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Steiner schools still wait in the wings

Government raises hopes of alternative educators who emphasise family settings, creativity and music. Geraldine Hackett reports

A MONTH ago it seemed that the Steiner Schools Fellowship's many years in the funding wilderness were over.

Education Secretary David Blunkett had indicated that there would be a role for Steiner schools and their alternative brand of child-centred education in the new "city academies".

Press reports even suggested that they might help to pioneer the academy scheme, which is establishing new secondaries outside local authority control in areas where standards are poor.

Initially, between six and 10 academies will be set up in large cities, while comprehensives with consistently low results will be closed.

However, Christopher Clouder, chief executive of the fellowship, has not been able to establish whether the Government intends to provide direct funding or to draw on ideas from the schools.

"We would not be able to take over failing schools. We do not have those kind of resources but we could provide courses for teachers," he said.

Education ministers Estelle Morris and Margaret Hodge, and Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit, have been to look at the Steiner techniques.

The 27 Steiner schools in the UK are part of a worldwide network of 600.

"We have 25 groups of parents at the moment wanting to start schools, but finance is always a problem. Some of our existing schools are in a pecarious position," said Mr Clouder.

Campaigners from Scotland's four schools are hoping that the Scots' Schools Bill can be amended to pave the way for state funding.

Mr Clouder accepts state funding in the UK may still be some way off, mainly because Steiner education is radically different from mainstream schooling.

Central to the Steiner-Waldorf philosophy is the belief that "play is the serious work of childhood". In other words, formal teaching does not begin until a child is six or seven. Children have the same teacher for eight years, from the ages of six to 13, in a more family-like setting. Schools emphasise creativity and music and most children play an instrument.

Rudolf Steiner established the first school in Stuttgart in 1919, as an alternative to more formal institutions. Steiner schools do not have heads or heads of department, but are run by a committee of teachers and parents. Teachers' salaries are on average about half that of those in the state sector.

Fees paid by parents vary according to the individual school. In some, parents pay a proportion of salary. In others, parents contribute what they can afford.

The Steiner Fellowship did discuss state funding with the last Tory government but the fact that the schools do not teach the national curriculum proved a problem. This time, the fellowship hopes it will not have to abandon its unique approach in order to gain state funding.

The Steiner Waldorf Schools fellowship website: www.compulink.co.ukwaldorf

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