Play is the pivot

Linda Blackburne on inspecting nurseries that don't fit the mould

The Rudolf Steiner kindergarten which was named last week as one of the first two nurseries to be failed under the new nursery voucher inspection scheme has not been formally recognised by the non-conformist education movement. The New School Kindergarten in Wroxham, Norfolk, has been a "project school" for three years. This means it is working towards being a fully-recognised Steiner member. But the Steiner Schools Fellowship is to send OFSTED a document outlining the curriculum for its 26 schools and 55 kindergartens in the UK. All the kindergartens are registering to accept vouchers when the scheme goes national in April.

The New School Kindergarten, part of a 35-pupil independent school which educates children from four to 14, is one of more than 300 nurseries and pre-schools visited by OFSTED nursery inspectors so far. The inspectors identified "many weaknesses" in language and literacy, mathematics and knowledge and understanding of the world, and concluded that the children were unlikely to reach the Government's targets for five-year-olds.

The New School, which has now withdrawn from the nursery voucher pilot in Norfolk, has clearly embarrassed the Steiner movement. But Sally Jenkinson, the fellowship's early years representative, says: "We are very sympathetic. It is a little school and we would like to support it. We want OFSTED to accept us on our terms. We hope that a desire to give parental choice means just that. "

The crux of the matter lies in the definition of early childhood education.

Under the Steiner philosophy, formal teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic are deferred until after six.

"Our early learning is much more all-encompassing," says Mrs Jenkinson. "We have a principled approach to not forcing early literacy and numeracy, but mathematical and language experience are absolutely within the daily experience of children in the kindergarten."

Steiner supporters believe children learn from life for life. Young learning and experience should be "contextualised", interdisciplinary, and moral; not abstract. And play is the pivot for all learning in Steiner kindergartens.

So, says Mrs Jenkinson, who originally trained to be a state primary teacher, the kindergarten children she saw making moon, star and tree-shaped Christmas biscuits last year began of their own accord to count and divide them into mathematical sets and sub-sets. And when they were baked, they shared them out and ate them. "We are lighting fires, rather than filling buckets."

Steiner children begin formal schooling at seven. The Waldorf Steiner School, in Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, one of its established schools, had a total of 19 A-level entries in English literature, history, art and design, German, French and maths last year, and achieved 12 A grades and seven Bs. Steiner schools have had no problems passing routine school inspections, says Mrs Jenkinson.

The question is how well-informed are the new nursery inspectors about alternative early years education?

Not so well, if Wendy de Vere's experience is anything to go by.

The first inspector OFSTED sent to Mrs de Vere's Montessori nurseries in Attleborough and Sparham in Norfolk had not heard of Montessori. The second had heard of Montessori but did not know anything about it.

Moreover, much to the horror of Mrs de Vere and her colleagues, this inspector said she was not interested in the philosophy of the nurseries, she was merely there to find out whether government targets were being met. "Parents don't want a diluted primary school education," says Mrs de Vere, whose two nurseries did pass their inspections.

"They spend Pounds 445 a term for five mornings to send their children here.

"OFSTED mentioned that we ought to have computers but it's against our philosophy. We want children to learn through their senses."

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