Steiner or Waldorf education is the fastest growing education movement in the world. I’ve been a Steiner parent for six years and have helped run Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School for three. Elmfield accepts children aged three to GCSE. It has been shortlisted for five national education awards in the last three years and was a winner at both the 2013 Independent Schools Awards and the 2015 Education Business Awards.
Steiner schools settle for low academic standards. Our GCSE results have been the best across all schools in the area for the last three years. We tracked the destination of all our year-11 leavers over a five-year period: 11 percent gained places at Oxbridge.
Pupils can do what they like. Our pupils certainly cannot do what they like. We have robust policies covering behaviour, attendance and dress code.
Steiner parents are new-age hippies. You are more likely to find a green voter among our parents, but they come from a wide variety of backgrounds: lawyers, GPs, plumbers, company directors, nurses, neuroscientists, musicians etc.
Steiner was a racist, therefore all Steiner schools are too. Like many early 20th-century intellectuals, Steiner had some ill-judged views about race. These have no place in any school. Unfortunately, critics still quote Steiner’s writing, assuming that a century later, there might be a Steiner teacher somewhere who adheres to Steiner’s views on race. This is daft. Perhaps the best counter-argument is that the only mixed-race school in South Africa during apartheid was a Steiner school.
A pupil learning outdoors
We start formal classroom-based teaching, including the three Rs, at around age six or seven. Before this, our pupils play outside in all weathers, splashing in puddles, making mud pies and climbing trees. They also bake, sing, prepare lunch together and listen to stories. They develop a curiosity for the world, respect for adults, social skills and emotional skills – a foundation that allows them to flourish once formal learning begins.
Our class teachers stay with their class for eight years. They get to know children and their families intimately. They design lessons to meet the needs of that particular group of children. Subjects like science, languages and crafts are taught by specialists.
Art, movement, the outdoors, crafts and music are woven into each day’s learning. This year, for example, our year-five pupils learned about animals by rearing chicks and caring for the fully grown chickens and our year-11 students used outdoor surveying techniques to apply trigonometry.
We think making the first lesson two hours long and studying topics for intensive three-week blocks helps deep learning take place. It allows pupils to immerse themselves in a topic and gives teachers time to bring a topic alive through music, drama, crafts, art and the outdoors.
We don’t use textbooks until the GCSE years. Teachers design their own lessons and pupils make their own books for each topic, often using paintings and drawings.
Our curriculum meets the needs of the developing child. For example, when children are going through adolescence, they learn about renaissance, revolution and exploration in history, somersaults in gym, overcoming fear on an expedition and independent expression in English.
We run our schools in a different way. Most schools are run by a teacher democracy. All teachers meet once a week, discuss the pupils’ progress and make decisions. School fees are low (typically £1,000-£2,500 per term).
There is less focus on tests and exams. Fewer GCSEs are taken. We are less concerned with sending children out into the world with a list of qualifications. Our main concern is the development of confident, creative, purposeful, socially responsible and well-balanced young people. During the GCSE years less than half the timetable is devoted to GCSEs. Local colleges comment on our students’ curiosity, creativity and ability to think for themselves.
Ben Arnold is business manager at Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School, Stourbridge.