, based upon anthroposophical ideas and ideals, and they want to control, inspect and evaluate their own work according to their own standards. The problem is — they should have to show that how they teach works and that they are successful first. Only then is it possible to discuss whether it is — academic results apart — a reasonable idea to state-funding of an education based upon an esoteric worldview. It might be, but the burden of proof is on the waldorf movement.

There’s an interesting FAQ as well, I thought perhaps we could discuss it, too, in the comments. If you want.

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*As I was finishing this post, I got to see this post on Sune’s blog. I assume that’s the Australian study the Bristol School is talking about (why no reference?). I’ve not read it, but have come across Gidley’s name before. It would be interesting to hear if anyone knows about this study (viewpoints? links? criticism of it?). I’d caution you to take Sune’s post with an entire ocean of salt. As usual. I mentioned other studies and their flaws. But I guess Gidley’s study may be the exception to the rule — maybe this is the one?? If so, you’d still have to weigh it against the results from the other studies. Here’s an article by Gidley in the Waldorf Library (and here’s another selection of writings). She is, apparently, a waldorf school founder and waldorf school teacher, later turned academic, with 30 years total of waldorf experience. Interpret that as you will. That list of her articleswill probably seem a bit suspect to the skeptically inclined reader. Here’s Gidley’s PhD thesis: ‘EVOLVING EDUCATION: A Postformal-integral-planetary Gaze at the Evolution of Consciousness and the Educational Imperatives’. I like that: a postformal-integral-planetary gaze.

Addendum: no, it was another Australian study, not the one Sune mentions. See discussion thread.

steiner waldorf teacher training and the university of plymouth

This post is complicated to write, I must admit. In short, Daisy, a BA student on the now terminated Steiner waldorf teacher training program at the University of Plymouth contacted me and asked if I were willing to answer some questions related to waldorf criticism. I said I’d do that, if I could do it on the blog. Subsequently, I received the ‘final’ set of questions. (I have posted all of them in full at the end of this post.) I will attempt to discuss a few of them, not all. I will first try to express my concerns about this project in particular and the Steiner program at Plymouth university in general.

These concerns are important. I agreed to discuss the questions because I thought they could lead to interesting discussions. However, I recognize that there is a problematic side to this: one part of the problem is the previously expressed attitudes of students and staff at the Plymouth Steiner program. This background story should certainly not go unmentioned. One staff member and tutor, Alan Swindell, who is also working for the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship (SWSF), has written about waldorf critics in a way that is pretty damning — for him and the SWSF. (A recent SWSF document — pertaining to an intriguing SWSF teachers’ conference in april 2012 at the Rudolf Steiner House, London — confirms that Swindell works at the SWSF and is still tutoring the Plymouth Steiner course.)

I’m not sure one can have confidence in those who teach the Steiner program at Plymouth University or in their students. My bet is, probably not. This, for me, is virtually a non-issue. I’ve written about the questions that have been raised before, and I can’t stop anyone from picking from what I have already written, should they want to include my views in whatever texts they’re writing. I suppose past behaviour displayed by people connected to the Plymouth course gives legitimate cause for concern, but there always is such cause for concern. Therefore I’m going to say, wise from previous mistakes, that I don’t endorse anything. I don’t vouch for anything. I cannot be the judge of what is ok and what is not — you have to work that out for yourself.

I can only discuss those matters and questions I find interesting; that is as far as my own involvement goes. Whoever decides to participate needs to make their own decisions. But before you answer any personal questions, be ware that your answers might very well end up in the hands of the waldorf organisation. There are people who can gain from misusing and abusing any personal information they can find about former parents, especially those who are anonymous. Please do read Swindell’s text and my blog post and the discussion thread about it.

I also want to include here what Daisy herself wrote to me about her project:

… I’m doing this because I think the Waldorf movement generally has not been sufficiently open to criticism and scepticism in the past, and that particularly in light of state funding, more effort needs to be made to engage with critics. […] although I’m studying Steiner ed I don’t have a personal agenda for or against it, and thus am stepping back and looking at the debate as objectively as I can.

I very much agree with the first part of the quote; and in that context, one must appreciate efforts taking another course. As of yet, I don’t know that there is no agenda, though. And I don’t know the level of objectivity. Most of all, it’s impossible to know what this project (or any data gathered in the process) can be used for once it’s finished; and that, I’m afraid, may be outside Daisy’s control, and certainly outside our control. She also writes that

…I won’t mention names in my work if they don’t want me to, and I don’t have an agenda to portray critics in a negative light, so they can respond in confidence.

I would say though that even if Daisy’s intentions are ‘clean’, there are people involved in Steiner teacher training at Plymouth University that I wouldn’t trust with access to personal information or even my identity (were I anonymous). That has to do with their ties to the waldorf movement and to the SWSF and also with the fact that so much is at stake — money, prestige, PR — for this movement that people might be prepared to use personal information in unethical ways. I wish I could tell you something differently, but this movement has a lot to prove in this department.

steiner, waldorf and anthroposophy at plymouth university

Another cause for concern is that any collaboration or any attention could potentially serve to legitimize waldorf teacher training at universities (but let’s not overestimate the importance of critics). In my opinion, waldorf teacher training has a very long way to go before it should even be considered appropriate for a university program at a public, state-funded university. I don’t think it will happen any time soon — if ever.

Despite having terminated the waldorf teacher training program, there’s still a ‘Steiner-Waldorf/Hereford Academy research project‘ based at the University of Plymouth. The credentials of some of the researchers seemingly amount to long-time involvement in the waldorf movement, for example work within the SWSF. The project claims to include mainstream researchers too, but I would not take their word for it (none of the listed researchers appears to belong to that category). It would be interesting to know what this group of researchers has actually achieved (for example in terms of peer-reviewed articles in mainstream educational journals), but I have no time to investigate it further. Plymouth University ought perhaps investigate this project further, though, as the university affiliation helps boost its academic credibility. As if this was not enough, Plymouth University lends academic credibility to a master’s program in eurythmy. This program is offered by Rudolf Steiner college in Järna, Sweden, together with the university (sorry, no intake 2012!).

