This is part 2 of a critique of Steiner Waldorf schools. Part 1 was The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense. Part 1
The part 3 is Steiner Waldorf Schools Part 3. The problem of racism.
This essay is largely devoted to the methods used by the Steiner movement in the hope of getting state funding. That involves concealing from ministers and inspectors some of the less desirable aspects of the cult. That is sadly easy to do, because ministers and inspectors usually use a tick box approach that can easily be corrupted (just have a look, for example, at what goes on at the University of Wales). It is a classical case of bait and switch, a method that was used by chiropractors and acupuncturists to pervert the normally high standards of NICE. The technique is standard in alternative medicine, as described by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella, in The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine..
Steiner’s bible of the cult, 1905
The involvement of a few universities with Steiner training is every bit as disgraceful as their involvement with quack medicine, In fact Anthroposophical medicine is among the barmier forms of quackery.
Steiner Waldorf Free Schools – ‘Do we have to mention Steiner, or Anthroposophy?’
At the time of writing we are aware of 16 Steiner Waldorf schools and new initiatives in the UK applying for or publicly expressing interest in Free School Funding. The established schools are:
- Brighton Steiner School
- Cambridge Steiner School
- Elmfield Steiner ‘Academy’ Stourbridge (see weekly news sheet)
- Exeter Steiner School
- Meadow School, Bruton, Somerset
- Michael House, Steiner Waldorf School, Derbyshire
- Norwich Steiner School
- Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, Hertfordshire
- Rudolf Steiner School South Devon
- St Michael Steiner School, Wandsworth
- St Paul’s Steiner School, Islington
Initiatives & kindergartens:
- Mulberry Tree kindergarten, South Gloucestershire
- Beachtree kindergartens Leeds
- Cragg Vale, near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
The umbrella organisation for Steiner Waldorf schools in the UK is the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. The Chief Executive Director of the SWSF is Christopher Clouder but another prominent figure is Development Director Sylvie Sklan. As representatives of the SWSF they have been the plausible public face of Anthroposophy, working for many years within the establishment to create the conditions for wholesale public funding of Steiner Waldorf schools in the UK. As pragmatists they see Michael Gove’s Free Schools Initiative as the Movement’s big chance.
We will take you into the woods to show how the Steiner edifice of nonsense has been obscured by smoke and mirrors. A government report indicates the truth, but the schools themselves are reluctant to share their Special Knowledge.
Into the Woods. A government report, and a very special inspection service
There is no independent evidence to support the pedagogy of Steiner Waldorf education. But supporting the funding of the Steiner Academy Hereford, the only state funded Steiner school to date (created under New Labour), is a government report from 2005, The Woods Report ‘Steiner Schools in England’. Mike Collins of UK Anthroposophy, home to some meticulous investigative work, demonstrates how the Woods Report describes Steiner Waldorf as Anthroposophical education.
In fact the Report’s authors are unusually candid about the occult nature of Steiner schools. They also, elsewhere, make no secret of their own immersion in the ‘spiritual’ assuming a common understanding of that ambiguous word, a word which is rarely defined. But whether or not they are themselves to any degree adherents of Anthroposophy, they clearly believe that education would benefit from Steiner’s spiritual vision, stating in the Forum Journal in 2006:
"The point is that Steiner education offers a distinctive process of opening and nurturing children and educating the whole child in the twenty-first century."
