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'Homeopathy? Sorry, we're just not swallowing it'

news | Published in TES magazine on 14 September, 2012 | By: Irena Barker

‘Anti-scientific’ Steiner schools use book that dismisses Darwin

State-funded Steiner schools have come under fire for promoting homeopathy and basing teaching on a book that criticises Darwinism.

The Steiner Academy Hereford, state-funded since 2008, has asked parents for permission to use homeopathic remedies for various ailments, including burns, and employs a doctor trained in complementary medicine. It also uses a controversial course book in science that claims Darwinism is “rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics”. The school says its aim is not to “promote scientific orthodoxy”.

Opposition has grown as the second state-funded Steiner school opened this week in Frome, Somerset, with a third due to open next year in Exeter, Devon.

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, has lobbied education secretary Michael Gove to reconsider funding the Exeter school. “These schools are promoting anti-scientific nonsense and how the hell Gove agreed to fund them I don’t know,” he told TES.

Complementary medicine expert Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of the University of Exeter, added: “Steiner schools seem to have an anti-science agenda which is detrimental to progress… the government makes a grave mistake allowing pseudoscience and anti-science in our education.”

Questions have been raised about a book used as the foundation for science lessons, The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum, which says the model of the heart as a pump is unable to explain “the sensitivity of the heart to emotions” and promotes homeopathy, which relies on a belief that illness can be fought with a diluted amount of the cause of the illness.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has raised concerns about Steiner schools employing “anthroposophical doctors”, experts in the complementary medicine developed by the schools’ founding father, Rudolf Steiner. The Steiner Academy Hereford confirmed that it employs a qualified doctor who is trained in anthroposophical treatment.

Richy Thompson, the BHA’s education officer, said it was “gravely concerning” that Steiner schools promoted homeopathy and based teaching on a book inconsistent with mainstream science. “How can pupils receive a vigorous science education under these circumstances?” he said. “It is gravely concerning that these schools provide alternative medicines such as homeopathy, thus legitimising belief in cures which do not work.”

Alan Swindell, a spokesman for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship in the UK, said it was not the place of any school to “promote” an approach to medicine, either conventional or complementary. The science course book was not used by pupils, but was “one of many resources” teachers would refer to, he added.

Clarence Harvey, acting principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford, said: “It is not our aim to promote scientific orthodoxy, but rather to enable pupils to think and engage in independent verification of reality.”

Jenny Salmon, administrator of the independent Exeter Steiner School and a trust director of the town’s proposed Steiner academy, said: “Steiner schools attract people who have an alternative lifestyle. Fifty or 60 per cent of our parents consult complementary therapy. We do not expect this to be the case at the new Steiner academy.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “No state school is allowed to teach homeopathy as scientific fact. We have rigorous criteria for approving free schools. Applicants must demonstrate that they will provide a broad and balanced curriculum.”

Steiner style

  • The principles of Steiner education are based upon “anthroposophy”, the philosophy developed by its founder Rudolf Steiner. This is centred on using the mind and senses to explore a spirit world.
  • There are 34 Steiner schools in the UK, but only two are so far state funded.
  • They emphasise teaching through music and physical expression and creating an “unhurried environment” for children to learn in.


Photo: The Steiner Academy Hereford asked parents to sign consent forms for the use of homeopathic remedies. Credit: Sam Frost


Original headline: ‘Homeopathy? I’m sorry, we’re just not swallowing it’

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Comment (11)

  • "Alan Swindell...said it was not the place of any school to "promote" an approach to medicine, either conventional or complementary"

    Nevertheless, it still happens. Our local Steiner school ran a weekend "home nursing" course for parents, which turned out to be wholly on the subject of Anthroposophic medicine. We might not have gone, had it been advertised that way!

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    14 September, 2012


  • A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “No state school is allowed to teach homeopathy as scientific fact. We have rigorous criteria for approving free schools. Applicants must demonstrate that they will provide a broad and balanced curriculum.”

    This is referring to section 24A of the Free School funding agreements and its general prohibition on teaching pseudoscience in any subject - the BHA got this clause added after lobbying around creationism. So in theory, Frome and Exeter are not allowed to teach any of the pseudoscience in the curriculum book.

    - S24A does not apply to Hereford, which has a funding agreement that pre-dates it - so the DfE are wrong there
    - It is still concerning that Exeter has used the same book while being a private school
    - At any rate, s24A does not apply to school health policies, and what medicine they use. Health policies are entirely unregulated. This seems to me to be something of wider concern

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    14 September, 2012


  • As I have a copy of the book concerned, I have referred to it and find it difficult to see what this article is really about

    The piece seems to me to be poorly researched and unbalanced. Homeopathy might be the personal choice of some or most parents at any particular Steiner (or other) school, but no-one is claiming that homeopathy is taught to children. It isn't. so far as I can see The point that is salient to the curriculum mentions a "course book". The claims made about this are false. No Steiner school uses the "course book" described. They could not because it is not a "course book at all. Educational Tasks etc. - the book mentioned - is an overview of the Steiner curriculum for teachers. The quotation given is very partial and misleading. The reference to Darwin puts his work in its specific historical context,. We might remember that Darwin's influence extended to the eugenics movement and "nature red in tooth and claw" strands within Fascism alongside the his huge contribution to the development of bio-science. The Steiner book referred to speaks of the "clarifying power" of the Darwinian mechanism, which seems fair enough.