I suspect that one of the movement’s major goals right now ought to be to get back into a UK university with their teacher training programs. This background might be worth keeping in mind when pondering Daisy’s questions and perhaps also the reason for them. Given Plymouth University’s involvement in other Steiner activities (mentioned above) perhaps Plymouth is the horse to bet on, despite the fact that the present teacher training was closed down. (Aberdeen would be another interesting possibility.) Plymouth University tells us:

Please note: the University of Plymouth has ceased recruitment to its undergraduate Steiner Waldorf degree courses. However the courses have not closed and students who started in September 2009 will be fully supported throughout their studies. The University of Plymouth remains strongly committed to Steiner Waldorf Education and continues to offer postgraduate and research opportunities in this subject area. It is also actively engaged in discussions with the international Steiner Waldorf community concerning ambitious plans for a range of academic and professional practitioner offers.

One important reason why waldorf teacher training courses (or even waldorf research projects, for that matter) don’t belong in public universities is anthroposophy, the foundation of waldorf education. There is no waldorf teacher training that isn’t anthroposophical. If there were, it would be a failure from all points of view. Even at Plymouth University, the Steiner program reading lists are heavily Steiner-based. Unsurprisingly so, because otherwise these students would not (and should not) be able to thread the professional path they have chosen. It is not, however, the appropriate course material for a university program, which, supposedly, is to have a more scientifically sound basis. Anthroposophy potentially serves well as a personal belief system or spiritual worldview that students can entertain in their spare-time, but it can’t be the very basis for academic studies in the way that it is in waldorf teacher training.

state-funded steiner waldorf schools

Yet another problematic aspect is the current striving to attain state funding for waldorf steiner schools in the UK. One reason for Alan Swindell’s screed last year and his thinly veiled threats against critics was that more people had begun voicing their opposition to the government’s plans to fund these schools. There was already the Hereford Academy, which had been receiving criticism. There was the dubious Woods report, which aimed at paving the way for the funding (more on the Woods). Swindell rightly suspected that were the free school applications to go ahead, and even succeed, the criticism would become more frequent and harsher. For some reason, he did not seem to understand or want to acknowledge that the criticism was legitimate and critics had valid points.

The main potential threat against waldorf teacher training and other anthroposophical courses at public universities and against state-funded Steiner schools is people becoming aware of what these educational ideas consist of or what anthroposophy is, in general, and what impact it has on the practical anthroposophical applications, among them schools. When people know, they will start to ask whether funding is such a splendid idea or whether perhaps there are better things to allocate public resources to. When people begin to realize there is a need to question the merits of anthroposophy in education and other areas, the image that anthroposophical institutions, waldorf organisations and schools and their PR people want to convey of their own work will no longer remain unchallenged.

the background and the context of the project

Some of the background has already been mentioned above. The reason Plymouth Steiner teacher students found their way to this blog was, presumably, Alan Swindell and the post that commented on Swindell’s text in the SWSF newsletter. I can but recommend that you read at least some of the comments on that post, because they form part of the background to Daisy’s project. Of course, it wasn’t originally about this blog; Alan Swindell was, I assume, inspired to write his article when reading the posts at DC’s Improbable Science blog and other online sources that are more influential on the debate in the UK.

At some point, criticism of waldorf education — and possibly Swindell’s efforts to ‘understand’ it — seems have been brought up and discussed in the courses at Plymouth. Suddenly, several (although let’s not again delve into the question of how many they really were) teacher students appeared on this blog. (Daisy was first, so you might decide to begin reading here.) I wasn’t highly impressed by their argumentation. I was very unimpressed by some of the tactics (for example, one of them decided to pretend to be a regular teacher in order to make the arguments superficially more credible). One might suspect the tone of these discussions at the university wasn’t exactly benevolent.

Anyone involved in any way in Daisy’s dissertation work should be explicitly aware of this context in which the project arouse. In a sense, one might actually say that the behaviour of at least one of the Plymouth tutors, Swindell, and the behaviour of the movement at large has made a project such as this one much more complicated than perhaps it ought to be, for the simple reason that neither critics nor anyone else can be expected to have any confidence in the integrity of the project or of the people involved.

personal questions in the questionnaire

Of course, with or without questionnaires you’re able to find out why waldorf critics have criticized waldorf education. The internet is full arguments, opinions and viewpoints; for example, you can find out my views through browsing the posts and comments on this blog, you can read the archives of the waldorf critics list, you can look at websites and blogs and articles all over the internet. Many of those who comment here have already explained their viewpoints on a number of topics both here and elsewhere. So you can certainly write about criticism without relying on a questionnaire. In some ways that would probably be preferable, considering a situation where confidence may be virtually absent.

Most of all, there’s little use posing personal questions, since few people on ‘our’ side of things would be willing to answer them, knowing the background. (To give the Steiner community the benefit of doubt, perhaps their movement doesn’t fully realize how intimidating its tactics and its proponents can be.) Basically, if such questions are going to be of any value at all they must be handled only by people who have shown ethical integrity. Realistically, I can only see that happening with objective researchers who are independent from the movement. People working in or for the movement are not in that position and a student dissertation is still only a student dissertation (and the integrity of Daisy’s supervisors might be more important than Daisy’s own).