There is, in the Woods Report, an elaboration of the pivotal role of karma and reincarnation [p93] a description of the use of ‘temperaments’ to classify children [p89] and of the variance in the precise nature of allegiance to Anthroposophy amongst teachers [p94] (as observed in our first post: reflecting the nature of an esoteric religion). But ‘Steiner says’ is nevertheless the dominant code:
"Steiner’s lectures are referred to and teachers constantly update themselves on the pedagogical principles outlined by Steiner, testing these in the practice of collegial discussion.” [p105]"
This should be no surprise:
“Steiner education takes a particular perspective and entails a set of practices which relate to each other in order to give Steiner schools their character. These include the role of the teacher understood as a sacred task in helping each child’s soul and spirit grow, which underpins the commitment to each pupil and is the basis of sustaining the class teacher-pupil relationship over eight years” [p120]
This may strike the reader as rather an unusual educational aim, especially if a school is not formally classed as a ‘faith’ or religious school. Would it not take sophistry to maintain that this is not an essentially religious impulse? (It does. p97/125/129) But we must remember that we are handicapped by our ignorance of Spiritual Science. The clue is given by one of the Steiner teachers quoted, who suggests what is needed is to:
“communicate to [the] wider educational community that in essence Steiner education is a spiritual approach beyond religion” [p116]
To do them justice, in other published work the Woods are cautious, although this problem strikes us as inevitable:
“None of this should be taken to mean that Steiner schools achieve their ideals or are entirely without their flaws. Many teachers, in our view, are too dependent on following the guidance and ideas of Steiner as if they were ‘sacred’ directions.” ‘In Harmony with the child’: Philip A Woods & Glenys J Woods: Forum 48/3 2006
The Woods Report ignores the consequences for children of teachers’ adherence to the anthroposophical belief in karma and reincarnation. It is obvious that the potential for harm has not been recognised, nor taken seriously by those who should have read the Report. Instead it has been accepted that because the pedagogy is ‘spiritual’ it must be good: and the Hereford Academy has been handed funds, allowed exemptions (including the freedom to teach Steiner’s ‘Goethean science’) and stands as the precedent for further expansion of Steiner Waldorf into the State sector.
What kind of barmpottery would be too extreme for the Woods? The fact that Glenys Woods maintains she is a Reiki Healer (Angelic and Atlantaen) suggests that her beliefs about what is real would seem extravagant to those working within even the most complex and nuanced concepts of modern neuroscience.
The Woods Report suggests that Anthroposophy should be better understood by educationalists and parents; the writers clearly believe that, as a spiritual entity, it is of value. But they also attempt to diffuse the presence of Anthroposophy by stating that the “curriculum is not designed to guide and encourage young people into becoming adherents of anthroposophy…” [p120] which may appear to lessen the obligation to know what it is. When we are told the disingenuous line: ‘Anthroposophy is not taught to the children”, we should not forget that it is not explained to prospective parents either, even if there may be a few (ill-attended & bewildering) study groups for parents who have already joined. It isn’t explained to the government officials who anyway appear so incurious, or to taxpayers. We have none of us earned the right to the Movement’s Special Knowledge.
But Ofsted understands this. It knows it is not qualified.
As of September 2009 Steiner schools in the UK have been inspected not by Ofsted, who used to do so but by the Schools Inspection Service. The SIS inspects only two types of schools: those run by the Exclusive Brethren and now Steiner Waldorf.
The lay Inspectors in each case are expected to understand the distinct character of the schools. In the case of Steiner Waldorf, they have all been connected in some way with Steiner schools or with the Anthroposophical Movement.
Ofsted, which we believe feels unqualified to understand the pedagogy, has effectively allowed Steiner Waldorf schools greater powers to inspect themselves.
Free school funding relies on these inspections: the results of which are rather more positive under the new regime.
The Hereford Steiner Academy – the Academy nobody wanted.
The only state funded Steiner school in the UK has already caused controversy. Francis Beckett wrote in the Guardian in 2008 that former director of education Eddie Oram had turned down initial plans submitted on his watch because “he did not think the Steiner staff had the right expertise to deal with pupils with individual needs.”
Oram’s proof of evidence: to the Public Inquiry for the original applications by the DCSF to build a new school for the Steiner Academy, is comprehensive. There is no need, no desire and no justification for such a school in Herefordshire, especially in the village of Much Dewchurch. The Project Lead for the DCSF, sponsoring the Academy, was the Rev. Mark Evans, a church of England priest on secondment to the Department. His proof of evidence glowed with praise for Dr. Steiner:
“The outcomes of this education can be seen in the quiet confidence of its pupils, their balanced approach to life and their capacity for innovative thinking.”
But the Rev. Evans produced no evidence for this assertion, nor did he mention karma, or reincarnation. This seems a significant omission; he was in all probability unaware of the nature of the pedagogy he was selling.
The Hereford Steiner Academy site does mentions Anthroposophy, although to find it involves a little searching. The assertion that “Anthroposophy is a developing body of research”, as stated here by Hereford, should rightly be disputed. Essentially Anthroposophy is dogma; gained through ‘clairvoyance’, inherited by studying Steiner’s words, comprehended by those ascending the ladder of esoteric Knowledge. But something has to be said about it, now the Movement is forced to do so.
The Steiner Academy followed one of the recommendations of the Woods Report: unusually for a Steiner school it has a Principal, Trevor Mepham. In a long exposition to ‘Herefordshire Life’ on the nature of Steiner Waldorf education, Mepham misses the chance to satisfy another of the Woods Report’s suggestions: he doesn’t explain, by name, the system’s fundamental credo.
