The early years play area at the Steiner Academy Bristol is surrounded by colourful bunting, as if decorated for a rather genteel children’s party. Old-fashioned flip-top desks and blackboards have a quaint retro appeal for any parents with contemporary anxieties about screen time.
The popularity of England’s fourth state-funded Steiner academy, which opened in 2014, is undeniable.
This year, the school – which, when it is full, will educate 624 4- to 16-year-olds – had 125 applications for 26 places in reception, making it one of the most oversubscribed schools in Bristol. According to staff, most interested parents are attracted by the school’s focus on creative arts and crafts and outdoor learning, as well as its reduced emphasis on testing.
But the charming appearance of Steiner schools belies the controversy that they create. For opponents, they are relics of the past in all the wrong ways, based in quasi-religious beliefs and contradictions of science.
The school’s headteacher, Angie Browne, is a former mainstream assistant head who was drawn to alternative approaches.
She argues that her pupils are being prepared for GCSEs in science where they will be judged by the same standards as anyone else. “There isn’t room for massive deviation from any of the curriculum,” she says. But scientists and secularists have criticised the Steiner system and particularly its origins in an occult philosophy called Anthroposophy, devised in the early 20th century by Rudolf Steiner.
This “spiritual science”, which includes a belief in reincarnation, informed Steiner’s view of child development and education.
Spiritual life force
Steiner schools famously delay the teaching of reading until the age of 7, pointing to the success of the approach in Finland. But Steiner himself recommended it because he believed that was the age when the “etheric body” – a kind of spiritual life force – was incarnated in each and every child.
In England, Steiner state schools have been granted certain exemptions from normal requirements to accommodate this belief system. As well as the national curriculum opt-out available to all academies, Steiner schools are also exempt from formal assessment of the Early Years Foundation Stage and from phonics testing, in order to allow them to follow their own timetable for the development of children.
Such accommodations have only added to critics’ concerns. One sceptic, Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of the University of Exeter, said: “Steiner schools seem to have an anti-science agenda which is detrimental to progress… the government makes a grave mistake in allowing pseudoscience and anti-science in our education.”
Joe Evans, who works as business manager at Steiner Academy Bristol, is exasperated by such claims. “I find that very frustrating, because nobody ever gets in touch with us and asks us anything,” he says. “We’re not at all anti-science.”
He also maintains that the school doesn’t deviate from teachings on evolution, although Steiner textbooks have criticised Darwinism.
“What we’re about is the practical system of education, we’re not here to uphold the literal truth of everything that Rudolf Steiner wrote,” Mr Evans says. But if state Steiner schools have moved so far from Rudolf Steiner’s original vision, why is it still necessary to maintain any sort of association at all? The question has a particular poignancy today because of Steiner’s theory of a racial hierarchy, his references to the “totally passive negro soul” and his description of Native Americans as “a degenerated human race”.
At a time when students at the University of Oxford are demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes as a racist, colonialist symbol, how could the school explain this aspect of Steiner’s theories to its multi-ethnic students?
Ms Browne, a London-born black woman, points out that in Bristol everyone lives with the evidence of colonialism and the slave trade all around them. She points out that the city has schools named after Edward Colston, a notable slave-trader who also founded several of Bristol’s institutions.
She says of Steiner’s theory: “I would be thrilled if a child asked that question, because it means that we can start engaging with them in that conversation, and that’s exactly what we’re here to do.”
Sarah Costelloe, assistant head for curriculum and assessment, argues that state funding is allowing Steiner education to evolve. “One of the things that has possibly happened to Steiner education, partly due to a lack of resources, is that it has become a little bit stuck in a certain model,” she says. “Because we’ve got this opportunity in terms of being state-funded, we’re able to move forward with those ideas. I think some of the dogmas that are attached to Steiner education belong very much to a 1950s era of education that we’re moving away from.”
But there are many elements of Steiner education for which the only authority is in the founder’s writings. What is the evidence for restricting students’ access to technology until secondary age, for example?
“That data is only just being generated; what we’re doing is very new,” says Ms Costelloe. It’s an odd thing to say for a system that is nearly a century old.
The academy is keen to demonstrate that it’s not opposed to technology. Alongside the blackboards are digital projectors. Focusing the IT budget on secondary pupils means that it can afford to provide powerful laptops, which staff intend to use for everything from film editing to robotics – eventually. “We’ve got Macs,” says 12-year-old Daniel Hoder. “But they haven’t set them up yet.”
It’s obvious that the school is a work in progress. A large part of the Victorian Gothic site, once home to a teacher training college and now nicknamed “Hogwarts” by the students, is closed for renovation.
Making a school ‘future-proof’
What is more unusual is that this new school is already planning against the possibility that a future government will try to change its character. Mr Evans calls it “future-proofing”. “If a government comes in and says, ‘This “no national curriculum for free schools” has to stop,’ we can then say, ‘OK, here it is,’” he says, outlining the school’s plans for publishing a Steiner curriculum and assessment plan.
“We’re not teaching it in the same order, but we deliver all the objectives and learning outcomes of the national curriculum. You can see we’re not doing anything massively wacky.”
Mr Evans anticipates lower results at key stage 2 because the school will not teach to the test; the school has already made that clear to the Department for Education.
But there are other areas where the academy has had to adjust to the pressures of the mainstream school system. Teachers are expected to gain qualifications in mainstream teaching, as well as in Steiner education, and have developed a formal system for assessing and tracking pupil progress.
Eurythmy, the expressive dance form used in the majority of Steiner schools, has been dropped here after students new to Steiner education were reluctant to engage in it. It may be replaced with tai chi.
And the academy is required to have a lone principal, instead of being run by a collective college of teachers, like in many other Steiner schools.
But Mr Evans says that he doesn’t believe the Steiner vision has been diluted.
“We would see it as a success if in five years, we’re walking around the school and hearing beautiful four-part harmonies coming out from choir lessons in class three and amazing pupil paintings everywhere,” he says.
That’s a vision that clearly attracts many parents, who say at open days that they want a school that is more “unstressed”.
So while debate has focused around whether Steiner schools should be allowed in the state system, perhaps it’s worth asking another question. Why shouldn’t other schools have the choice to reduce external assessment in the way that Steiner academies can?
The Steiner way
How Steiner academies are different from most mainstream state schools:
Focus is placed on manual arts and crafts, as well as academic subjects.
They are all-through schools.
Reading is not taught until age 7.
Exemptions from some requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage.
They have no phonics tests.