Some of the questions Daisy poses are decidedly personal. I’ve said it already, but there’s no guarantee for how the information gained this way can be used. The SWSF should never be allowed to get access to answers to questions like this one: ‘Describe your experience in as much detail as possible, including any problems you had during this time.’ So you need to remember that the people who run the Steiner teacher training have tight connections to the SWSF. In some instances, they are the same people who work for the SWSF. Private and personal question such as these should have been discouraged by the supervisors of this project. I don’t think the Steiner education staff will feel bound by the ethical guidelines of the university once they’re out of there (and perhaps not even as long as they are still in). Anyone who decides to formally respond to the questionnaire should ask to see the research protocol. This protocol should include indications about the context and origins of this research project, among other things.

I personally wonder if the theoretical grounds for criticizing or rejecting waldorf education aren’t more interesting than details about people’s personal lives and experiences. The objection I have here is that if we’re going to deal with the principal, theoretical, philosophical, ideological objections to waldorf education in a meaningful way, a customer survey among satisfied and dissatisfied customers is simply not enough. And the personal questions are more of a customer survey-nature.

In this context — Steiner training at a university, even if it’s only about a student essay — I’d much rather stick to discussing waldorf education, certain elements of it and its foundation and background than to expound on my own experiences and background. Not that such things are secret or can’t be discovered on this very blog, but in my opinion they are not proper subjects for Daisy’s dissertation.

I don’t want to give unnecessary room to the notion (sadly so prevalent among waldorf defenders) that waldorf criticism is due to the (often interpreted as bad and nasty) characteristics of the critic and doesn’t reflect on the movement; it’s all about the critic, not about waldorf education or its actual downsides and failures. Only read Alan Swindell’s text, and you’ll see. There’s a lot like it, and worse, out there. The personal always seems to give waldorf fans a reason to reject criticism. But, naturally, many of those who start to investigate waldorf education, its content and background initially have a personal reason for doing this. Not many others would care or understand the need for it.

My own experiences are decades old, were made in a waldorf school in another country and are completely irrelevant to any dissertation project at a university in the UK. Moreover, they spanned over a nine year period; it’s not something you describe in detail unless you were to write an autobiography.

‘Do you think Waldorf education can exist without anthroposophy? Would it be better off without it?’

This is one of the questions Daisy has included in her questionnaire. I have discussed this question many times before, directly and indirectly. The answer is no (and to the second question: the notion is silly). Waldorf education that does not have anthroposophy as its foundation is waldorf education only to the name, that is, it isn’t waldorf education. What is unique to waldorf education is anthroposophy and ideas, methods, traditions that are derived from anthroposophy. Waldorf education has its basis in the anthroposophical conception of what the human being is, how she’s constituted and how she develops. Waldorf education is anthroposophy applied to the educational context.

For formal reasons, too, waldorf education can’t exist without anthroposophy. Waldorf education is ultimately controlled, not by the PR division at the SWSF, but by anthroposophy itself, that is, by anthroposophical organisations above the local waldorf schools and associations, and they unequivocally say that anthroposophy is its foundation. I recommend this post on the Hague circle: ‘The basis of Waldorf education is a study of human being and developmental psychology presented by Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) in his volume of lectures entitled “A General Knowledge of the Human Being” or “Study of Man”.’ That is the truth. The ECSWE is also clear on the importance of anthroposophy.

Some waldorf school claim something different. That is stupid, and they make claims they shouldn’t be making. But in the aforementioned post you’ll learn, among other important things, that the SWSF also acknowledges that ‘[a]n Anthroposophical impulse lies at the heart of planning for the school, including the Waldorf curriculum’ — well, of course! Why would it be different? Anything else would be ridiculous. Anything else would make waldorf education entirely superfluous, no matter what we critics might think of an education founded upon an esoteric belief system. Basically, waldorf schools without an anthroposophical foundation is way more ridiculous than anthroposophical waldorf schools. Simply because they would have lost the point and the reason for being (whatever we might think about their ‘being’).

Without anthroposophy, there’s certainly no point to having waldorf education at all. There’s nothing left — it’s an ordinary school, with extra painting, extra flute-play and extra knitting. But without a foundation. Everything that has to do with what you teach, how you teach, when you teach the stuff you teach comes from anthroposophy. Very basic ideas that govern waldorf education would go out the window. It would be an empty shell — ideologically, philosophically, in every way. A body without a spine. An amusement park without the attractions. It would be of no importance, meaningful to no-one. Not to critics, not to anthroposophists. The manner in which the teacher interacts with the students, the way the teacher observes the students and draws conclusions about them, the means she has to help them — anthroposophy. The colours of the wall. The building design. Virtually nothing would be what it is in a waldorf school without anthroposophy. So what would you even keep that had no anthroposophy in it and still was valuable enough?

If waldorf education is to be of any value — not as a shell but as an institution doing something at least some people can appreciate — it has to remain true to its core. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to go more anthroposophical — openly, honestly, of course. In any case, that is more reasonable than removing anthroposophy. Making the most of what it has that is unique. If there is to be waldorf at all. Naturally, improving the schools in every way possible is paramount. But removing anthroposophy would just make them schools, plain schools. And there are lots of good schools competing for the attention of non-anthroposophist parents. What’s unique to waldorf is that they are anthroposophical, not that they’re particularly good (or academically successful). Anthroposophist parents, of which there still are a few, want a school with an anthroposophical foundation. Any changes to waldorf education, although not impossible, would have to be compatible with anthroposophical ideas. Or, I say it once more, waldorf education is only a name, not an education system built around a specific spiritual and educational philosophy or body of ideas.

the rest of the dissertation questions

I don’t want to delay posting this anymore, and am intending to use the comments section for discussion of other questions. This is the complete set of questions Daisy sent to me. Feel free to discuss any of them in the comment thread. If you want to discuss them or anything else with Daisy but don’t want to do it in the thread, I’m happy to get you in touch with her.

