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What the league tables won't say

Do you sometimes wish you could find a school that didn't pile the pressure on your children and cause them stress? You probably already have such a school near you, but the annual GCSE performance league tables don't encourage you to discover the attractions of its innovative educational approach.

The trouble is, the school you could be looking for is ranked at the bottom of league tables every year - instead of at the top - simply because of the way the statistics are selected.

These casualties are the 26 Steiner schools across the UK. Steiner schools have proved to be the leading alternative system of education in the UK for more than 80 years, and offer an approach that is more child-orientated and compassionate than the performance-focused national curriculum in conventional schools.

Childhood is too precious to be hurried and Steiner schools prefer to wait until pupils reach 17 before sitting GCSE exams - that's one year later than in most other schools. Unfortunately, the league tables show only the pass rates for 16-year-olds, which means that Steiner schools are often ranked at the bottom of the league with a pass rate of 0 per cent.

The true story about pupil performance at these schools could not be more encouraging. Although Steiner schools do not select on academic ability, they are achieving around double the national average pass rates when GCSEs are taken at age 17.

Is it too much for the tables' compilers to publish Steiner schools' high pass rates, with an asterisk and a footnote to explain the year's delay?

The Government's aim in publishing results was to help parents make choices - but by showing zero per cent pass rates for Steiner schools, the league tables offer no comfort to parents who appreciate the value of qualifications, but are also looking for something "fuller" from an education.

In truth, most parents choose Steiner schools for broader reasons than results: the development in each child of a respect for all things - including themselves - and a strong sense of social responsibility and spiritual values.

In fact the Steiner and national curriculum have large areas of overlap, and with its developmental and moral ethos, Steiner education offers one of the most rounded and positive learning experiences a child could ever hope to have.

WB Yeats wroe that "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire", and now I know exactly what he meant. My five and six-year-old daughters attend Wynstones - a Steiner school in Gloucester - and I have already witnessed profound changes in their outlook and enjoyment of life, as well as growth in their abilities. We all enjoy a far more peaceful home life now too.

As a parent, I found the Steiner school to have much to contrast with the state system, and plenty to surprise and delight me. For example, youngsters are given time to explore childhood in kindergarten until age seven, whereas in conventional schools they must sit still for lessons at the age of only four.

From early years, pupils are learning to cook and bake, sew and knit, and sow and reap in the kitchen garden - life skills that are so grounding and confidence-building for children finding their way in the world. Alongside all this runs the full range of academic subjects including two foreign languages.

Music, art and movement are treated as more than just lessons for developing the children's individuality. They are used as powerful learning tools in all areas, from languages to science and mathematics.

And there are no nerve-wracking internal exams to steal away the children's energy, right up until mock GCSE time. Instead, pupils receive formative assessment monitoring, to check their growth in human, social and academic spheres.

After just a term as a Steiner parent, I am so glad I made the switch. I have every hope that my girls will eventually head off into life with probably the greatest of gifts that any parent can wish for them: high self-esteem and confidence, and a real desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

With the social and environmental problems of the world now touching the lives of billions, I feel we really do need new leaders with a more holistic vision than those of the past. My imagination is that those leaders may already be growing among us, at a school near you. But don't expect the league tables to help you find them.

Neil Henderson lives with his wife and two Steiner-educated children in Stroud, Gloucestershire. The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship in Forest Row, Sussex can be contacted on 01342 822115, or by visiting its website:

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