Allegations of racism and widespread bullying by both teachers and pupils in private Steiner schools have emerged in government memos that considered whether they should be given public money to open free schools.
The documents outline a number of alarming claims, ranging from a teacher throwing a rounders bat at a pupil to staff using "racial epithets" with a mixed-race child.
Despite officials raising concerns over both the seriousness and the prevalence of the allegations, ministers went on to approve the opening of three Steiner free schools, in addition to an existing academy, with more applications in the pipeline.
The concerns are contained in documents released following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The Department for Education originally refused the request but that decision was overturned at a tribunal hearing.
The new revelations come on top of other concerns raised by the association about Steiner schools' promotion of homeopathy, opposition to vaccinations, and their approach to science teaching and evolution.
They have also highlighted fears over the philosophies of the founding father of the Steiner movement, Austrian Rudolf Steiner, whose brand of "spiritual science" – known as anthroposophy – says it is possible to objectively understand the spiritual world through a form of clairvoyance.
The BHA said the government notes raise questions over whether the movement is a suitable recipient of state funding but the Steiner schools’ membership body insisted that allegations against individual schools did not reflect the culture of the movement as a whole.
Officials said aggrieved parents had produced a large amount of material to support allegations of bullying and racism. They had also received complaints about the effect of the Steiner philosophy on schools.
The officials note that Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy contains racist elements, such as that "blond hair bestows intelligence" by diverting nourishment from the eyes and hair into the brain, and that the spirit is reincarnated through the races, from "black to Aryan".
The briefings state that then secretary of state Michael Gove had been made aware of complaints from two parents that a school failed to act when their mixed-race child had been the victim of racist abuse by pupils and that teachers had used "racist epithets".
“A recurring theme in the material provided is that bullying is not tackled within Steiner schools,” the document says. It notes a complaint by a parent who witnessed an attack on their son where a teacher is alleged to have justified non-intervention by claiming the children were “working out their karma”.
It goes on to cite teacher training materials that ask whether a child’s karma is to be a bully or a victim and suggest that a school “provides the opportunity for some bullying to take place, as children test each other out”.
According to the briefing, written in August and September 2010, the DfE was aware of “serious complaints” of staff bullying pupils in eight of the 25 independent Steiner schools, and that in several cases the schools had failed to investigate allegations of bullying by teachers.
The department had received four complaints about physical abuse of pupils by teachers, including one where a teacher threw a rounders bat at a child.
The document also raises concerns over whether Steiner schools could meet Ofsted’s inspection criteria, noting that “the current inspection framework is antithetical to the Steiner ethos/pedagogical approach.”
Richy Thompson, campaigns officer for the BHA, said the nature and extent of the allegations was “shocking” and should cause the DfE to reconsider its position on funding Steiner schools.
“The state funding of Steiner schools needs to be reviewed,” he said. “At the least they should look at not funding further schools, and funding for the existing schools should be examined.”
He said there were also questions over the DfE’s role in ensuring Steiner schools met the inspection criteria.
“It would be concerning if the DfE started badgering Ofsted over bits of the inspection framework for one specific school,” he added.
The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship now has 33 member schools in the UK, including four state-funded schools: a sponsored academy in Hereford and free schools in Frome in Somerset and Exeter, with a third opening in Bristol in September.
But Kevin Avison, senior adviser to the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, rejected suggestions that bullying was endemic in Steiner schools, either among pupils or teachers. While individual schools may have had issues with bullying, there was nothing in the Steiner approach that promoted or condoned bullying, he said.
“Of course we have had bullying issues, every school has done,” he said. “But those are not things that are regular occurrences. Where they have happened I would not excuse them at all.
“I would say categorically that a statement about karma in that context is wholly inappropriate and incorrect. We’re there to help and support the children. They do bully one another, but the adult task is to transform that and help them find productive and creative ways, and you can’t do that by sitting back and allowing it to happen.”
He said bullying was inimical to the Steiner philosophy, which aimed to create communities where children could thrive. “Our values are that children are enabled to become as resilient human beings as possible,” he added.
He added that Rudolf Steiner’s views had to be seen in the context of the time [the early 20th century] and did not reflect the movement’s current approach.
“I would not excuse anyone for making racist statements,” he said. “That is not something that could be condoned.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education insisted it had seen "no evidence of bullying or racism" in the state-funded Steiner academy and two free schools already established.
“All free school applications are rigorously assessed before they are approved to ensure they offer an inclusive education which meets our tough academic standards.
“The Steiner academies in Frome and Hereford have both been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted in their most recent inspections.”
Steiner plots free schools with spiritual ethos - Jan 2013
'Homeopathy? Sorry, we're just not swallowing it' - Sept 2012
Steiner sets its sights on the poor - Aug 2008