Free School Hopefuls
The current group of Steiner Free School hopefuls vary in their willingness to discuss Anthroposophy. As an example, on the website of the Norwich Steiner School Anthroposophy is not mentioned, although in reality it is never absent. The Norwich curriculum policy describes the pedagogy without mentioning its essence but we catch stray glimpses of angelic forms. So, a moral aim is to cultivate ‘reverence’ for nature, the children stand not in a doorway but on a ‘threshold’ and ‘The narrative thread for Ancient civilisations often begins with the fall of Atlantis’.
In the March 2010 newsletter from Norwich (‘Talking Trees’) there is an observation by a class teacher which exemplifies the Steiner Waldorf attitude to less spiritual forms of education:
“I look at the children in Oak Class and see a luminosity that cannot be measured. When we do measure children, we diminish that luminosity. The world seems to be full of children whose inner light has been subdued, if not entirely extinguished.”
There is at the time of writing no mention of Anthroposophy on the website of the Rudolf Steiner School South Devon, except towards the end of the parents’ handbook. Although this is hard for outsiders to find, the handbook’s author still neglects to describe karma and reincarnation and includes the unusual proviso that this is ‘not a cult’. South Devon has stated on its site:
“The department [DofE] appears to be impressed by our application, in particular what they call our "strong educational vision". But before they can proceed to the next step they have asked to see stronger evidence of demand for Steiner education in the area, including from those outside the school community. They would prefer this to be in the form of a petition.”
Many of those who have agreed to sign the South Devon petition have done so in ignorance of even the name of the ‘philosophy’ that is so vital to the school, imagining that their plausible description of Steiner Waldorf is sufficient.
In a ‘circle meeting’ held at the South Devon School in 2008, found on the web, someone even asks the question: “Do we need to mention Steiner, or Anthroposophy?” It’s hard to lose the guru’s name without changing all the signs. But surely local people might be put off if they understood how the education at this school is intimately informed by the clairvoyant visions of the Mystic Barmpot. We’ve screenshot the site, in case there are any alterations.
This concern about mentioning Anthroposophy is driven by a fear that an undercurrent of critical analysis will become mainstream.
We trust we presented in our previous post a description of Steiner Waldorf Education that identifies the intrinsic role of Anthroposophy, making the system and its flaws intelligible, but we are not suggesting that our observations are original.
Not only have there been comprehensive posts about Steiner schools on the popular political blog Liberal Conspiracy (with much additional material from Unity, including the 5 Big Ideas of science that Steiner education can’t handle); there has been in the last few years an international stream of criticism from those who have experienced Waldorf pedagogy and its effects on families. Ex-parents, students and teachers of Steiner Waldorf schools have appeared on-line, seeking answers; making sense of their own distressing experiences, expressing bewilderment and anger and frequently offering support to others.
Their words appear on blogs, on internet forums and in the press in some countries, although no UK journalist has so far grasped the significance of their warnings. What should be reiterated is that it is difficult to make sense of an esoteric (hidden) philosophy in action, even if you have chosen to be involved at its aesthetically pleasing outer edges. For many parents, Waldorf is a form of bait and switch.
mumsnet: “You don’t expect a school to lie,”
In the New Schools Network document cited in our previous post, Free School hopefuls are advised how to advertise their projects: “Post something on mumsnet, netmums, or facebook.” If the NSN had done their homework, they would know that mumsnet Steiner threads have been so controversial (and incomprehensible to those not involved) that in 2008 parents were asked by mumsnet’s co-founder Justine Roberts not to post about Steiner education at all. Indeed the forum was threatened with legal action by Sune Nordwall, (also known as Thebee, Tizian, Excalibur, Mycroft etc) a Swedish anthroposophist; since discovered to be in the employment of the Swedish Waldorf School Federation. Blogger Alicia Hamberg aka zooey quotes (in translation):
“In England, the attacks on [waldorf] pedagogy have led to parents withdrawing their children from the waldorf schools. The [Swedish Waldorf School] Federation has employed Sune on a part-time basis to monitor the debate.”