“Can the Steiner Waldorf schools movement break out of its niche by engaging with its critics?”

Questions for critics

What are/were the nature & extent of your involvement with the Waldorf world? (e.g. ex-parent/ex-pupil) Describe your experience in as much detail as possible, including any problems you had during this time.

What key criticisms do you have of the school(s) you were involved with? Do these criticisms apply, in your opinion, to the Waldorf movement as a whole?

Is your negative view of Waldorf informed to a greater extent by direct experience, or by what you have read from other people or of Rudolf Steiner’s writings? Or have both factors had an equal influence on your views?

What is your attitude towards anthroposophy and/or Rudolf Steiner?

What are your motives for airing your critical views of Waldorf on the internet? For example, is it a cathartic way of healing from a negative experience, or do you hope to influence parents who are considering this type of education for their child, or campaign against state funding for Steiner schools, etc.?

Have you ever engaged directly with Waldorf proponents who have challenged your views? What was the outcome of this? How well (or not) do you think criticism and scepticism is handled by the movement?

Can you identify anything positive about Steiner education, whether from your own experience of that of others?

Do you think Waldorf education can exist without anthroposophy? Would it be better off without it?

Do you believe Waldorf education has a future? If so, how would you like to see it change? Or would you prefer it ceased to exist?

What is your view of state schools? How do you think state education could be improved, if at all?

Do you think a fusion of the Steiner methods with other educational methods is possible/desirable?

‘can a child’s karma or destiny be that of a victim or bully?’

I first thought about posting this as a comment to my previous post, but I think it deserves a post of its own. It comes from the comment thread on the Quackometer post. I think I’ve blogged about this document, published by a waldorf school, before. I think it’s absolutely essential to understand how things might work — and you will get a glimpse of a kind of reasoning that waldorf teachers don’t engage in in front of (non-anthroposophist) parents.

Sam on March 17, 2012 at 10:27 am
Daisy asked ‘Is bullying more common in Steiner schools? Not a clue. I don’t know how we could prove this one way or another.’

p9, Bullying Presentation to Faculty – Handout
May 13, 1999

Alan Howard Waldorf School

Prepared by Cynthia Kennedy and Betty Robertson

Destiny

We have labored over this section and it has been written and rewritten a number of times. Can a child’s karma or destiny be that of a victim or bully? Is it a child’s destiny to seek certain experiences to build his or her self-esteem and inner self? Should a potentially abusive situation be stopped, and if so, at what point? We do not know the answers; however, when dealing with bullying behavior we thought that caution is necessary. If intervention can change the experiences that our children encounter then conceivably it is not entirely destiny we are dealing with. And perhaps all the children are better served if they are given tools to better handle aggression, be it their own, or their peers.

For a child who is being victimized, it must be the teacher’s role and responsibility to determine how much victimization is healthy to enable the child to be strengthened through the experience and at what point the exposure is excessive and detrimental. This situation is something that all teachers must struggle with, and the obligation becomes that much more onerous given that, in all likelihood, most of what a child is subjected to will be unknown to the teacher.

It appears that the bully, primarily through child rearing, arrives at our school with a predisposition to aggressive and bullying behavior. The research is not clear as to how much these children can be helped without the support of the parents. However, parental commitment is one of the qualities expected of any Waldorf family so there may be more success with our families than the average. In addition, we understand that doing biography work with the affected child(ren) and families may increase understanding and help the situation. Curative work, including assessments and curative eurythmy, perhaps in consultation with specialists like Anthroposophical doctors, may provide additional information to both the family and teacher(s).

Is it any wonder that critics have a lot to say about bullying in waldorf schools? Is it any wonder that we keep insisting that karma plays a role? Is it any wonder when we don’t take the words of waldorf proponents that bullying is no bigger a problem in waldorf than elsewhere and that it is — of course! — out of the question not to intervene when a child is being badly treated? Is it any wonder at all? The quoted passages were not somehow invented by critics — they contain the words of waldorf professionals themselves!

ecswe’s principles and aspirations for waldorf steiner education

There are texts that people who are interested in waldorf education ought to read, whether they’re parents, supporters, politician or perhaps even critics. This is one such document; it’s a statement by the ECSWE (the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education). It (the letter introducing to the principles) begins by explaining what a waldorf school is; it’s a school belonging to the waldorf movement’s official organisations and it’s a school that shares and works with a set of principles, some of which this document purports to outline. Already in the second passage, the importance of anthroposophy is emphasized and the view that the human being consists of ‘a body, a soul and a spirit’ is laid down. It is also stated, a little later, that waldorf teachers ‘study and research’ anthroposophy as a part of their work and development as teachers. (This pretty much belies the attitude of some schools that tend to want to distance themselves from anthroposophy and its necessity as a part of waldorf education.)

The principles themselves explicitly recognize that ‘[t]he educational activity in the schools and settings is informed by anthroposophy’ and continues to credit Rudolf Steiner (‘the scientist, philosopher and educator’, a description that perhaps does not do him full justice as it neglects to mention his role as a founder and leader of a spiritual movement).

Then comes a list of bullet points about waldorf education, claiming, among other things, that waldorf education ‘is inspired by observing and understanding the true nature of the growing child’, a statement I know critics would disagree with. It ‘provides nourishment for the body, the soul and the spirit’. It ‘seeks to enable a person’s unique potential to unfold.’

Further, waldorf education, it is said, does not select based upon nationality, belief, ethnicity (other factors are mentioned too); of course, the content of some of the literature the teachers might study is not acknowledged here, nor whether this content and the study of it could have any potential effects on how these issues are met in everyday situations in the schools. I wouldn’t expect it in a document such as this one. I’m only saying there are questions with regard to genuine inclusiveness of the ‘educational ethos’, whose answers may differ compared to when speaking only about issues of selection, which these schools don’t engage in. As for not selecting on the basis of social background, well, waldorf schools in many countries are private and cost money for the parents; naturally there’s an unavoidable element of selection to that (not that the schools are at fault for it).

