Tuesday, December 29, 2009

No Easy Answers in 21st Century Learning

From 'Children & Young People Now', 10 December 2009 by Howard Williamson

UK Youth hosted a conference at Windsor Castle at the end of November on the future of learning. Chaired by yours truly, it sought to examine and debate what kinds of learning young people need for the 21st century, including "non-formal" learning.

Keynote contributors were Guy Claxton, author of What's the Point of School? and Richard Pring, leader of the Nuffield 14 to 19 education review and co-author of the recent Education for All. Tim Loughton, the shadow children's minister, took part in a panel debate. Though only a small number of people were physically present, it is estimated that 20,000 individuals followed the proceedings closely.

The ideas produced were very different from the developments around academies, the preferred educational trajectory of both the government and the opposition.

These flagship schools were meant to promote both economy (through private sector investment) and excellence, but seem to have done neither. There has been a triple whammy of negative publicity in recent weeks. First, the United Learning Trust, which runs 17 such schools, was banned from taking on any more until standards in its existing schools improved. Second, many of the sponsors who were meant to pledge in the region of a tenth of the overall investment in a new academy have actually contributed nowhere near that amount. And then - the icing on the cake - the new primary school league tables report that the school with the worst average point score (nil point!) is an academy: the first publicly funded Steiner school in the UK, the Steiner Academy in Hereford.

Paradoxically, Steiner is on a bit of a roll at the moment. The Cambridge Review of Primary Education, the first of its kind for 40 years, appears to have endorsed much of the thinking and many of the approaches that have always been advocated in Steiner education: learning through play, not starting formal school until the age of six, a commitment to a broader curriculum, a resistance to teaching to the test, and attention to an individual's spiritual and emotional needs. This approach, traditionally dismissed as rather wishy-washy, has recently been applauded by shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, for producing commendable and credible education outcomes. The Tories appear to be leaning towards closer engagement with the Steiner movement and an interest in its "nurturing capacity".

So how will the Tories deal with the Hereford scenario? We don't know, any more than we really know the school's level of educational performance. Although the sponsors applied successfully for academy status, the parents refused to let their children take the national tests. Will this remain an isolated incident or the start of things to come? Have parents and others (like many at the Windsor conference) finally had enough of politically inspired knee-jerk educational nonsense? We'll see.

Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan

Friday, December 11, 2009

Steiner 'cult' is an ethos that fosters humanity

Published in The TES on 11 December, 2009 | By: Catherine Paver

Last week the very first state-funded Steiner school in England appeared in the national league table for 11-year-olds' test results - at the very bottom.

But the school is not ashamed, nor should it be. The parents of pupils at the Hereford Steiner Academy had wanted their children to have a Steiner education, and that means no uniforms, no hierachy among the teaching staff - and no tests. So the parents simply withdrew their children from the Sats.

Many myths are circulated on the internet about Steiner schools, which can make them sound like part of a sinister global cult. But while some of the philosophy behind them can seem hippy-ish, the myths are usually unfounded. I know, because I taught in a Steiner school in South Africa for three years.

There was no head and all the teachers were paid the same salary. Equality was a tangible thing: pupils, teachers, cleaners and parents all chatted at the staffroom kettle. Pupils at the school generally liked what they did. But they did not do whatever they liked, and lessons were compulsory. Each child has the same class teacher for seven years, so the teachers gain authority from knowing the pupils so well.

Being taught formally from the age of seven, rather than earlier, did not lose the pupils anything at all. I was delighted to see Steiner schools in England gain an exemption recently from the Early Years Foundation Stage requirement to teach literacy before the age of seven. Certainly at the school where I taught in South Africa, the pupils' handwriting was clear and fluent.

The academic curriculum also suited the development of the child in ways that I found sensible, not flaky. In history, for example, the pupils studied revolutions at the age of 14, when they themselves are in the grip of violent hormonal conflicts. They related to the topic at an emotional level, which helped motivation.

So why, then, did Plymouth University axe its undergraduate course in Steiner teaching earlier this term? It gave a "lack of interest" as its reason for dropping the only course of its kind in Britain.

I can't help wondering if it was the weirdness of anthroposophy, the Steiner form of spirituality, that may have put applicants off. As one mother wrote online: "I'd sell my granny to send my kids there if it wasn't for anthroposophy!"

So what is anthroposophy? First, it is never taught to pupils. Meaning "wisdom of man", it is Rudolf Steiner's description of human development, seen in spiritual terms such as the "astral and etheric bodies". Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and reformer, who founded his first school in 1919 for the children of workers in the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. An inspired thinker and reformer, he was still a man of his time: the era of European transcendentalism.

His philosophy ensures that children are treated as rounded individuals rather than measured as units of production. Meanwhile, since freedom is crucial to the Steiner philosophy, they - and the teachers - are free to think his spiritual views are bonkers.

I was once told that a baby should not be taken on an aeroplane because its spiritual and physical bodies have not yet combined. Well, I suppose you would cry too if you had left your soul on the runway. While such claims may be odd, the latent spirituality behind them gives these schools a valuable breadth of sympathy. It's what Steiner called "receiving a child with reverence" and "solving its riddle, from hour to hour". It taught me the value of lateral thinking and keeping calm in conflict resolution.

Take Peter's story. "Right now, his soul is black," said his teacher. Weird - but it was said with compassion, and freed up discussion on how to help him. In time, we found that angry Peter loved making puppets, which improved his behaviour. Would discussion of mark schemes have done the same?

