…and to Zoe Williams in response to her article on 18th January 2019
Dear Ms. Williams,
since there is no chance of a reader’s letter of this length being published, nor indeed that the Guardian would carry an unsolicited comment, I am writing to you personally as a committed Guardian reader of nearly 50 years (my very aged parents still get the paper daily, whilst I read it online). I wrote an initial, angrier version, but took the advice of my daughter (third generation Guardian reader) to tone it down, and I’m glad I heeded her. Perhaps you will read this.
Opinion is free, facts are sacred …and interpretations need to be justified. The fact that Ofsted inspectors have found three of four Steiner academies inadequate (and other, independent Steiner schools in recent years too) is deeply worrying. However, implying that the root cause of the inadequacies lies in Steiner’s alleged white supremacism is an unjustified interpretation that serves to (further) marginalize a group of people whose most common characteristic is that they don’t want mainstream education as currently being delivered in many countries around the world, rather than their belief in any form of supremacy or allegiance to an esoteric teaching. They want an ‘other education’ for their children, one that has a pretty good track record as empirical studies show.
When I read the original report in the Guardian (17.1.2019) about the Ofsted reports, I was saddened for the children and parents concerned and frustrated about the apparent incompetence of teachers and school leaders who allow this. Drawing attention to this kind of thing is an example of a Guardian correspondent doing her job. I also welcome a Guardian columnist offering her opinions. That is why I have been a life-long Guardian reader and subscriber.
You are no doubt right that this is a failure of government policy regarding free schools. So let’s talk about Steiner free schools (or indeed private schools) and their inadequacies, by all means. By the way, many of these schools go by the name of Waldorf (after the original Waldorf School founded by Steiner, for children of the workers in the Waldorf Cigarette Factory in 1919 in Stuttgart). I prefer this identification.
Let me declare my interests. I have been a teacher in Waldorf schools in the UK and Germany for 40 years. I am a critical but committed ‘Waldorf’ insider. I co-founded the York Steiner school, worked for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship from 1995 to 2003, and then moved to Germany (and recently become a Brexile). I currently teach in an inner-city Waldorf school in Hamburg (in the quarter where the G20 riots occurred last year) and I tutor students on a Masters Degree Programme in Waldorf pedagogy.
The original aim of getting state funding
Some 20 years ago, I was involved in the discussions and preparations that led to the establishing of the first Steiner Academy in England (and a similar process in Northern Ireland). In the late 90s, at the invitation of New Labour (then a hopeful, rising star) we were looking at ways Waldorf Schools could be included in the maintained sector whilst retaining their distinctive features. Modernizing and professionalizing was part of the programme of coming in from the esoteric margins. I co-published a comparison of the Waldorf curriculum with the then National Curriculum and explained how Waldorf schools are organized and managed. In 2000 I published what has become the international standard text on the Waldorf curriculum and published booklets on quality assurance, assessment for learning, school leadership and management.
However, I was one of several dissenting members of the team preparing for state funding. I felt that if there were to be a pathway, it should be available to all existing schools and also include recognized qualifications for Steiner teachers and a binding code of practice covering issues of accountability, leadership and quality assurance, whilst maintaining the very qualities that make Waldorf a distinct form of other education. If Waldorf was to make a contribution to public education (keywords, pluralism, diversity) there had to be a level playing field, socially just access, professional accountability and quality assurance in both directions (Waldorf quality and state requirements). In countries around the world where this is ensured, Waldorf makes a valuable contribution (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, Waldorf charters school in the US etc.). There are many different ways of state-funding diversity in education, but they all involve minimum standards whilst enabling that diversity to be what it is.
None of this happened in the UK. The original pilot school at least had the advantage of an existing, historically grown school culture, but free schools created out of nothing lack even that. Schools do not simply work by implementing a model. I think we can also agree that neoliberal privatization in areas of social provision is a contradiction in terms! That access to education, like health, social care, science, culture and a free press are basic rights and do not belong in the market is, by the way, one of Steiner’s central principles.
In the absence of an adequate and recognized teacher education – both in terms of Waldorf and state requirements – we should not be surprised if there is a lack of quality in UK Steiner/Waldorf schools. There is also no effective regulatory body (the SWSF will dispute this, but the evidence is fairly clear in Ofsted reports) in terms of Waldorf quality. Working with a complex educational approach within the rules and expectations of another system, would challenge even the most experienced educators. I teach on a 2 year, full-time, post-graduate Masters programme in Waldorf pedagogy in Germany and our new teachers still need induction support and regular professional development. That is why the German federal states continue to fund (to the tune of 80% of costs) 245 schools (each year 2-4 new schools are founded). Most schools have long waiting lists and are oversubscribed (150 applications for 30 places). Our problem is attracting enough qualified teachers. Waldorf education is different, demanding and is (like any education) a complex practice, which is why it needs high quality teacher education.