Speaking about the school child, they say that an assessment takes place to determine the child’s readiness to begin school. They don’t say what this assessment consists of; does change of teeth matter more than willingness to read? Is there an assessment of the child’s spiritual and intellectual maturity based upon an anthroposophical understanding of the incarnation process? The seven year cycles? There certainly ought to be more to say about this, and even if we recognize that there are space constraints, a few hints would have been useful.

However, this point is what I find most interesting, and perhaps it could inspire discussion. I’ve made a screenshot of the relevant section, as the document does not allow easy copying.

Any thoughts about this? Seeing ‘rational, logical thinking’ mentioned first seems somehow inappropriate. And I wonder, too, about the ‘questions of life and meaning.’ But I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Further down, in the section about ‘teaching’, one notes that teachers should have ‘specialist training in the principles of practices of Steiner Waldorf education’, that is, in anthroposophical educational principles and practices. There’s also a reference to personal development and to ‘developing capacities for self-reflection’, although anthroposophy is not mentioned.

It’s also said that students are prepared so that they can enter the national education system at ‘points of exit’, but there’s nothing said about what these points are (thus it’s impossible to determine if what the ECSWE envisions is adequate).

Do read the document, and I would very much appreciate to hear your thoughts on it!

science teaching in steiner schools

There’s a Steiner education thread on the British Centre for Science Education forum. In this thread, MarkH has written a comment I think is important, and I hope he will forgive me for quoting it quite extensively.

It is, unfortunately, difficult to find out what’s actually going on in the classroom. When I asked the Hereford school for some information on lesson plans and the science curriculum, they referred me to a book by Richter & Rawson: “The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum”. This is apparently the major source on which the curriculum in most UK Steiner schools is based. The chapter on life sciences is particularly interesting. There’s no specific mention of creationism and evolution is taught, though with some reservations. Although said to be useful within certain limits, Darwinism is “rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics”. We are urged to give the fullest consideration to questions such as whether we are “a naked ape or a spiritual individuality clothed in a physical body”. Evolution is singled out as an example of the limits of science, whereby existing theories can be superseded by more powerful and useful descriptions of nature. Alternatives theories are not discussed, but we are assured that “current ideas” will be replaced during the students’ adulthood.

Other worrying aspects of the life sciences curriculum include the claim that “the circulation of the blood is not a closed system and the pump model is not sufficient to understand the circulation of the blood or the sensitivity of the heart to the emotions”. “The limitations of the germ theory of disease”, the benefits of certain childhood diseases and discussion of vaccination in the context of rejection of foreign proteins by the immune system, are all hints that Anthroposophical ideas and culture can seep into the science curriculum.

In chemistry, Richter & Rawson give homeopathy as an example of a phenomenon that cannot be explained by “atomic theory”, with its unfortunate “implicit materialism”. A couple of paragraphs later, the authors emphasise that an open-minded approach to science, “grounded in clear thinking and exact observation” should be cultivated. However, there is little evidence here that students are given the tools to think critically and to differentiate objective phenomena from illusion and personal, subjective interpretation.

Perhaps people who read this blog might have things to add to the forum thread; I’m not a member of that forum, but if you have important perspectives to add, don’t hesitate to join. It’s an important topic. Basically, all I remember is learning about the four elements: water — fire — air — earth. With illustrations copied from blackboard, I guess. Also poems and drawing nature stuff and hearing about butterflies. My science report says my drawings were poor. Wish I’d kept the lesson books. I knew barely any science at all when transferring to a mainstream school. That tells us nothing of the general quality of science teaching in Steiner schools, I guess. The document that Mark has found does that, however. It is worrying.

money, pr, the free school applications and the swsf

From the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship’s financial report:

We had a donation of £88,000 from the closure of Drayton Manor Trust. This money is with Hermes Trust and is out on loan to schools. Our trustees have agreed to leave it with Hermes Trust for the time and review annually. There is a year’s notice to withdraw this and the money can then be drawn down over five years. We also had donations from ASGB – £2,937.50 towards our PR work and a further £5,000 to help with Free School applications. Sturdy Edwards Insurance Company gave a donation of £400 and we had £416.46 from the closure of Johnshaven Kindergarten. We also received £15,861 from various Camphill Communities. We are grateful for those individuals who make regular donations to SWSF. [Emphasis added. /a]

The sum recieved from the Anthroposophical Society is not huge — £3000 for PR and the £5000 for free school applications. But one might still ask: why does the Anthroposophical Society pay for waldorf school PR and the free school applications (to obtain state-funding for the schools)? Why do anthroposophists have any interest in helping schools and organizations which want to distance themselves from Steiner and anthroposophy (there are many more examples of such behaviour)… were it not for the fact that the distancing itself is a PR move?

I think these donations prove — unsurprisingly — that anthroposophy and the Anthroposophical Society have an interest in Steiner education and its success (or the appearance of success) and also in obtaining state-funding for these schools.

PDF.

bbc news on exeter steiner school

Free schools are one of the coalition government’s flagship policies, promising more freedom for teachers and more choice for parents.

We’ve been discussing the already existing Hereford Steiner Academy lately as well as the new Frome Steiner Academy that opens next autumn (if things go as planned). Today, BBC News has an article about a possible state-funded Steiner school in Exeter. The quote above is from that article. The ship of fools has been borrowed from wikipedia. (I don’t know what made me think of it. Ships, flagships, et c. Wasn’t Hereford the Steiner movement’s flagship school? How’s it sailing? Well, I digress… Exeter, at least, has almost a seaside location. Just because one likes gnomes, doesn’t mean one has to get lost in the woods. One can set sail instead.)