Not all Steiner teachers are anthroposophists. How many teachers share the spiritual beliefs of their school's founder? I never have. And most beliefs look odd from a distance. I have worked in a Catholic school, whose kind, sensible teachers wore miniature instruments of torture (crucifixes) and pretended to drink blood (Mass). It didn't bother me because they were nice people.

Steiner schools are not a "cult", because a cult wants to be a religion when it grows up. Steiner's ideas simply serve the good of the child.

Nik Voigt, a filmmaker and photographer, attended a Steiner school and then a mainstream school as a pupil. He attributes his chosen career to his very first lesson at the Steiner school. "The teacher said, 'Everything is made up of lines and curves.' It may sound simple but it opened my eyes." In a state school, he felt he lost contact with his creativity. "In art lessons we were told, 'This is how you draw a jam jar.' What can you do with that?"

What Steiner schools cultivate is something that underpins creativity and imagination: humanity. Steiner wrote that "the new generation should not just be made to be what present society wants it to become". A valuable statement today, when sometimes it feels as if that is all we are doing.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Steiner schools - has their time come?

Steiner schools are hoping the time could soon come for them to be given state funding. Are they right?

From The Guardian, Tuesday 1 December 2009, by Adharanand Finn

"Children should start school at six", screamed the national newspapers a few weeks ago on the day the biggest review into primary education in 40 years, the Cambridge Review, was published. It was a strange moment for the 31 Steiner schools across the country. Here was a central plank of their philosophy, which on every other day of the year was regarded by many as marginal, woolly and even backward, being proclaimed to the nation as the answer to its educational woes.
Of course, the Cambridge Review was about more than the age children should start formal education, but those headlines rang like a great call to action through the Steiner community. The Steiner Fellowship, the umbrella organisation for the mostly fee-paying schools, immediately issued a response welcoming the report.
"We are convinced that a later start to formal learning allows children to experience the joy of learning without unhealthy stress or the risk of early burn-out," it said. "We hope the findings [of the review] are taken seriously."
Theresa Trapp, a kindergarten teacher at the Exeter Steiner school, was less diplomatic. "It's about damn time," she said. "Children learn so much through play. It's about time we realised that."
The Cambridge Review also seemed to concur with the Steiner approach on a number of other issues, such as the need for a broader curriculum, less focused on "the three Rs", and that testing pupils for the sake of school accountability, namely Sats, was detrimental.
Everything seemed to align further when, a few days later, the archbishop of Canterbury condemned the English education system as "oppressive" for prioritising test marks over children's spiritual or emotional happiness. Steiner has long trumpeted its aim of addressing the needs of the "whole child", including its spiritual and emotional wellbeing.
The optimism all this generated in Steiner schools was only slightly tempered by the immediate rejection of the Cambridge Review's key findings by the government and the Tory party.
But behind the scenes the Conservatives had been making friendly noises towards Steiner schools. The shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, paid a visit to the Meadow Steiner school in Bruton, Somerset in June and came away "very impressed".
"From my visit today," he said, "it is clear to me that the children at the Meadow school benefit from a very nurturing environment, and while the education is based on alternative principles, they also end up with an impressive record of literacy and numeracy. This is just the kind of environment and parental interaction that we should be encouraging."
This was followed by the announcement of the Tories' new schools policy, which would make it easier for independent schools based on alternative methods to access state funding. The policy is based in part on the successful charter schools in the US, many of which are Steiner schools.
A few weeks ago, the Steiner movement held a special pre-election seminar, Moving Forward, with Conservative special adviser Sam Freedman, who turned up to explain how Steiner schools could benefit under a future Tory government.
To qualify for funding, schools would need to have a business plan, to be non-selective, to be inspected and, for reasons of accountability, reach a certain minimum benchmark in terms of exam passes, he said. The schools would also need to demonstrate enough parental demand. Most Steiner schools would happily meet these requirements.
Sylvie Sklan, from the Steiner Fellowship, however, is keen to point out that though the Tories may make state funding more accessible, the big breakthrough for the public funding of Steiner schools has already happened - when Britain's first completely state-funded Steiner academy became a reality in Hereford last year.
"The precedent that Steiner schools could be state-funded was set then," she says. "And we have to be thankful to the Labour government for that."
Despite long waiting lists for pupils to join the academy, the reason a raft of other state-funded Steiner schools haven't followed in its wake, says Sklan, is not a lack of political will, but "because of resistance from local authorities whose strict regulations are designed for standard schools".
Crucially, however, under the Tory plans authorities would not have the same powers to block new schools opening.
On the same night as the Moving Forward seminar, the world premiere of the film We Are The People We've Been Waiting For took place in Leicester Square. The film, produced by Lord Puttnam, is a critique of all that is wrong with the state education system.
The film argues that by focusing too much on rigid academic skills, schools are failing children. It suggests that, at its best, our education system is turning out foot soldiers who may struggle to adapt. At its worst, it is a "scandalous waste" of young people's talents.
Sklan says Steiner education avoids these pitfalls by not simply focusing on the transfer of knowledge and skills, but on "nurturing capacities and supporting the development of the whole child". This, she says, leads to adults who are able to think for themselves and excel in an ever-changing world.
Along with the Cambridge Review and the encouragement from the Tories, many involved with Steiner are beginning to think of this as a "moment" for the schools. With one state school up and running, it remains to be seen if Steiner can capitalise on this alignment of voices in its favour and make the leap into the mainstream, as it has in other countries such as Germany and the US; or whether, once all the noise has died down, its unconventional methods will remain on the fringes of our educational approach.