    One might feel some surprise that the article adds the extraneous information about a metaphor to characterise the heart. The two superannuated professors quoted may know about their subjects, but seem ignorant about the reification of imagery.. Perhaps they should have studied a little literature and cultural studies in their time. Nonetheless, again the non-"course book" quoted from reads: "the circulation of the blood is not a closed system and the pump model is NOT SUFFICIENT to understand the circulation of blood or the sensitivity of the heart to the emotions and the circadian rhythms of the hormonal and nervous systems". Given all that we now know about the complex inter-relationships involved (for example today's news items about stress, control over work and hypertension. I would have thought this was blindingly obvious. No-one today would accept William Harvey's vital first demonstration of the circulation of blood with its pump-like heart as adequate, so why raise this as a shibboleth of all that is scientific?

    A fully-qualified doctor trained in complementary medicine may be an anathema to a former professor of that subject and his an ally, the more eminent former pharmacologist, David Colquhoun, but plenty of people can vouch personally for the value of BOTH conventional and some less conventional remedies. Surely knowing both is a good thing, indicating a lack of the dogmatism paraded by the scientists quoted. David Colquhoun's important work on synaptic events needed subsequent elaboration and development by others before it could be of practical use: Teenagers need to understand science as a process of discovery. To quote from the maligned curriculum overview: "young people need to emerge from school with a clear sense of its limits and the sure knowledge that new ways of interpreting nature are always being nurtured among scientists".

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    14 September, 2012


  • This article is not really news. Homoeopathy is not taught in Steiner schools although as with any group of people some parents may be interested in it. Anthroposophy is not taught in Steiner schools,although some parents may have an interest in it, the only aspect of Steiners philosophy that guides Steiner education is his theory of child development.
    Given that there are over 700 Steiner schools in the world it is sensible to assume that it appeals to many people and provides an education that works for them.
    It is certainly misleading to state that opposition to Steiner schools is growing as the ex-professors and humanists quoted here have been vociferously opposed to it for a long time while showing very little understanding of it.
    A Steiner teacher once told me that a school generally reflects its community and therefore some will appear alternative while others will not. I would like to see a much more balanced approach to this subject based on solid scientific research not hearsay, supposition or bias and misrepresentation.
    Remember Darwin himself was inconsistent with the mainstream scientific theory of his time.

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    14 September, 2012


  • "Remember Darwin himself was inconsistent with the mainstream scientific theory of his time."

    Well, that just exonerates ANY non-orthodox approach, Mr JTS03. I'd say that wasn't very scientific.

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    14 September, 2012


  • JTS03, what is exactly that people opposed to Steiner education have little understanding of?

    Graham Kennish, (researching science teaching in Steiner Schools as part of Plymouth University's Steiner-Waldorf / Hereford Academy Research Network team)

    published an article called Teaching Biology in a Human Context, where he clearly questions scientific objectivity and evolutionary theory.

    His curriculum rather alarmingly involves teaching "child development, racial or cultural differences, temperaments and personality" Racial differences and temperaments?

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    14 September, 2012


  • I suppose that it is a sign of the weakness of the arguments of the Steiner advocates that they base theor arguments on the age of their opponents. Since they, unlike their critics, remain anonymous, there is no way to be certain that they are over 12.

    I suppose that when Steiner was writing, spiritualism was a lot more popular than today and his horrid views on race were much more respectable than they are now. In addition, at the time he was writing, there was very little that medicine could do for people. So hus ideas, which now look totally barmy, were not so absurd at the time he promulgated them.

    What's truly weird is that a small number of people have clung on to these outdated bekefs and even seek state funding to impose them on other people.

    And what's wierder still is that we have a Department of Education that was deceived by them. Of course Michale Gove once referred to "Newton's laws of theremodynamics". So it's easy to see that he is utterly ignorant of the most basic scientific ideas, That's not really an excuse though. You don't need to be a scientist to understand that medicines which contain no medicine have no effect. And you don't need to be a scientist to realise the "biodynamic farming" is an absurd hoax.

    So why has Gove given state money to these cult0like mystical barmpots?
    Could it perhaps be pressure from the Rees-Mogg clan?

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    14 September, 2012


  • I'd encourage anybody with an interest in Steiner education to get hold of a copy of 'The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum', edited by Richter & Rawson. The reason this book is particularly important and authoritative is that it was produced on behalf of the pedagogical section of the Goetheanum, the world-wide HQ of Anthroposophy and Steiner education.

