Steiner schools put play first and shun hot-housing. So what will happen when the first one becomes an academy and brings in national tests?David Marley visited Hereford Waldorf to find out
With arms circling, and in some cases flailing, students participate gamely in their spiritual dance class. "I breathe the song into the air," chants their teacher, "it fell to earth I know not where."
The dance, which originated in Steiner schools, is just one of the unique activities that set these bastions of alternative education apart from the mainstream.
But from this September, the Hereford Waldorf School in the village of Much Dewchurch, near Hereford, will be the first Steiner school to become a state school academy.
Its methods are a world away from the target-driven culture of many maintained schools. But as debate over the national testing regime continues, the Government is making an unprecedented bid to widen parental choice by welcoming it into the state sector.
The move comes as other Steiner advocates are gearing up for a battle over the Early Years Foundation Stage (see box). The new national curriculum for under-fives stipulates that five-year-olds should be able to write their own name among other things. But at Hereford Waldorf, children are not taught to read until seven and leave school with just three GCSEs.
Newly agreed academies have to teach the national curriculum in core subjects. But the Hereford school struck its deal before that rule was introduced and will not teach the national curriculum at all.
"The Government has never wavered in saying we want you in because you are different," says Trevor Mepham, the school's principal designate. "They have always said our curriculum is our strength. We aren't going to put that aside for a hatful of GCSEs, knowing that doing so would create an uneasy compromise of our philosophy."
For pupils and teachers, that philosophy translates into a holistic approach focusing on spiritual as well as academic development.
There is a strong tradition of crafts, including book-binding and woodwork, and minimal ICT. Pupils spend time outside every day for gardening, exercise or play. There is no setting, streaming, constant assessment or hot-housing.
"If you watch a young child play, there's nothing frivolous about it," said Mr Mepham. "They are developing important qualities for the rest of their lives."
One concession the school has made is that pupils will take national tests at 11 and 14. With no national curriculum preparation or exam drilling, the results will be hotly anticipated by all sides of the testing debate.
Pupils currently take GCSEs in English literature, English language and maths, with impressive results. Last year, from a cohort of 21, just one failed to get an A* to C grade in all three subjects. Pupils also take courses accredited by the Open College Network.
When it becomes an academy for three to 16-year-olds, the school will offer five GCSEs or equivalent.
Its transformation comes as the Government announced an acceleration of the academy programme, with 243 schools due to open by 2010, ten more than planned.
Currently housed in a converted barn, a farmhouse and a collection ramshackle temporary classrooms, the Hereford school is in desperate need of new facilities.
Although it ostensibly charges fees of up to pound;4,000 a year, parents only pay what they can afford, with many making up the difference by volunteering or helping to fundraise. Lack of funds also keeps full-time teachers' salaries at just pound;14,500 a year.
Improving its humble resources is an important reason for seeking state funding, Mr Mepham admits.
"But we also don't want to be elitist," he says. "State funding will provide greater access to children who might not otherwise benefit from our approach. We are different and there are elements of good practice that we can offer."
The local council is due to rule in the next week on a planning dispute that will determine the academy's size. The school wants to expand its student roll from 270 to 330, but village residents have complained about the extra traffic that will be created.
Whatever the outcome, the school will get a pound;10 million capital budget, with the Government picking up the majority of the bill. Ministers are expected to sign off its funding agreement this month.
Greta Rushbrooke, a founding teacher who has been at the school since 1983, said it was time to change. "There has always been this label that Steiner is a bit weird," she said. "But this will let the country know how wonderful Steiner education is."
EARLY YEARS DISPUTE
Steiner schools are involved in a fierce dispute over the new curriculum for under-fives, which is due to be in place this September.
As first reported in The TES, a parents' group from Wynstones, a Gloucestershire Steiner school, is threatening to take legal action under human rights laws to protect the way their children are educated.
The Early Years Foundation Stage draws together different guidelines for educating young children and sets standards for them to reach by the age of five, including being able to write their own name and being able to read a range of words and understand some basic phonics.
The guidance will become the legal duty of all state and independent nursery schools and childminders.
Steiner schools do not teach reading until age seven, placing them in a difficult position. The importance of play is fundamental to early-years development in Steiner schools.
Armando Iannucci, the comedian and writer, this week joined a growing group of dissenters who have backed the Open EYE (early years education) campaign, which criticises the new curriculum.