We do not suggest on this blog that the Swedish Waldorf School Federation are responsible for or complicit in Nordwall’s activities on mumsnet or elsewhere, although as Alicia Hamberg points out, they have not sought to distance themselves from his behaviour. What is notable though is that representatives of Waldorf education in Sweden were concerned to monitor a UK debate held not in the press but in the relative obscurity of the supposedly safe, supportive world of mothers‘ chatrooms. The Steiner Waldorf movement understands the importance of a positive profile on the UK’s most influential meeting place for parents; the very people who form their customer base. But their tactics are counterintuitive. In anthro-speak everywhere, critics, the majority of whom are parents who have had children in Steiner schools, become attackers.
Even the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship’s Communications Officer Jeremy Smith felt drawn to issue a call-to-arms to rebuff those who dared to question Waldorf’s ‘good intentions’:
“I would be very grateful if teachers and parents who share these concerns would be willing to join me in posting replies to anti-Waldorf threads in an attempt to give a more accurate picture to the outside world of what Steiner education is all about. We are also co-ordinating this internationally through the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in becoming involved.”
We invite them to answer us here, instead.
Stockholm University: “scientifically unacceptable… simply untrue”
There are other interesting comparisons with Sweden. A recent announcement that UK Free Schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers indicates that the UK is traveling in the opposite direction to Sweden which, in an attempt to raise standards has just introduced more stringent teacher training requirements for all its schools, including Waldorf (the state funding of which pre-dates Sweden’s own Free Schools experiment). Swedish Waldorf schools will have to apply for exemptions from these guidelines (as well as from new requirements regarding early years literacy and numeracy), since there are no university accredited Waldorf teacher training courses in Sweden.
Indeed the aspirations of Swedish anthroposophists suffered a blow in 2008 when Stockholm University closed the Waldorf teacher training courses in the Institute of Education it had recently taken over. The VC of Stockholm, Kåre Bremer, agreed with his Education Faculty that the Waldorf literature did not satisfy the University’s standards of “scientific validity” and that “Some of the content is not only scientifically unacceptable, it is simply untrue.”
Alicia Hamberg described the ensuing outcry from the Waldorf community; quoting the dean of the faculty of natural sciences and professor of bio-chemistry, Stefan Nordlund, who stated in a Swedish newspaper article:
“In parts, the students’ course literature is not simply unscientific. It is in fact dangerous, and it conveys misconceptions which are worse than muddled. We are supported by the department of natural sciences as well as the department of humanities in taking this position.”
A relaxation of teaching qualifications here in the UK is essential if Steiner Free Schools are to be given the green-light, since the UK’s only Steiner BA and the Foundation Course in Steiner Early Years education at the University of Plymouth are also closing. Plymouth’s new VC, Prof Wendy Purcell, herself a scientist, can claim credit for ejecting the Mystic Barmpot from her faculty of education. It is certainly true that the course didn’t attract sufficient numbers to be viable, even though it appears that Steiner trainee teachers were supported by the beneficence of a ‘godparents anthroposophical training fund.’
Mike Collins posted a fascinating investigative report into the Plymouth closures in November last year. At the time of writing this, a representative of the University told us that they have no plans to reintroduce Steiner teacher training.
However: in a plot twist which links both countries, it is not Stockholm University (which had rejected their Steiner courses for being unscientific) but the University of Plymouth which is accrediting a European Masters Programme in Eurythmy, described as an anthroposophical ‘dance form’: in collaboration with Rudolf Steiner University College Järna, 50 km South of Stockholm. Except that Rudolf Steiner College, Järna is not regarded as a university college by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, nor can it issue formally recognized degrees. We do not imagine that anyone at Plymouth outside the dwindling Steiner BA is familiar with eurythmy, or its therapeutic arm, curative eurythmy.
One of the aims of the European Masters course is: “to place Eurythmy in the context of modern education,” but this can only apply to Waldorf.
Eurythmy is a physical expression of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical image of the relationship between the ‘spirit’ and the physical worlds. It is steeped in the supernatural. Of course what is happening in reality as participants sway and dash is not exactly what eurythmists imagine is happening, as anyone familiar with CAM will understand. But an intention clearly exists. Once again, in Steiner Waldorf schools, there is that anthroposophical concern for the ‘incarnating’ child. As Steiner told his teachers:
“You cannot teach anthroposophy directly to children but they can do eurythmy. And they will face life in quite a different way than if they didn’t do eurythmy.”
From “Times of Expectation: New Forms of Ancient Beauty out of the World of the Spirit.” Lecture, Dornach, 7th October 1914 (final section). Steiner introduces eurythmy to the anthroposophists
Where are the teachers to come from for these new UK Steiner Free Schools? More to the point: will taxpayers have any access to the content of their courses?
