Gentle entry to a life on earth

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
'What lives in each human being and what can be developed in him or her?' Maureen McTaggart on the Steiner philosophy. How would you like to work in a school where there is no headteacher; where children don't learn to read until they have their permanent teeth; where they are not allowed to do black and white drawings before puberty; and where football is discouraged because the combination of feet and head is considered unhealthy? You wouldn't mind being phoned at home at any time of the day or night, and you could promise to encourage your pupils to view the subject they are studying with a feeling of love.

If all this sounds attractive, you could be considered as a candidate to carry out the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who believed that teachers should focus children's attention on a genuine interest in a particular subject, rather than simply use it to gain good grades.

In his own words: "We shouldn't ask: 'what does a person need to know or be able to do in order to fit into the existing social order?' Instead we should ask 'what lives in each human being and what can be developed in him or her?' The new generation should not be made to be what present society wants it to become."

Eighty years after the Austrian scientist, philosopher, artist and educator opened his first school for workers' children in the Waldorf cigarette factory in Stuttgart, there are now more than 600 Steiner schools worldwide and more than 1,000 kindergartens, all following the same basic principles.

Each of the Steiner schools - also known as Waldorf schools - is autonomous, with its running costs met by the parents. There is no headteacher and the independent schools are managed by a committee of teachers and parents. A "college of teachers" meet frequently to discuss individual students and the work of the school.

Teachers undergo on-going practical and theoretical training where they learn, according to the philosophy, that a child belongs to the spiritual as well as the earthly world, and childhood should be regarded as a gradual process of incarnation into earthly existence, not fully completed until the age of 21.

Although some Steiner teachers have been through the system, like Jeremy Gwyn and Gwert Alkema who both teach at the Steiner school in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire (one of 27 Steiner schools in England), others arrive by a variety of routes, and newly qualified teachers are welcome.

However, NQTs are warned that they must be able to work as part of a group because a Steiner teacher's responsibility is collective, where even the tricky business of sharing out their salaries is discussed over coffee and biscuits. They are either paid according to need, as assessed by themselves and their colleagues, or given a very low flat-rate - which for a new teacher is somewhere between Pounds 9,000-Pounds 10,000 compared to about Pounds 13, 000 for an NQT in a mainstream school.

Teachers say that even this has its benefits: "It colours relationships from the roots up; nothing is being bought."

Gwert Alkema, 34-year-old subject teacher and personal tutor in the upper school, who has been at Kings Langley for eight years, says a job like his demands total dedication and commitment. Though teachers need to be properly qualified for teaching exam subjects in the upper school, they are selected for training on an individual basis, which does not necessarily include paper qualifications.

He says: "We look for the more human qualities in a person because often the job affects life outside the school. Life experience, enthusiasm, and the ability to relate well to the pupils are considered the most important qualities. As a guardianhead of year for 16 to 17-year-olds I have to be available to them 24 hours a day. Pupils must be confident they can always approach me".

All teachers in Steiner schools are expected to have completed one of two types of training: either a full-time course for one year with teaching practice in a school, or else study for two years part-time, generally on a Saturday mornings.

Helen Weatherhead (48), who teaches English and religion to Class 2 pupils at Kings Langley says most people tend to opt for the two-year weekend courses because it means they can work while they are training.

Originally from a mainstream background, she got what she describes as "an education conversion" eight years ago while looking for a secondary school for her oldest son: "I have the greatest admiration for state school teachers and what they have to cope with, but I now have the freedom to implement a curriculum that has been carefully worked out to recognise that there is a spiritual dimension to education, and I am able to dovetail the philosophy to suit my own class."

At the kindergarten stage, there are no books, aids to early learning or finished toys. Shells, pine cones, pieces of wood and coloured cloth are used by children for a purpose he or she chooses. New teachers usually start in the lower school (6 to 14) where a simple unhurried life begins. A teacher is expected to stay with the children until they are 14. The aim is to develop mutual trust and respect. They are then handed over to "exam" teachers in the upper school where the emphasis shifts slightly.

Although pupils have the same class guardian for the four-year upper school period, they have a variety of teachers for specialist subjects who form a team to prepare the students for GCSEs and A-levels, which are taken a year later than at mainstream schools.

NQTs who feel they might not possess the stamina to last the required initial eight-year stint as a Steiner teacher can become exam teachers. However, pupils are not streamed, so are not excluded from a lesson simply because he or she will not be taking the subject at GCSE or A-level.

Jeremy Gwyn points out that: "Because of our philosophy, children are not excluded from lessons. The school aims to provide the children with a broad teaching to prepare them for the world."

Sally Jenkinson, who taught at Kings Langley for several years and whose children have gone from there to successful careers, maintains that "lessons at the schools are designed to retain the children's enthusiasm rather than give them indigestion from too much dry facts".

For information about Steiner schools, contact the Steiner Schools Fellowship, Orlingbury House, Lewes Road, Forest Row, Sussex RH18 5AA. Tel: 01342 822115

The Steiner curriclum divides into three stages:

* The kindergarten stage, from four to six, places emphasis on activity at a stage when children develop by practical experience and imitation.

* The second stage (6 to 14) shifts to the imagination and emotions when children see adults as the source of wisdom and goodness.

* The third stage (14-18) concentrates on intellectual abstration and anaylsis, when it is considered that children are capable of clear, informed and directed thinking.

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