A watershed moment

Last night was a watershed moment for Steiner education in the UK. It was the subject of a critical report and studio debate, for the first time on national TV. This followed the release by the Department for Education of documents revealing that they were aware of concerns parents had about the inadequate handling of some serious incidents at several schools. It was claimed this could be explained by their underlying philosophy (anthroposophy). Briefly, these include incidents of racially motivated bullying among pupils that were not dealt with despite repeated complaints, the use of racist epithets by teachers, bullying of pupils by staff in 8 (out of 25 independent Steiner schools in the UK at the time), a culture of secrecy and lack of accountability. Full details, including the documents themselves can be found on the BHA website.

The BBC Newsnight report is available on YouTube:

In light of the fact that it is the way these incidents were handled by staff at the schools involved that is especially worrying, I thought it would be interesting to highlight the reaction of the Steiner representatives brought in to respond on the broadcast.

Firstly, Sylvie Sklan of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) vigorously denied that modern Steiner schools would have any time for the more objectionable of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas:

“The idea that we have incarnated through the races is a very controversial idea that is not part of our modern thinking in Steiner schools at all. In fact I would find it quite outrageous and unacceptable. It is not a basis upon which one would want to found any criticism of Steiner schools today because it just does not exist. It is not what we believe.”

Clearly that is the official party line, but a close look at the history and structure of anthroposophy tells a different story: that this “very controversial idea” is in fact central and, according to reports, has been reflected in the actions of a minority of teachers.

Sylvie Sklan’s SWSF colleague, Janni Nicol, comes dangerously close to giving the game away when she discusses how Steiner schools can embrace multiculturalism:

“Karmically we choose to be born into different races to have a specific environmental, cultural and racial experience. Perhaps this is part of learning how to live together, to grow in awareness and empathy?”

On the more general subject of bullying, Rachael Black, a Steiner parent, responds with her own experience. She comes across as relatively convincing and articulate in the report:

“There was an incident where my child was attacked in class and it was terribly traumatic for everyone involved. The school, however, were incredible at dealing with it. The teacher in the classroom, the assistant, were both very nurturing, very caring and my daughter has flourished and grown after the event. The school management team pounced on the problem very, very quickly.”

Good. That is how it should be. In fact, I want to believe that this is the way incidents of bullying would be handled in all Steiner schools, in 100% of cases. No school is perfect, however. The true character of a school and its supporting organisational structures is revealed in how they behave when things go wrong. If reports of bullying weren’t followed up, one would expect an honest admittance of failure, an apology and a commitment to not making the same mistakes in the future. Instead, it’s alleged in the studio debate that in some cases “bullying was not just tolerated but in some sense ‘thought of as a good thing'”.

Frances Russell (introduced as an ex-Steiner parent, Greenwich Steiner school, she is also the Business and Policy Director of the school) responds:

“This is total rubbish what you’re talking about now. I am a parent who had a child at the school but I’ve also been involved with setting up and running this particular school for the last six years, been involved with it for ten and been involved with the movement. The allegations that were raised in those reports were never tested. This was just some parents who had written to the Department for Education and they were being raised in the reports as issues of how do we manage if parents come up and say these kinds of things with the media. There’s absolutely no proof at all. What you’re describing does not happen in Steiner schools. That would never happen in our school. It would never happen in any of the schools that I know anything about.”

I would suggest that a blanket denial was not the wisest approach to take here. Whether through incompetence, inadequate management structure or a misguided belief in karma, the allegations are serious in nature and scale. They deserve a more considered response.

Today the SWSF issued a press release that is similarly dismissive:

“The two papers… include a number of allegations received by the DfE but without detail or corroboration. The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship is aware of & seeks to refute several allegations recorded in these papers.”

The lack of engagement with the substance of the allegations does not reflect well on the SWSF.

Frances Russell went on to say:

“All this stuff about the pseudo-spiritualism and everything is all to do with Steiner’s views on anthroposophy, which are not taught in schools. It is there for some adults to use as a way of guiding their lives, if they choose to do so. It just does not form any part of a modern Steiner school.”

Let’s assume that Ms. Russell, despite her ten years of involvement with the movement, genuinely believes that. When writing for an anthroposophical audience however, rather than the general public, there are Steiner teachers who are clear on the importance of anthroposophy in modern Steiner education.

I’ll close with an excerpt from the curriculum document published on the Brighton Steiner school web site:

“The curriculum for Class 5 has a main theme of Ancient Civilizations. The narrative thread for this theme often begins with the fall of Atlantis and the exodus led by Manu in his boat pulled along by a giant fish. Manu and his followers initially settle in the Gobi desert. From this original settlement groups set off to establish new civilizations in India, followed by Persia, then Babylonia, Egypt and finally Greece…

Through studying these ancient civilisations in sequence, the children experience the qualitative changes in the development of humanity that took place through these different cultural epochs. This process of human development has a direct resonance with the child’s developing consciousness.”

Even if only taught as interesting myths to fire the imagination, the stories of Atlantis and Manu seem an odd place to start learning about ancient history. The link between the developing civilisation of humanity and the developing consciousness of the individual child is perplexing. However, all becomes clear when you read Steiner’s book Cosmic Memory!