I have an article on The Times website looking at Steiner schools (one of my hobby-horses) in the context of the government’s ‘free schools’ programme. As it’s behind the paywall I’ve put the full version here:
There are thirty-one Steiner schools and nurseries in the UK, providing an alternative, back-to-nature education for nearly four thousand children aged from 3 to eighteen.
Parents are attracted to Steiner schools by the unhurried and creative learning environment they foster, where children aren’t stifled by academic hot-housing or onerous testing regimes. Until at least the age of seven there are no formal lessons, no textbooks, no homework. Pupils’ emotional and and creative needs receive as much focus as literacy and numeracy.
A defining characteristic of Steiner education is the attention given to rhythm, rituals, symbols and ceremony. It focuses on the environment, crafts and the natural world while discouraging television, junk food and video games. It’s an approach that soothes deep contemporary anxieties about childhood, not least the fear that children are growing up too soon.
All the UK’s Steiner schools are currently fee-paying, except one – the Steiner Academy in Hereford – which entered the state sector under the previous government’s academies programme. But many more Steiner schools, including those in Cambridge, Exeter and Brighton, hope to achieve ‘free school’ status by September, giving them access to state funding without compromising their distinctive ethos.
For many years, however, former Steiner pupils and parents have raised concerns about the impact this unique pedagogy may have on children. Some have even labelled the Steiner movement a ‘religious cult’ where bullying, intimidation and bizarre supernatural beliefs are rife.
To understand the controversy, we must trace the movement back to its origins. Steiner education was founded by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian mystic who first came to prominence in the late 19th century. He led a spiritual movement called ‘anthroposophy’, fusing Eastern religious concepts such as reincarnation and karma with European occult traditions including astrology.
Steiner believed that children possessed an innate spirit that had passed through previous lives, and that the role of education was to ensure the present life developed in a ‘karmically appropriate’ way. Until adulthood, Steiner maintained, children exist partly in the spiritual realm.
The relationship between anthroposophy and modern Steiner education, however, is highly contested.
The Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship, which represents all Steiner schools in the UK, recognises Steiner as the ‘founding inspiration of modern day Steiner schools’ and admits that anthroposophy ‘underpins the ethos of a Steiner school’. However, the Fellowship maintains that it does not promote anthroposophy or impose it on pupils.
Critics claim this is disingenuous. ‘Of course it’s imposed,’ says one former Steiner parent who now campaigns against the movement under the Twitter pseudonym Thetis. ‘Anthroposophy informs every aspect of the curriculum, the colours on the walls, the behaviour of staff, the festivals, the morning prayer and verse.’ Steiner pupils are ‘marinaded’ in anthroposophy, she says, and naïve parents are tricked into colluding.
An obvious example, says Thetis, is the greatly delayed introduction of reading, writing and arithmetic in Steiner schools. The reason for this, she claims, is that anthroposophists believe introducing formal learning before the age of seven will frustrate a child’s progress from the spiritual to the physical realm.
Another example is pupils’ sometimes daily participation in ‘eurythmy’, a form of dance invented by Steiner. Performed in long, flowing robes, eurythmy supposedly has the power to reveal a child’s past lives.
Rachel, another former Steiner parent, says that anthroposophy informs not just the curriculum in Steiner schools, but also their approach to the physical and emotional welfare of pupils. She claims she saw her son being violently pushed from a play bridge by another child and noticed that the teacher didn’t respond or even acknowledge the incident.
‘I sat there in utter disbelief,’ she says. ‘The act of ignoring felt more violent than the original act itself. A parent later explained to me that the children were “working out their karma”. She explained that her sister was a Steiner teacher in Germany and that it was one child’s karma to push, and my child’s karma to be pushed.’
Rachel withdrew her son shortly after, but claims her family remained under intense scrutiny from other Steiner parents in the area. Both Rachel and Thetis noticed that some Steiner parents became progressively withdrawn from family and friends and surrounded themselves only with fellow anthroposophists.
‘The Steiner way of living can become difficult to let go of, even if it all begins to go wrong,’ explains Thetis. ‘It takes hold of you. It’s when you finally leave and take a breath of air outside that you fully realise you were not quite yourself. Anthroposophy itself is a religion.’
If such experiences were confined to a few independent schools, we could perhaps accept them as unfortunate consequences of opting out of mainstream education. But the prospect of a wave of Steiner free schools has prompted the movement’s detractors to ask some reasonable questions: If Steiner schools are to receive public funds, shouldn’t they be open about the true nature of their beliefs? And shouldn’t we refer to Steiner schools by what they really are – ‘faith’ schools?
As the first Steiner free schools open their doors in the coming months, it seems certain that the movement’s critics will make these uncomfortable questions harder and harder to ignore.