Steiner's ethos could move the heart of mainstream thinking
The Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner opened the first of his schools in Germany, in 1919. Thereafter, he became an increasingly big name in education. In 1922, he spoke at a conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, after which one journalist wrote that the entire congress "found its central point in the personality of Dr Rudolf Steiner". The pioneering educationist was soon invited to lecture on education at Oxford university. Other lectures followed in other cities, and in 1925 - the year of his death - the first Steiner Waldorf school in England opened in south London. Today, there are 27 of the schools in Britain.
Now, Steiner education is back in the news. The first state-funded Steiner school is due to open in Hereford in September.If it goes ahead, the Hereford Waldorf school will become the Hereford Steiner academy, bringing together an unlikely union of Steiner's unorthodox ideas and Tony Blair's city academies programme.
This is seen as a test case for other state-funded Steiner schools. The new building, which will stand alongside the present one, will cost about pound;10 million, most of it funded by the state. While there is some local opposition - Hereford residents feel the money should be spent on rural schools and there are concerns about traffic problems - the real clash is likely to be between Steiner's education ethos and the standardisation he felt was endemic to state schools. State education, he believed, produces an individual useful merely to the state, but not to himself. If there is one thing his education aims to produce it is a fully developed human individual.
Steiner education focuses on the whole child - "head, hands and heart" - and much of its practice is geared towards a curriculum that is not generally found in most schools. Children sculpt, weave, bake, dance, do gardening and other hands-on activities, promoting a more immediate relation to their environment and their own creativity.
Probably the most unusual aspect of the schools is that reading is not taught until after the age of seven. Steiner's reasons for this are complex, but the gist is that too early a focus on reading can inhibit a child's imagination. Before the age of seven, he believed, children's relation to the world is largely imitative, and an abstract skill such as reading is unsuitable for them.
As a reader and a father of two boys attending a Steiner school, I balked at this. Yet seeing my lively, curious sons going to school since they were toddlers, I gave Steiner the benefit of the doubt. My oldest, now eight, is reading steadily and his brother, six, is right behind him.
Another difference is that parents often get involved. At my sons' school in north London, parents have transformed a derelict church into an encouraging, even inspiring environment, and in the process undergone an education themselves.
Testing isn't usually a part of Steiner education, but the new Steiner academy will be obliged to provide a broad and balanced curriculum and pupils will have to sit national tests in English, maths and science.
Predictably, this cuts the controversy down the middle. Purists are concerned that state funding could be used to coerce Steiner schools into adopting more orthodox methods. Traditional educationists are doubtful about schools based on spiritual principles and which eschew rigorous testing. State funding could make Steiner education available to more children, but there is a danger of it being watered down or, conversely, of creating a tiered system.
There is only one way to know. Steiner, I believe, reservations notwithstanding, would be pleased with this development. Rather than lose its unique character, perhaps the Steiner ethos will rub off on a school system often obsessed with the benefits of tests, and offer to that system a wider notion of what education is about.
Gary Lachman is the author of Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to his Life and Work (TarcherPenguin, 2007), available from www.amazon.co.uk