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Steiner 'cult' is an ethos that fosters humanity

Last week the very first state-funded Steiner school in England appeared in the national league table for 11-year-olds' test results - at the very bottom.

But the school is not ashamed, nor should it be. The parents of pupils at the Hereford Steiner Academy had wanted their children to have a Steiner education, and that means no uniforms, no hierachy among the teaching staff - and no tests. So the parents simply withdrew their children from the Sats.

Many myths are circulated on the internet about Steiner schools, which can make them sound like part of a sinister global cult. But while some of the philosophy behind them can seem hippy-ish, the myths are usually unfounded. I know, because I taught in a Steiner school in South Africa for three years.

There was no head and all the teachers were paid the same salary. Equality was a tangible thing: pupils, teachers, cleaners and parents all chatted at the staffroom kettle. Pupils at the school generally liked what they did. But they did not do whatever they liked, and lessons were compulsory. Each child has the same class teacher for seven years, so the teachers gain authority from knowing the pupils so well.

Being taught formally from the age of seven, rather than earlier, did not lose the pupils anything at all. I was delighted to see Steiner schools in England gain an exemption recently from the Early Years Foundation Stage requirement to teach literacy before the age of seven. Certainly at the school where I taught in South Africa, the pupils' handwriting was clear and fluent.

The academic curriculum also suited the development of the child in ways that I found sensible, not flaky. In history, for example, the pupils studied revolutions at the age of 14, when they themselves are in the grip of violent hormonal conflicts. They related to the topic at an emotional level, which helped motivation.

So why, then, did Plymouth University axe its undergraduate course in Steiner teaching earlier this term? It gave a "lack of interest" as its reason for dropping the only course of its kind in Britain.

I can't help wondering if it was the weirdness of anthroposophy, the Steiner form of spirituality, that may have put applicants off. As one mother wrote online: "I'd sell my granny to send my kids there if it wasn't for anthroposophy!"

So what is anthroposophy? First, it is never taught to pupils. Meaning "wisdom of man", it is Rudolf Steiner's description of human development, seen in spiritual terms such as the "astral and etheric bodies". Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and reformer, who founded his first school in 1919 for the children of workers in the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. An inspired thinker and reformer, he was still a man of his time: the era of European transcendentalism.

His philosophy ensures that children are treated as rounded individuals rather than measured as units of production. Meanwhile, since freedom is crucial to the Steiner philosophy, they - and the teachers - are free to think his spiritual views are bonkers.

I was once told that a baby should not be taken on an aeroplane because its spiritual and physical bodies have not yet combined. Well, I suppose you would cry too if you had left your soul on the runway. While such claims may be odd, the latent spirituality behind them gives these schools a valuable breadth of sympathy. It's what Steiner called "receiving a child with reverence" and "solving its riddle, from hour to hour". It taught me the value of lateral thinking and keeping calm in conflict resolution.

Take Peter's story. "Right now, his soul is black," said his teacher. Weird - but it was said with compassion, and freed up discussion on how to help him. In time, we found that angry Peter loved making puppets, which improved his behaviour. Would discussion of mark schemes have done the same?

Not all Steiner teachers are anthroposophists. How many teachers share the spiritual beliefs of their school's founder? I never have. And most beliefs look odd from a distance. I have worked in a Catholic school, whose kind, sensible teachers wore miniature instruments of torture (crucifixes) and pretended to drink blood (Mass). It didn't bother me because they were nice people.

Steiner schools are not a "cult", because a cult wants to be a religion when it grows up. Steiner's ideas simply serve the good of the child.

Nik Voigt, a filmmaker and photographer, attended a Steiner school and then a mainstream school as a pupil. He attributes his chosen career to his very first lesson at the Steiner school. "The teacher said, `Everything is made up of lines and curves.' It may sound simple but it opened my eyes." In a state school, he felt he lost contact with his creativity. "In art lessons we were told, `This is how you draw a jam jar.' What can you do with that?"

What Steiner schools cultivate is something that underpins creativity and imagination: humanity. Steiner wrote that "the new generation should not just be made to be what present society wants it to become". A valuable statement today, when sometimes it feels as if that is all we are doing.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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