6th November 2009 at 00:00
Graeme Whiting's Acorn School is Steiner-inspired; that means no public exams, no TV or computers for juniors, but plenty of camping trips for all

What first attracted you to Steiner education?

I was teaching at a public school when my wife died of cancer in her 20s. I had a young daughter in prep school and was thinking about what was right for her now that I was a single parent. I went to see a Steiner school and it grabbed me immediately. I liked the way academic work was not forced on children before they were ready. They have to develop a certain level of thinking and understanding before they can access information. It is a gradual process.

Why did you decide to set up your own school?

I wanted to create a more stable environment that only consists of families who actively support the school's charter. The Acorn School is for a specific type of parent with views that are similar to my own. It sounds elitist, but it is not. We get pupils from all walks of life. It just gives parents who want something a bit different, a choice.

What is your attitude to modern technology?

I believe that natural development is far better than development through the use of electronics. I am a great supporter of modern technology but I will not let children be exploited by companies trying to sell their wares or let them use it when they are at a very impressionable age. Technology is a useful tool for adults, not a toy for children. We do not allow pupils to use computers, electronic games or television until they turn 14 and join the upper school.

Do you have any discipline problems?

We have no formal discipline procedures and barely any trouble. If someone is out of order, I find out the reason why, much like any other family group would. I say we do not allow drugs, alcohol or smoking, and I mean it. There is no way they would break the rules if it means they will have to leave the school. I believe that pupils should have what is good for them and not what is bad for them. It is not a rite of passage to experiment with drugs. We see where that leads in society all the time. We should not throw old-fashioned values away. It is very important for children to have clear boundaries.

How important is learning outside the classroom?

If you do not want pupils to drink, take drugs or smoke, you have got to give them something better to do instead. Every three weeks, I take the teenagers away for a weekend - mountain biking, surfing, walking, watersports and climbing in South Wales. The pupils prepare all the food themselves and we sleep under canvas. They absolutely love it. We also have one-week summer and winter camps in Wales. Every three years we go on a tour of Europe - 20 teenagers travelling more than 4,000 miles as part of the history, art and architecture curriculum. It means a month out of term time, but it is worth every minute.

Why did you ditch public examinations?

I went to a grammar school, which pushed us to answer certain questions on a certain day of the year. That is not appropriate in the modern word. The national curriculum has been ridiculously corrupted and watered down. It is narrowly centred on preparing pupils for the workplace, whereas our curriculum is centred on the individual and their place in the future.

We are the only school in Britain that has direct entry to university without any public exams. Each pupil learns 12 subjects every year. We have internal assessments, very high standards and teach a university-type module based on self-research at 18 in lieu of A-levels. No one has ever been refused a place by university. About half receive unconditional offers.

How closely do you work with parents?

We hold hands with the parents to support their children. Our teachers conduct home visits two to three times a year so that we can really get to know the parents and we have three parents' evenings a year, which parents are required to attend. Parents are children's most important influence. You cannot detach education from their home or background. It is a team effort to educate a child.

What is wrong with the state system today?

Schools are too big and impersonal. I am a great believer in group dynamics, and I think when you have 700 pupils or more that can get out of kilter. Standards are also too low. It is not teachers' fault; it is the system that constantly forces schools to reach targets and climb the league tables. I am more interested in developing able, upright citizens with strong positive values than teaching pupils how to jump through hoops.

If you were Schools Secretary for a day, what would you do?

Remove all exams and trust headteachers with internal assessments. It is wrong and archaic to give pupils one chance and two hours to prove themselves in an exam. It does not prepare them for the modern world. There is a better way to do it and all the pupils here benefit from it hugely.

What three words sum up your school?

Child-centred, excellence and holistic.

Acorn School


1991-: Founded and headed the Acorn School, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire

1988-91: Teacher at the Hereford Waldorf School, Herefordshire

1986-88: Teacher at Wynstones School, Gloucester

1974-86: Head of PE and chairman of Rudolf Steiner School, Kings Langley, Hertfordshire

1973-74: Head of PE at Shrewsbury House Preparatory School, Surbiton, Surrey

1969-73: PE master at Dean Close Public School, Cheltenham

1962-69: Served in the British Army.


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