    It has a useful and straightforwardly honest section on 'Anthroposophy as the basis of Steiner Waldorf education', the discusses the curriculum in much detail by year group and subject.

    The subject of homeopathy is discussed when the atomic model is introduced in the chemistry curriculum:

    "By way of contrast, homeopathic effects could be considered. Homeopathy offers a good example of an effect that cannot be explained through the dominant (atomic) model."

    There seems to be an implicit assumption here that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect.

    The quote on Darwinian evolution reads:

    "The Darwinian mechanism delivers clarifying power within a certain range of phenomena, but it is rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics and young people need to emerge from school with a clear sense of its limits and the sure knowledge that new ways of interpreting nature are always being nurtured among small groups of scientists."

    Now, there is something to be said for covering the historical background of ideas in science and how they have replaced old ideas. However, I'd suggest that singling out evolution as an example of the limits of modern science is a very odd approach to take.

    Lastly, it is true that this is one of many books that might be used by a practising Steiner teacher. The reading list for the Plymouth BA course in Steiner-Waldorf education is worth googling for. The science books there are, without exception, produced by Anthroposophical publishers. I find this worrying. It might suggest that the broad and balanced curriculum required by the DfE is anyhing but.

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    15 September, 2012


  • The misconceptions conveyed in the article about Steiner Free Schools need correcting. The suggestion that Steiner schools `dismiss` Darwin is absurd. The best way to celebrate the genius of Darwin or any other scientific thinker is to engage with his ideas and to place them in context. This is what good school do and it is what Steiner schools do. Contrary to the views of David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst, Steiner schools are strongly pro-science. They are also pro-enquiry and pro-academic rigour. Young people today face the threat of having science-as-orthodoxy, what Sheldrake would call `scientism`, thrust upon them as a creed that may not be questioned. Our young people must be encouraged and equipped to question everything, including orthodoxy, just as Darwin did.
    In Steiner schools all science teaching begins with the close observation and direct experience of physical phenomena in order to gather evidence, rather than with a description of prevailing theories and models. It is an approach that resulted in the 2006 PISA study into Austrian Steiner schools concluding that state schools could learn from Steiner methods `especially concerning science teaching`; an approach which led to the same recommendation from a National Academies report in the USA; an approach that assists Steiner pupils in their generally excellent results in GCSE science subjects; an approach that has produced scientific alumni such as John Fitzallen Moore, Prof. Dr. Wolf-Christian Dullo and Kristen Nygaard, and an approach favoured by the parents who want their children to receive a scientific education that empowers them to question, enthuses them to explore, and equips them with a context in which to consider the ethical and moral issues that surround science.
    Alan Swindell
    Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship

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    16 September, 2012


  • When Alan Swindell (coughs) from the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship says that Steiner Schools are 'strongly pro-science' it is worth reflecting on how Rudolf Steiner thought he was 'pro-science'.

    Steiner believed he could extend science through direct contact with a spirit world. Through clairvoyance, new truths would be revealed to him - such as the facts that the British Isles float on the sea, humans are bipedal to aid praying, and that the spirit pumps blood causing the heart to beat.

    Of course, anyone who dismisses this as utter nonsense is guilty of the dogma of 'scientism'. At least according to Sheldrake who believes your pets have extra-sensory perception.

    It is indeed scary that the government have given the green light to a barmpot crypto-religious organisation to take over our schools. And worse, an organisation that cannot be open about its true beliefs and intentions towards children.

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    16 September, 2012


  • I think it would be more accurate to say that Steiner education is strongly pro Goethean science. This is the little known approach championed by Steiner which advocates the importance of subjective experience over the quantitative observation, hypothesis testing and theory building usually thought of as the scientific method. Clarence Harvey summarises it particularly succinctly in the article above. Sheldrake, incidentally, was also inspired by the Goethean approach.

    As Steiner students are more likely than most to come across homeopathy at home and indeed at school, it would be surprising if it were not occasionally discussed in science classes. Nothing wrong with this, it could be a useful starting point for explaining how we know whether drugs work or not and the importance of the placebo effect. However, this is not what Richter & Rawson are suggesting...

    The guidance offered by Richter & Rawson is that the mind of a child is not sufficiently mature to grasp the concept of a model or theory in science until the age of 17-18, after many will have left school. Far from a shining example of good practice, I think this does students a disservice and does not equip them with the tools necessary to think critically about science. Science GCSEs at Steiner schools have been discussed elsewhere:

    So I hypothesise that the reason evolution and atomic theory are singled out as problematic in the Steiner science curriculum is that Steiner himself had problems with them. This would have been understandable in the context of the early 20th century. A hundred years on, they are no longer the controversial subjects they once were. To question orthodoxy merely because it is orthodoxy, rather than having well tested observations to the contrary, is not how science makes progress.

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    17 September, 2012


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