Interestingly, the BBC article just so happens to sound much like an advertisement brochure written by SWSF. They quote someone, but it’s not apparent whom it is:

A Steiner education aims to provide equal attention to the “physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs of each pupil” in a system “designed to work in harmony with the different phases of the child’s development”.

They also call Steiner an ‘educationalist’. There is more to it than him being an ‘educationalist’, really. And then:

Administrator Jenny Salmon said: “There are a lot of people in Exeter who would benefit from it but they can’t afford to come here.

They would benefit, she claims. Does she know? How?

“I feel it is a fantastic education. One style of education does not suit everybody.”

I have no doubt Steiner proponents feel it’s a fantastic education. The question is if it really is. I don’t even need to say it isn’t — I just wonder why the media all to rarely seem to question statements like those.

The proposed school, which will prepare children for GCSEs, will be inspected by Ofsted, but will not follow the national curriculum.

Not by the SIS then? Prepare for GCSEs, but there was at the same time another article, also BBC, which questioned how these academies handle the GCSEs. Steiner parents may be happy anyway — some of them, I’ve heard, have seemed prepared to let their children remain at home on days when tests have been administered. It would be interesting if the BBC asked a few more hows and whys.

world teachers’ conference 2012

At the Goetheanum in April. The theme this time:

Rudolf Steiner‘s art of education was meant to serve the whole world, not just a single continent or country. That said, the question must be asked: What is it about this educational method that is universal?
Universal in this education is that an I, or a person, or a Self wants identify itself with an inherited body. Only with reverence can we meet this fact. How this I finds its way to the available body, finds a relationship to it, a feeling of being home in it, depends in great measure on education.
The life-long efficacy of Steiner‘s art of education lies in the fact that a right relationship between body and soul, between body and the individuality, can be established.
By means of the how and the what of education, the individuality can adjust its hold on the body, thereby bringing about a healthy, dynamic relationship between the body and the individuality. If the body dominates, this relationship can become too tight; if the relationship is too loose, a lack of purpose may result.
During this conference we hope to develop and describe the pedagogical techniques by means of which a balanced, individual relationship can be established. Such a technique can be described; it is part of the ‹musicalsculptural› study of human being. As Rudolf Steiner told the first group of Waldorf teachers, «the task of education, conceived in the spiritual sense, is to bring the Soul-Spirit into harmony with Life-Body.» [Link.]

Amazing stuff, no doubt. The reincarnating I of the child needs to ‘get into’ the physical body. The outcome of this process is not just influenced by education; it’s dependent on it. Ponder for a second in which place this — if you believe it — puts the school and the teacher in the life if the child. Ponder the impact. As Diana has pointed out several times — I often wish locating older comments were much simpler… –, for parents who actually believe these things can and do happen, waldorf education ought to be even more frightening than for those parents who reject these ideas but choose waldorf for some other reason.

What is told about the ‘live-long efficacy’ means, of course, that Steiner education’s ‘real’ success can’t be measured by the usual tests; indeed it must be immeasurable. Actually, it may not be obvious until the child — sorry, the reincarnating spirit’s — next life. I wonder, because I don’t know, what its efficacy has been on me. All this talk about ‘individuality’ is quite ironic, given how little space there was in waldorf for the individual to be… individual. But — I know. It’s just the word. It means something else — a reincarnating spirit. Yet, the irony often strikes me when I see the word used in that context, in this other, anthroposophical way.

I’m not sure what the ‘musicalsculptural’ study of the human being is, but I recommend all education enthusiasts to read Steiner’s Study of Man, which is an essential collection of lectures on the human being; these lectures were given to teachers and thus especially aimed at being used for pedagogical purposes. It is also useful to ponder Steiner’s statement about the task of education. It is a different task than most schools set themselves.

As for the program, Jost Schieren will talk about ‘The Incarnation of the I from a Teacher Training Perspective’. There’s more, of course. Look for yourselves.

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.)

_____________________

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.)

hello leeds!

Leeds Steiner school has written a letter to the city of Leeds. One reason for the letter is that the school hopes to secure public funding in the future and hopes for Leeds to support it in its striving. The Steiner free school in Frome as well as (before that) the Hereford Steiner academy have met local opposition. Presumably, it’s wise of Leeds to tackle this head on. (I assume the school is reapplying to become a state-funded free school, perhaps the blog readers can enlighten us.) I’m not a Leeds local, not even a Brit, but I thought I’d reply to Leeds Steiner school’s letter anyway. Because I can. And because I noticed how they avoid using that dreadful and scary a-word.

A Steiner school in the heart of our city would offer us […] a new and special partner in pedagogical excellence.

Do we know that? Do the Steiner schools have a record of pedagogical excellence? I didn’t know. How come, then, they need their own inspectors? If there’s excellence, surely any inspector would see it — without carrying Steiner-coloured glasses.

… Steiner offers answers to most of the issues that mainstream education has been struggling with …

That seems highly unlikely somehow.

Steiner education is a fully formed philosophy education and long experience of delivering education.

What does this mean? It’s a ‘philosophy education’?

It is founded on the idea of community and of communication.

No, it’s founded on the idea of anthroposophy. That’s the idea. That’s the point. That’s the reason it exists.

… children have benefited from the deep understanding of child development that Steiner education brings.

Again, this ‘understanding’ is the anthroposophical understanding of child development. It’s deep. If you buy it. It’s deep enough to drown in. If you’re not a good swimmer.

There is a constant connection to the rhythms of the world outside of the kindergarten, the changing seasons, the festivals and holidays.