Waldorf Critics: criticism and scandal
Steiner Waldorf causes scandals across the world. In Norway earlier this year, Kristín Sandberg and Trond Kristoffersen, both former Steiner Waldorf teachers, published their book: "What They Don’t Tell Us = The Occult Foundation of the Steiner School." They have been part of a fierce debate, subject to threats from certain elements of the Steiner community, but Kristin is positive. What really matters to her, she says, are the many messages of support:
What They Don’t Tell Us. The Occult Foundation of the Steiner School
In Germany too, Steiner Waldorf has many critics. It’s interesting to reflect on the German Waldorf demographic, which suggests that their appeal lies in their status as ‘elite’ (although not academically elite) institutions.
In Australia, the introduction of ‘Steiner’ streams into public schools in the State of Victoria: ‘The Steiner Cult’s Grab for Schools’ has caused great controversy (see The delusional world of Rudolf Steiner). A document by the Australian Rationalist Society mirrors our initial post. After serious concerns were raised in a government report as long ago as 2000, and ignored; great division has been caused between parents in the schools involved and academic standards have proved to be low. Australian newspaper reports rehearse what will be in the news in the UK if Free School funding goes ahead for Steiner Waldorf. To quote from The Age:
“One parent, who did not wish to be named, said she moved her son out of the school after a Steiner teacher recommended he repeat prep "because his soul had not been reincarnated yet".
"I just don’t believe it is educationally sound," she said.”
Humanists are not the only Waldorf critics in Australia: some worry that Anthroposophy doesn’t sit happily with their Christian beliefs. Plus, independent Steiner schools have been accused of misappropriating Federal grants designed for new classrooms and libraries. It’s tempting to ask what use anthroposophists have for books.
In New Zealand, flaws in the accountability of independent schools compounds one family’s alarming treatment at the Titirangi Steiner School. Whether or not their experience is a direct consequence of Steiner pedagogy, the school’s reported ineptitude, delaying tactics and exclusion of children reflects behaviour familiar to many other Steiner Waldorf parents.
But by far the most well-known site for analysis of Steiner Waldorf is the US based PLANS: People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, an organization which opposes the presence of religious schools: Steiner Waldorf, informed by Anthroposophy, in American public education. It is difficult to imagine that any UK government intending to spend millions on funding a school system within Academy or Free Schools funding (and concerned with a responsibility to children regardless of the mantra ‘parent choice’) can have entirely overlooked the presence of such criticism, or of the existence of a Waldorf Survivors’ Group. Indeed, if they read the Woods Report, they will find PLANS featured there. (p35)
“The vast majority of parents at PWS [Pasadena Waldorf School] work in entertainment. Actors, producers, art directors, writers, and all others in TV, film and technology. Almost all tuitions are paid for by media. They could not function without our industry.”
The most comprehensive (and readable) critical guide to Anthroposophy’s relationship to Steiner Waldorf schools is at Roger Rawling’s ‘Waldorf Watch’. Rawlings was for many years a pupil at a New York Waldorf school, so he’s familiar with how it feels to be inside the system. His pages on Karma, central to Steiner’s doctrines, as well as those on the background to Waldorf’s distinct attitude to Special Educational Needs (including the use of Curative Eurythmy) are particularly instructive.
Steiner Waldorf – “We must worm our way through”
Steiner Waldorf Schools all over the UK are applying for Free School funding. Millions could be diverted from local schools to support them. The decision to fund lies ultimately with the Secretary of State. We have every reason to believe that he is now personally aware of Anthroposophy, even of the critical role of karma and reincarnation within Steiner schools and the content of the course literature that forms a central part of Steiner Waldorf teacher training courses. We would like to ask him: who would be served by the funding of these schools? We do not believe it can be the children, or the families (many involved with hopeful, small initiatives) who do not understand what Steiner education really is. So, Mr Gove: cui bono?
“We must worm our way through…[I]n order to do what we want to do, at least, it is necessary to talk with the people, not because we want to, but because we have to, and inwardly make fools of them.”
Rudolf Steiner, Conferences with Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, vol.1, 1919 to 1920 Forest Row, East Sussex, England: Steiner schools Fellowship Publications, 1986 [pp. 125]
Very sorry to see that the University of Aberdeen is running what seems to be a very dubious Steiner course.