My encounter with Steiner education

Originally published as a guest post on the excellent blog Stop Steiner in Stroud.

There are many reports of disastrous experiences with Steiner schools on the internet. A tendency not to intervene with bullying and subsequent victim-blaming is a common theme. Families with grievances have had unwarranted threats of referral to social services. Children have left Steiner schools at a severe disadvantage academically to their peers, with parents spending large sums on private tutors to give them some hope of catching up. If one parent is strongly in favour of the school and the other is against, this has been a significant factor in divorce proceedings.

Our own experience was not a disaster. In some ways it was a positive experience. However, I learned some things about Steiner culture and Anthroposophy that put us off. I feel we had a lucky escape.

A few years ago we were looking at schools for our son. The local state primary had just had a terrible Ofsted inspection and was put into special measures, so looking at options for private education seemed prudent.

The local Steiner school had what looked to be a refreshingly different approach. It also had surprisingly low fees. The idea of a slower, very practical, arts-based education, with less emphasis on testing and exams struck a chord with us. We went along to an open day.

The open day was a very carefully orchestrated event. We were led through the classrooms, starting with the kindergarten and the two main classrooms. The kindergarten had a pleasant, homely feel with pastel shades on the walls, coloured drapes, traditional wooden toys and a “nature table”. I noticed that there were no books in the room. On asking where the library was, I was told it was a little way down the corridor but this turned out not to be part of the tour. The person leading us around acted with some deference to the kindergarten teacher. I have to admit that although she was welcoming and obviously proud of her class, I sensed a slightly odd, cold distance in her demeanor, although I did not dwell on this. I later discovered that the kindergarten teacher was one of the more senior members of staff and a died-in-the-wool Anthroposophist.

The other two classrooms had a more formal, traditional feel, with rows of wooden desks facing a blackboard. I noticed that there were a few books on the shelves: fairly tales and some outdated-looking encyclopaedia. One class demonstrated how they learned simple arithmetic by playing ‘catch’ with a bean bag thrown by the teacher. The next class played their recorders for us and we watched part of a science lesson where the students sketched some mushrooms. The coffee and cakes at the end were good. Overall, we were impressed. We signed up to the parent/child groups and I remember telling one of the trustees that this was the “kind of school I wished I had gone to”. He beamed, happy at having apparently made another convert.

The Steiner school wasn’t the only school we looked at. Another open day at a more conventional school was entirely different. We were shown around by a group of very articulate, older children and were free to ask them questions about the school and how they liked it. There were no canned demonstrations or simulated lessons and we were free to wander the grounds and the classrooms talking to the teachers and pupils at our own pace. Thinking back, it was overall a happier, more relaxed, more open occasion.

Luckily, I have relatively flexible working hours and could arrange to take Friday mornings off to go to the Steiner parent/child group every week. These followed a set pattern of tea/coffee while the children played, “ring time” where everybody gathered in a circle for songs and rhymes followed by a snack of bread and jam. The bread had always been made by the kindergarten class earlier in the week. While the children played with the pine cones or wooden blocks, the adults would be busy felting wool to make sheep or trees, part of an ongoing craft activity to make a 3D wall hanging. I discovered just how bad I was at felting, although not to join in was silently frowned upon. This was rounded off with a little outdoors play (whatever the weather) and a dance around the Maypole to wish each other goodbye. Mildly embarrassing, but parents will do anything for their children. Overall, we both enjoyed it and it was a valuable bit of father/son time for us.

A few things happened that made no sense at the time. On one occasion, my son pulled out a book from a cupboard and sat happily looking through it. The leader of the group hurried over and gently prised the book out of his hands and put it elsewhere, out of reach. She seemed mildly embarrassed that a book had been found and I was too confused and surprised to ask why it had been a problem. I was aware that reading was not taught formally until age 7 or so, but did not think it might be actively discouraged.

