Beyond the conventional classroom

14th January 2005 at 00:00
If you don't fancy working in conventional state or independent schools, there are a number of alternative, fee-paying schools in Britain that cater for parents and children who want something different. Some, such as the Montessori and Rudolf Steiner approaches, have come from abroad, where attitudes towards schooling are more adventurous and unorthodox. For both, there are full and part-time training courses. The University of Plymouth has a full-time BA (Hons) course specialising in Steiner Waldorf education, while the Montessori Centre International in London offers training for its child-centred style of education.

Another unconventional approach can be found in AS Neill's Summerhill school in Suffolk. Built around an ethos of democracy and equality for all, it does not train teachers but expects them to arrive willing to conform to its ideals.

Dorothy Lepkowska takes a look at the three different styles of education


The names on the cloakroom pegs read like characters from mythology. It comes as no surprise, somehow, that parents who name their children Lyssandra, Aurea, Estreira or Skyla are looking for something more than a conventional state school education for their offspring. Michael Hall school in Forest Row, East Sussex, is the oldest of the Waldorf Steiner schools in Britain. It was set up in Streatham, London, in 1925.

It was based on the thinking of Rudolf Steiner (right), an Austrian philosopher who died that year - Waldorf is the name of the cigarette company that sponsored the first school in 1919 in Stuttgart. During the Second World War, Michael Hall school was evacuated to Somerset. In 1948, it arrived at a magnificent, if slightly run down, 18th-century mansion, which served as a burns unit for Battle of Britain pilots. It is still there today.

There is something calm, placid and safe about it, and that isn't just down to its rural setting. What strikes any visitor is the stress-free and relaxed learning environment.

Classes are small - around 14 to 16 pupils. Children start every day with a series of exercises, such as walking in a circle around the room and chanting numbers in sequence. Charles Reynolds, chair of governors, says:

"It helps children develop a sense of rhythm, stimulates their co-ordination and the mind, and brings them down to earth so that they can learn effectively. It is the core of Steiner education."

In general, the curriculum is non-prescriptive, and there is no early specialisation or undue pressure on pupils to perform. Rather, lessons are balanced between the artistic, practical and intellectual, and there is a strong emphasis on social skills and spiritual values.

Patterns of rhythm are evident throughout the day. Teachers intersperse focused teaching with movement, singing, recitation or story-telling to stimulate concentration and give pupils a break from intensive learning.

There is a strong emphasis on drama, dance and eurythmy - in which pupils move in formation to music to promote spatial awareness as well as a consciousness of others. Eurythmy is one of the peculiarities of Steiner schools.

A class of 14-year-old pupils stand in a circle and throw rubber-ended copper rods to each other, sideways. Occasionally, someone misses and the rod clatters to the floor. The point of the exercise is to synchronise movement, create awareness of people next to you, and consciousness of your own role in the exercise to avoid letting other people down.

The use of rhythm as an integral part of school life plays a vital role in reducing poor behaviour, and the reduced focus on academic learning tends to lessen pupils' stress.

Ann Swain, chairman of the College of Teachers (the closest thing you get here to a head), says: "There is a misconception that Steiner schools are for children who have behaviour problems and that in some way we can sort them out. We cope with poor discipline because of the way our lessons are structured. It's too much to expect children to sit for hours on end working. It's not surprising they get restless and misbehave.

"A lot of parents want this gentler kind of education for their children.

Pastoral care is very strong in our culture."

Charlotte Harvey moved to Michael Hall school as a special needs teacher after taking her own children out of a state primary. She says: "As a parent and as a teacher I had become uncomfortable with initiatives such as the national literacy strategy and the lack of time spent on things such as music and drama, which I consider fundamental. I would never go back to state schools."


the essence of a Montessori education lies in the belief that children should be free to learn and develop, that their dignity and independence are paramount and that pupils are all different and have individual needs.

The movement was founded by Maria Montessori (right), the first Italian woman to qualify as a physician. Her contact with sick children and those said to be "ineducable" led her to become involved in education.

She believed that the senses had to be educated first, then the intellect.

She developed a teaching programme that enabled "defective" children to be able to read and write. Her success led her to question how "normal" children were being educated, and why they were so often failed. She set up her first school in Rome in 1907.

One of the key elements is the de-centring of the teacher, who acts as a "keeper" of the classroom environment. The teacher intervenes from the periphery rather than being at the centre of learning. The philosophy is that "in many ways what the staff of a school should not be doing is almost as important as what they should".

Today, there are many Montessori schools across the world - and more than 700 in Britain. They cater for two to five-year-olds and allow children to develop dexterity, confidence and competence in practical activities. It is common to see a class pairing socks, folding clothes or using spoons or chopsticks to transfer objects from one place to another.

Children learn about numbers by arranging coloured counters into patterns or by counting beads. Writing comes before reading. Children learn their first words phonetically.

Another key point is the emphasis on cultural and world teaching. Every classroom will have a "cultural box" containing artefacts and objects from all over the world. Motor skills are developed outdoors using climbing equipment, swings, and games such as hide and seek.

Montessori believed that children should be in touch with the world in which they live, so schools encourage play with clay as well as doing gardening and growing activities.


For decades it carried the image of pupils running riot, missing classes without punishment. It was canned by inspectors and successive secretaries of state for education and narrowly avoided closure because of its liberal ethos. After winning a tribunal in 2000, the unique Summerhill school in Leiston, Suffolk, is today a flourishing community.

Since the tribunal ruling, inspectors must take into account the school's progressive nature and appraise it on its own merits rather than judge it against criteria against which mainstream schools are judged.

Summerhill was founded in 1921 by AS Neill (pictured above) and based on the principle that pupils should be independent in their learning.

The aim of the education here is to "create a happier childhood by removing fear and coercion by adults". Pupils do not have to attend lessons, but most do once the novelty of choice wears off.

At the core of its ethos is the school meeting, a democratic body of all 13 teachers and 90 pupils. The meeting sits four times a week to draw up rules and policies. Everyone has an equal voice - even five-year-olds get a vote.

With the advent of citizenship education, Summerhill staff, many of whom have previously taught in the state sector, are regularly called on to speak to other schools that want to set up youth forums or councils.

Zoe Readhead, Neill's daughter and now headteacher, says she no longer feels the need to justify Summerhill's ethos. The school gets hundreds of hits a day on its website from other schools, parents and teachers anxious to discover how this level of democracy can work.

"Many teachers say that it's very reassuring to know that Summerhill is here, doing what it is doing - because then they know there is another way that works," she says.

"We would expect staff applying here to come prepared with teaching qualifications as this is a small school and we simply do not have the facilities.

"What is even more important is that prospective staff fit in with our self-governing, community lifestyle."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today