Surprisingly, the seasons change for everyone. People celebrate festivals, there are holidays. These are aspects of normal life in the real world. Quite banal and unexciting as this seems, it’s actually true: there’s nothing exotic or unusual about seasons, festivals and holidays. Sure, these things can be fun and rewarding, but enjoyment of them is not limited to the waldorf/steiner community.

The world within the walls of the kindergarten are similarly a place of routine, where children can feel secure in the patterns that are created by the day’s structure, whilst at the same time progressing at a pace that is consistent with their needs.

Consistent with their needs… according to what anthroposophy teaches about children’s needs. This is essential. Leaving it out is deceptive. Stop deceiving, or you don’t deserve the support of the people of Leeds.

Personalisation is implicit in Steiner. […] Based on 7 year cycles, Steiner recognises distinct stages that a child must navigate and that we all too often stifle in our education system.

Exactly. Steiner. Now we’re getting there, talking about Steiner is a step in the right direction. Just make sure you’re always explicit about this; and, also, make sure you don’t forget that very important a-word.

What does ‘personalisation’ mean? And how does it relate to what comes next: there are stages — neatly ordered in 7-year cycles — that a child must navigate. Is this personalisation? And has it occurred to you that, in the process of implementing anthroposophical teachings about stages the child must go through, you’re stifling something else instead? That, perhaps, you even suffocate some children’s personalities when you try to squeeze them into your preordained stages, your schedule, your methods, your understanding of how things ought to be (but aren’t, in reality, because children are individual human beings)?

In Steiner we do not start formal learning until the age of 6 but learning certainly takes place.

You start it as late as you can get away with. Thus, when you start it varies from country to country. Always seeking exemptions.

Children learn to use their hands and their bodies with confidence, their minds through sharing and observation and exchange their own ideas whilst listening respectfully to others.

This is something you dreamt?

Each time we ask our teachers to sit our children down to learn to read and write at 4 and 5 years old we are dismissing the children’s instincts to get up and find out for themselves and we lead them to the disengagement that I and so many others are powerless to reverse …

What do you think happens when you’re dismissing children’s instincts to want to learn to read and write at 4 or 5? Some children do want exactly that, whether you believe it or not. But, right, I forgot, books are not natural. So it’s ok to stifle that impulse. But I can tell you one thing: reading and writing does not lead to disengagement, and instead of trying to find ways not to present the opportunity to children — in some cases even actively discouraging children from engaging in these activities — you should do everything to ensure they have a choice, lest they be disengaged and, eventually, begin to find all education boring, because it doesn’t stimulate their intellectual needs (the ones you deny exist).

… Steiner’s holistic approach demands attention.

No. Not if it doesn’t meet the needs of the individual child. All it taught me was to day-dream. To imagine I was elsewhere. To avoid the perpetual boredom.

Where Synthetic Phonics insists on using Visual, Aural and Kinaesthetic prompts to aid learning (adopting the multiple intelligences principles) Steiner, uses rhyme and rhythm in song and dance and thereby nurtures memory of language and number, through pleasurable activities that are inherent human impulses.

Pleasurable? Why is any of that more pleasurable than learning to read a book or do maths on a piece of paper? I just don’t get it. Maybe the singing and clapping and dancing just don’t make any sense to some children? How do you plan to handle the needs of these children so that they too find their time in school stimulating?

When we arrive at formal learning, Steiner has laid foundations of communication in its insistence on the speaking and listening imperative that we are ‘grafting on’ in mainstream education.

Blah blah blah? What is this supposed to mean? The ‘insistence on the speaking and listening imperative’, eh? Is this supposed to be good?

There is an emphasis on oral repetitions of stories and when we arrive at the curriculum we move through literature with genre following the child’s developmental arc; fairytale>fable>bible>myths, thereby also accessing a ‘classical’ arc.

Developmental, according to anthroposophical ideas about development.

Children learn to write using their own words …

No, they learn it copying the words and texts the teacher writes on the blackboard. To pretend anything else is plain silly.

The process is wholly organic.

Is this… what? Holistic, organic, well… what are these words supposed to mean? And why does mainstream education not seem to need them? Strangely, the same words are used to sell vegetables.

Steiner has no need to revise its attitude to technology, as current government advice suggests.

No, why on earth revise a silly attitude to something?

The Steiner philosophy teaches that the most important tool a child has is their own mind …

and then tries to persuade the child not to use it too much or at all. Because it’s much better to delay intellectual development and do eurythmy instead.

We move seamlessly into History, which is taught in a linear way …

Yes, but it’s old myths taught as history. Old myths are good and interesting. But they aren’t actual historical records; they belong to the history of beliefs, the history of religion, of literature. Fine. But don’t get things mixed up. Be clear on what you’re teaching. (Perhaps one or several of this blog’s readers would like to remind Leeds of what is sometimes taught as history in waldorf schools…?)

Steiner has a determination of global responsibility that encompasses languages other than English …

A global responsibility that stretches all the way to the German language. Because, oddly, since Steiner was German, all waldorf school students — apart from those who already live in German-speaking nations — learn German as their first foreign language. Steiner’s global responsibility was, in fact, German-centered and, well, not all that global, come to think of it. Though he kind of would have liked things German to gain global importance, I’m sure. (German is good. I like German a lot. I didn’t learn much German in waldorf though — despite having, for several years, a German teacher who was German!)

The abstractions that our children are asked to encounter at too early an age in mainstream education is something that many of our children fail to negotiate.

Eurythmy is another thing many children ‘fail to negotiate’. However, that does not seem to stop Steiner schools from using it in education.

Leeds is one of 5 major cities in this country. It should be at the heart of educational excellence.

And Steiner education is taking it there? That certainly remains to be seen and until I’ve seen it I remain skeptical. Has Steiner education ever taken a city, a village or even a small community to educational excellence? Show me.