So, yes Steiner/Waldorf schools, whether free schools (an absurd name…asking for trouble) or independents have a problem of resources and above all, teacher qualifications. You right to be critical.
Steiner and racism (again!)
The problem is, you seem to have another agenda, one that is, I am afraid, insulting, discriminatory and ill-informed. Teachers and workers in the worldwide Waldorf movement of early years settings, schools, special education schools, workshops and communities for people with disabilities, intercultural schools, emergency and peace education projects across Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish (among other) communities, do not practice racism (check them out at http://www.freunde-waldorf.de/en/home/ ). I have three trainee teachers in my current school class in Hamburg; two women, one Palestinian, one Brazilian and a man who is Iranian. We are currently teaching English Literature (as a foreign language), using short-stories depicting the post-colonial experience. In the class of 20 students, we have five students with migration backgrounds (Turkish, Iranian, Afghan, West African, Sri Lankan), including refugees. My trainees are all doing (or have just finished) Masters degrees in Waldorf education with theses on aspects of intercultural education etc.
The accusation that Waldorf education is racist gets thrown at these schools from time to time. I can only refer you to Professor Bo Dahlin’s recent (2017) book on Rudolf Steiner in Springer’s academic Key Thinkers in Education series. The issue of racism is addressed. Dahlin cites a government commission in the Netherlands set up to investigate this accusation (because there are many fully state-funded schools practicing Steiner education there). They found that in 0.05% of the 89,000 pages of Steiner’s published works, a total of 16 sentences that “were of a nature that as isolated statements…would violate the present-day, well-developed and highly sensitive Dutch law on discrimination”. Suggestions that racism is inherent in Steiner’s world view or practice are incorrect. This of course does not rule out the possibilities that some naïve, misguided or simply stupid people write or speak drivel and the rest of us get tarred with the same brush.
The European Council of Steiner Waldorf Education and most national Waldorf associations have long ago published unambiguous statements against any form of discrimination and racism. Some school struggle with the fact that some right-wing politicians send their children to Waldorf schools. It is a dilemma for schools who publicly align themselves in support of refugees and against discrimination. My view is that we take all children who come, and then deal with the parents, whatever their views, gender orientation, ethnic background, religion or social class. But Waldorf teachers do not all sing from the same sheet- nobody tells them what to do- a position that doesn’t always help when dealing with Ofsted.
Waldorf teachers who think for themselves
The assumption that Waldorf teachers apply Steiner’s ideas in an un-reflected or uncritical way, as if it were some kind of model or dogma, is frankly insulting. It doesn’t work like that. Waldorf teachers, like all others, are embedded in complex strata of discourse, much of which has little to do with Steiner 100 years ago. There is a growing body of academic work in German on Waldorf pedagogy. People write PhDs on the subject. There is empirical research. There are professors of Waldorf education. Why none of this exists in English is a complex question- Professor Dahlin’s book is one of the first serious academic studies.
To be a Waldorf teacher does not involve adopting and applying a set of beliefs. Far from it. A Waldorf teacher has to be a critical, reflective and productive actor, who together with fellow teachers, strives to develop understandings of their practice and develop pedagogical tact. Perhaps one of the most common criticisms of Waldorf teachers is that there is a “paradox of acceptance of practice whilst being ignorant of the underlying theory”, as Professor Bo Dahlin put it. Human ethical action, especially in professional practice, needs to be based, according to Steiner’s theory of knowledge, on knowledge of all aspects of the human being, knowledge that is generated anew in each situation, rather than merely inherited from others.
If a UK university were to offer BA and MA programmes in Waldorf education and the Steiner/Waldorf movement had effective leadership, there is a chance it could make a valuable contribution to education. It is not as if current education policies offer such a brilliant model that diversity is unnecessary. As long as Waldorf is marginalized to the private sector, that contribution will be minimal and tend to be socially exclusive (check out the fees at some Waldorf schools). These are complex issues and the ideas behind Steiner/Waldorf education are radical and different. They cannot be reduced to an extract from a reader’s letter or a tweet! Perhaps the Guardian could be a little more internationalist on this issue and take a critical perspective based on evidence of Waldorf in countries that offer a somewhat more level playing field.
Dr. Martyn Rawson