Steiner sets its sights on the poor

1st August 2008 at 01:00
Deprived city kids are in line for holistic learning to improve self- esteem

The Steiner movement is setting its sights on opening inner-city state schools to prove its approach can work with the most disadvantaged pupils, it has emerged.

The first Steiner state school - the Hereford Waldorf Academy - will open next month in the village of Much Dewchurch, having won government backing for its holistic, arts-based curriculum.

But the Steiner-Waldorf fellowship wants to expand into inner cities and has a long-term goal of opening up to 10 state-funded schools. There are 26 private Steiner schools in the UK, but most are in rural and middle- class areas.

Sylvie Sklan, lead representative of the national fellowship, said she was determined to show that children from poor backgrounds, who often struggle to fulfil their potential in mainstream schools, would thrive under the Steiner system.

"Our approach gives children a very strong sense of self-worth," she said. "Lots of children in cities know how to survive, but don't have the confidence to ask questions. When you have closed down like that, you don't learn any more."

The Steiner approach emphasises practical crafts, including woodwork and book-binding, with pupils spending little time learning ICT. The aim of the schools is to develop children's spiritual as well as academic development.

There is no setting or teaching to the test, and no formal focus on developing reading skills until children are 7. In most cases the schools are small - one or two form entry - and are run through from 3 to 16.

"It is engrossing for children to make things themselves," said Ms Sklan. "It makes them forget their aggression to learning. If pupils are engaged in what they are doing, behaviour will not be a problem."

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has backed the Hereford state academy.

But despite the movement's ambitions to expand, it is struggling to find an appropriate site for its first state-funded, inner-city venture. Existing Steiners in urban areas tend to be small sites that are not of a high enough standard to qualify for the academies programme and the money that brings.

St Paul's Steiner school in Islington, north London, is preparing a joint bid for land close to its base in a listed church. If successful, it will be a step closer to being able to bid for state funds.

Jane Gerard, its administration manager, said: "We have massive waiting lists, but are constrained by our building. There is a big interest from Government in creating more diverse schools. It isn't wacky to say, `Let's look at Steiner education.' "

Fees at St Paul's are up to pound;5,500 a year, but 40 per cent of its pupils get a discount because their family's income is less than pound;30,000 a year.

"We teach children from ordinary families and they are very enthusiastic about what we do," said Ms Gerard. "But we can't reach children from very poor homes because everyone has to pay something. Becoming a state school would mean everyone could benefit."

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