‘holy awe before the task and reverence for the child’s pre-earthly life’

Continuing on the topic of previous posts (the UK situation), I located, on my computer, some notes from a meeting that took place at the anthroposophical Crossfields Institute in 2008.* Many prominent waldorf educators, teacher trainers and officials working in the Steiner organisations attended. Among them Christopher Clouder, Kevin Avison, Jeremy Smith.

Christopher Houghton Budd is said to have given an ardent speech; looking at the summary, I can vividly imagine that. Here are a few points from it:

Are teachers clear enough about the place of the Pedagogical Section?

He means the one associated with the School of Spiritual Science.

The state has no business in education, and if we had a professional association that was self-defining and self-administrating, then there would be no need for the state.

[…]

The two issues of accreditation and financing should never be linked, for example when the state makes funding conditional on a particular curriculum.

He concluded his talk with an emphatic question regarding state funding: Is it right for a state to collectively collect tax and selectively distribute it?

Indeed, what he is saying is that the state has a duty to pay, but should not require anything in return for the financial investment. Is it right, I wonder, to ask the tax-payers to pay if the service provided is of little value? Should the state just blindly pay for whatever people want? I guess the answer, in this case, is a resounding yes. But this does not mean we shouldn’t ask the questions. (By the way, this is what many waldorf organisations and proponents in all countries feel — and sometimes express. We should at least be thankful when they do express it clearly. Even if I personally can’t agree with what they want.)

John Burnett spoke too; claiming, among other things, that we’re ‘stepping into post-modern uncertainty’. Trevor Mepham (Steiner Hereford Academy, nowadays — note that this meeting took place before the Hereford Academy had secured state funding or just around that time) spoke too, about teacher training and accreditation of teacher training and such things.

In essence, it is mostly about planning, recording and paperwork! They do not mention the children or the teachers as learners; there is no emphasis on ‘soft skills’ (i.e. reflection), or consideration of how a child learns and grows.

No consideration for… how the child learns and grows according to anthroposophy? No reflection? Well, now, the state of modern education sure is dire.

Mepham then finds guidance in Steiner (which is hardly surprising and, given the context, understandable… and I’m much happier when this guidance is stated explicitly). What teachers need, among other things, is:

Holy awe before the task and reverence for the child’s pre-earthly life

Moving away from Mepham, other issues listed as having been on the agenda during the meeting included:

Inspiration from the original source – Rudolf Steiner

and

How do we combine the esoteric background underpinning Waldorf theory and practice with the prevailing academic, economic and exoteric culture of contemporary society?

and

Referencing anthroposophy

Later in the document, anthroposophy is also mentioned, for example in regard to training of teachers (a ‘body’ for ‘quality control’ of anthroposophical education needed). Interesting document, overall. But it should make people think.

____

* I don’t know if it’s available online, but you might try to search for: A Summary of the Steiner Waldorf Teacher Training Meeting – from a personal and organisational perspective 28 August 2008 11:00am – 4:30pm at Crossfields Institute’. Edit: I was too lazy, but my readers aren’t (thank Dog!), so here it is: pdf.

clouder’s spiritual dimensions

This is an article by Christopher Clouder, the CEO of the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship in the UK — that is, he’s leading the association which strives to gain state-funding for Waldorf/steiner education in the UK — and the European Council of Steiner Waldorf Schools. I’m not sure what to make of it. Do you have any viewpoints on this?

… the task of the educator is to make oneself a kind of prophet of the child’s future, leaving it free but helping it acquire that which will be of use later.

[…]

The spiritual dimension is that which ‘endures’ and must be developed in freedom and eventually becomes an individual moral yardstick and cannot be achieved by either confinement or commandment. It is an area for which ‘a curriculum’, in the standard sense of the word, cannot be written, and such an imposition actually runs the risk of denying its existence. Teachers, in order to be able to work in this field, need autonomy to explore their own spirituality as it is not a subject in itself that can be defined and codified as others. The spiritual lives in the complex area of human relationships and intentions. In spite of its non-material nature, it is nevertheless tangible for both educationalists and the children alike, but its use, as an educational concept, would involve a radical change in the prevalent view of the teacher as merely a deliverer of a pre-ordained curriculum. The knowledge needed for this task is a sense of evolution, not just a  biological sense, but also in terms of the human psyche, so that the needs of the child are met according to their own spiritual development and that they do not become objects within an abstract subject-centred programme. Attempting to turn the clock back to either narrow nationalism or outdated mechanistic concepts becomes less feasible with the recognition that there is such a thing as a ‘spiritual dimension’. It is indicative of the opportunities for a reappraisal of education that currently presents itself that the ‘Promotion of Pupils’ Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development’ has become an issue of debate that is likely to have profound effect on both practice and theory in the future.

What does he mean, and is this — whatever it is — what waldorf education offers? (I’m not sure he even mentions waldorf.) Why would waldorf not make students into objects? I know, the fact I felt it did isn’t enough; maybe I just subjectively felt I was an object forced to play in a sort of board-game with strictly confining rules, rules you were often not even allowed to know beforehand… before you made the wrong move. But you knew you were certainly not free. You were certainly under command, even if you couldn’t decipher the commands, as they were implicit. You just failed and failed and failed again. I guess that, too, is a part of spiritual development. How is the child’s freedom compatible with the teacher as a prophet of the child’s future? What is this prophetic gift? How is it supposed to be used — as not to interfere rather than help?

Are there any signs that waldorf is better — in any way — at promoting the pupils spiritual, moral, social, cultural development? And is Clouder, the waldorf proponent, using the term ‘spiritual’ in the same sense as other people would do in this context? Won’t many of the non-anthroposophical readers (if they exist) read it in a non-anthroposophical sense? (Without archangels.)

Please — discuss!