We were allowed to use the special Stockmar wax block crayons, always with paper that had rounded corners. I assumed that the rounded corners were just a random Steiner cuteness. I showed my son how to make sharp lines with the corner of the crayon. Somewhat dismayed, the group leader took the crayon from me and saying, “no, no, like this!” proceeded to show how broad swathes of colour were made instead.

My wife attended a weekend class at the school on the subject of “home nursing”. She returned rather bemused at some of the unusual ideas that were presented: cloth wraps soaked in lemon juice for treating a fever, for example. We later discovered that this is a specifically Anthroposophical remedy.

At the last session I attended, one day late in September, we made small bread rolls. The dough was moulded into the shape of a dragon, baked and “slain” with a butter knife at snack time. Good fun, although I wondered: wasn’t St. George’s Day in April? Again, just one of those cute Steiner oddities, until I later found out we were unwittingly celebrating the Anthroposophical festival of Michaelmas!

We were about to sign up for the kindergarten when I happened to read the first in a series of 3 articles on Steiner education guest-written for David Colquhoun on his blog “DC’s Improbable Science”. I already followed David’s blog, appreciating his take on managerialism in academia and his stance on alternative medicine. I had assumed that the oddities and occasional “cuteness” of the parent/child group were unique to this particular school. I was initially incredulous to read that these were widespread features of the Steiner system and that there was an esoteric quasi-religious belief system underlying it all. I hadn’t heard the word ‘Anthroposophy’ until that point. Nobody at the school had mentioned it and it appeared nowhere on their website or printed literature. If it appeared in any of the books I had looked at about Steiner education, recommended by the school, it wasn’t significant enough to register with me.

There are some particular words used around Steiner education, such as “incarnation” and “reverence”, the significance of which is easy to miss. The more I thought about it and the more I read, the more these words made sense, at least in the context of Anthroposophy. Steiner had given some very precise indications as to how his schools should be run, even down to the exact shade of pink on the kindergarten walls. His ideas around karma and a hierarchy of spiritual bodies that were incarnated at various stages of a child’s life sounded barmy, but reading more contemporary books on Steiner education suggested that they were still taken seriously by some as the basis for a theory of child development. I resolved to continue going to the parent/child group, ask some awkward questions and get to the bottom of it.

The next thing I found out about Steiner schools is that the vaccination rate among pupils is often much lower than the general population. Outbreaks of measles and other nasty, preventable diseases are common. This was the most worrying aspect for me. I changed my mind about going back to the parent/child group. It didn’t seem worth the risk, to satisfy my curiosity about Anthroposophy. Instead, I had a conversation with another of the school’s trustees whom I knew through work. It turned out that his wife had gone to a Steiner school and her mother before her. There was a strong family history and commitment to Steiner culture already. When I asked about Anthroposophy he shrugged his shoulders and said it was important to some, but not to most involved with the school. I think this is correct but given that your child’s teachers are generally the ones to whom it is important, parents owe it to themselves and to their children to understand Anthroposophy, even if it’s not for them.

After 6 months of the parent/child group and an application form for the kindergarten in hand, I felt the school should have done a lot more to inform us about the philosophical basis of their methods. I felt as though we’d been duped, lied to and that the growing bond of trust we had with the school had been broken. On the positive side, my wife thoroughly agreed with me. We had also decided that the good things we liked about Steiner: the outdoors play, the baking, the wholesome food, the gardening lessons, were all things we could find elsewhere or did already at home.

If Anthroposophy is so fundamental to Steiner education, why do the new Steiner free schools promise not to promote it? What’s so wrong with it that prospective parents need to be kept in the dark and left to discover it on their own? Anthroposophy is a big subject and I do not believe the rest of it is inherently bad, but you do need to be aware of how it will influence your child’s education in a Steiner school.

The Department for Education have some additional specific guidance for those proposing Steiner free schools: “Demonstrate how you have engaged actively with parents not previously familiar with your chosen curriculum model”. I believe that the appearance of keeping Anthroposophy at arms-length is at odds with this important requirement.