Steiner schools opt for vouchers
The Steiner educational philosophy emphasises that social, moral and aesthetic development is more important for very young children than formal learning: children are not taught to read before the age of six or seven.
The Steiner approach is widely accepted on the Continent - the schools receive state funding in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia - but in Britain it sits uneasily with the current concern about standards of literacy and numeracy.
Last week the New School in Wroxham - a kindergarten that aspires to the Steiner method, although it is not recognised as a Steiner school by the foundation - was one of the first two nurseries to be failed by the Office for Education. The news has raised questions about whether private nurseries with unorthodox methods should expect to receive public money through the voucher scheme.
The inspection of nurseries is under fire on two fronts: early-years specialists say the Government's "desirable outcomes" framework imposes an inappropriately narrow vision of nursery education, thus restricting parental choice, while the Labour party argues that public money will be wasted on sub-standard nurseries being passed by inexperienced inspectors.
Martyn Rawson, a member of the Steiner-Waldorf Foundation steering group, said he expected OFSTED would be inspecting one of the foundation's nurseries as a test-case. The result would determine whether any of the other 54 would have any chance of being approved.
"This is going to be very tricky for OFSTED," he said. "They will inspect one kindergarten and then we'll have a clarification of criteria. We hope they will realise that they are looking at a different approach."
The Steiner movement has had several meetings with OFSTED recently in an effort to explain that its schools achieve good academic results by a different route. Whether the "test-case" kindergarten passes muster may depend also on how well informed individual inspectors are about different approaches to child development and nursery education. Many of the inspectors have experience of only one type of nursery.
Mr Rawson points out that Wynstones Rudolf Steiner School in Gloucestershire, which takes pupils from two and a half until 18, received a good OFSTED report.
The report says that although pupils start reading late, "by the end of key stage 2 standards are broadly in line with national expectations". However, "in the early years of the upper school some pupils continue to experience difficulties when asked to read for specific purposes. In such instances, achievement is unsatisfactory though elsewhere in the upper school standards are good."
A spokesman for OFSTED pointed out that there is a crucial difference between inspecting schools in the private sector and evaluating their suitability for public money through the voucher scheme.
"People can choose to send their children to any sort of school, but if public money is involved, it's a different ball game," he said. "But there's nothing in principle that automatically excludes Steiner nurseries from the voucher system.
"In the end it's up to the individual inspectors, and it's up to the Steiner schools to make sure the inspector does understand their philosophy."
If OFSTED does dismiss the Steiner approach, this would have repercussions for other nurseries that do not conform closely with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's list of "desirable outcomes".
Margaret Lally, vice-chair of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said all this underlined the fact that the voucher scheme was imposed on top of a bewildering variety of nursery provision of varying quality.
"Has anybody considered that our children may be behind their peers in Europe because we are pushing them too young?
"Everybody here assumes that the earlier you do things, the better. But in most European countries they don't start formal learning until seven."