Why are Steiner schools so controversial?
- 4 August 2014
- From the section Education & Family
My first encounter with Steiner education was some years ago.
And, as is the norm, it took the form of muddling them up with Montessori schools.
However, last week, Newsnight ran a report on the 30 or so private Steiner schools that showed how different they are from anything else.
The schools are known for being playful and hippyish.
But we revealed the contents of two memos from the Department for Education (DfE) on complaints about bullying in the private Steiner schools - also known as Waldorf schools or Steiner Waldorf schools - and concerns about racism.
The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF), the umbrella body for Steiner schools, responded by saying "Our schools do not tolerate racism" and "bullying is not tolerated by our schools and all our schools have strong anti-bullying policies".
Some people also tweeted me to praise their Steiner education.
As our report made clear, the issues are not ubiquitous in Steiner schools. None of the reports concerns any of the three, open state Steiner schools.
But Steiner schools could be susceptible to these problems.
That is because of the particular views of Rudolf Steiner, the intellectual father of Steiner schools.
The Austrian-born occultist, who died in 1925, left a vast body of work covering everything from biodynamic farming to alternative medicine.
It is known, collectively, as "anthroposophy".
The SWSF's guidelines from 2011 said that schools using the Steiner name were obliged to prove "an anthroposophical impulse lies at the heart of planning for the school".
Since 2013, this has been made vaguer: they now need a commitment to "the fundamental principles of Waldorf education".
Those ideas are based in a belief in reincarnation.
Pupils may not have been sold this creed, but Steiner was very strict that teachers were not supposed to pass them on to children - just to act on them.
So, for example, the Steiner curriculum's focus on a late start to learning is driven by the pace at which souls incarnate.
An odd rationale, but not a very worrying result. Other consequences, however, are potentially more troubling.
For example, Steiner himself believed illnesses in our current lives could be explained by problems in the previous ones.
And in overcoming illnesses with a root in a previous life, individuals could gain "reinforced power" and improve their "karma".
Vaccination, in effect, gets in the way.
That may help explain the Steiner school attitude to vaccination.
The schools state that they have no formal policies and parents must choose for themselves.
But children in Steiner schools are less likely to get their jabs.
The Health Protection Agency - before its recent abolition - used to note that Steiner schools ought to be considered "unvaccinated populations" for measles.
Related ideas of the benefits of overcoming adversity emerge elsewhere.
The DfE memos report a complaint that a teacher allowed violence among children for karmic reasons, and cites teacher training resources that are sympathetic to this idea.
This karmic belief set also has a racial element.
As we reported last week, Steiner was, by any modern definition, a racist.
'Hierarchy in races'
He thought black people were distinguished by an "instinctual life", as opposed to Caucasians' "intellectual life".
He believed each race had a geographical location where they should live - black people in Europe were "a nuisance".
There was also a hierarchy in races; a soul with good karma could hope to be reincarnated into a race which is higher up in the hierarchy, Steiner argued.
The SWSF says: "While the superficial reading of a handful of Steiner's voluminous, extensive lectures present statements that appear racist in modern terms, none of these occur in his educational writings."
But some of these ideas have polluted some Steiner schools.
The SWSF was "horrified" by our report on a diversity training day at a private Steiner school, which had been triggered by a real issue around racism.
Four white teachers, asked to tick a box giving their ethnicity, ticked every box.
They believed that they had ascended through all the races.
Some Steiner schools also teach about the lost continent of Atlantis - a myth that, to Steiner, explained the origins of the hierarchy of the races.
So what to make of all of this?
First, I am not clear why Steiner Schools are not considered faith schools.
Surely anthroposophy is a religion?
It is not totally clear whether all Steiner schools are more focused on improving children's life chances for this life or the next.
Second, lots of Steiner schools, and the SWSF, believe they have got past these problems with Steiner's work.
They have taken something from his ideas without the problematic parts.
Ofsted seems to think that the state Steiner schools have accomplished this.
Perhaps the DfE ought to consider asking for clarification on what parts of Steiner's works are in and what parts are out.
While it is at it, it could consider monitoring other allegations often levelled at the schools, such as their promotion of homeopathy.
You can see why Montessori schools get so annoyed when they get muddled up.