Monday, November 22, 2010

Approching Steiner - Article by Phoebe Doyle

"Phoebe Doyle takes an historical, philosophical and practical look at Steiner education, an approach that, almost 100 years since the first school opened, still sparks inspiration, debate and controversy."
Eye Magazine December 2010

View the full article "Approaching Steiner" - download the pdf here. (Approaching-Steiner-20101122.pdf 1861kb).

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship welcomes the review of the Early Years Foundation Stage

The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship welcomes the review of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

Following the announcement on Tuesday 6th July that there will be a review of the Early Years’ Foundation Stage, the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship is looking forward to contributing to it. As a reply to the governments intended focus on ‘getting children ready for education’, we will respond on the importance of regarding the early years as a distinct and important phase of a child’s life, rather than simply a pre-curser to school.
We support the themes and principles of the EYFS, and hope it will continue to provide a play-based approach to children’s learning and development. However, we have found that the statutory nature of the Assessment regulations and Learning and Development requirements have conflicted with many of the well established principles of Steiner early childhood education. This has resulted in a complicated and bureaucratic exemptions process for Steiner teachers and parents. Further, the requirement to assess against the numerous points in the EYFS profile at age 5 holds no value as our children generally remain in the kindergarten until their seventh year when they begin their first introduction to formal learning, in line with many other countries with highly successful education systems throughout the world.

As our schools have to apply for the second round of exemptions in 2011, we hope that a mechanism can be put in place to allow for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship to make a collective application on behalf of all our settings. We also hope that issues related to the new-style funding formula will be resolved in a way that allows practitioners to continue their vital work for young children.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Young musician hopes to bring aid to Africa

Silas Beardslee had graduated from High Mowing School and was ready to enroll as a theater major at The University of New Hampshire four years ago. Instead, he took a detour and went to the college of life — in Zimbabwe.
by By NICOLE S. COLSON, Sentinel Staff, Thursday June 03 2010 - see original article here.

Beardslee, 21, of Keene, performs Friday at The Starving Artist in Keene to raise money for a project he envisioned during that 2006 trip to Africa.

That summer, he attended a camp in northern New Hampshire where a man from Zimbabwe was sponsored to work for the season. “We had an incredible connection I couldn’t put words to,” Beardslee said of Balance Chibangwa, who later became like a brother to him. “He described his triumphs and struggles, the landscape and the people (of Zimbabwe),” Beardslee said. “He told me his life story and I told him mine.” Chibangwa invited Beardslee to stay with him in Zimbabwe. “I saw it as an incredible opportunity,” he said.

He deferred his college application and saved up some money, and was able to visit Zimbabwe for four months from December of 2006 to March of 2007. Chibangwa was getting married in December, and asked Beardslee if he’d be his best man. Of course, he accepted.

“It made me realize I wasn’t ready for school,” he said of his experience in Zimbabwe.

Although Beardslee said he still is in love with the arts and has a far-off vision of becoming a drama teacher, his experience in Zimbabwe made him realize

there was much more to what he was wishing for.

Beardslee now has a house in the rural village of Rimbi (population 3,000) in Zimbabwe, a brick and plaster thatched roof, one-room circular hut. He built it next to Chibangwa’s small three-room house. He learned the native language, and helped his friend run his small grocery store in town and with his wedding preparations. “I had no agenda other than to immerse myself as much as possible in the people and the culture.” He was even given a Shona name by the village chief.

Beardslee noticed early on there are a lot of starving people in Rimbi, but it’s not because there’s not enough food to go around. Because the people of Zimbabwe have endured such hardship, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, people tend to think about their own families first and foremost. Because so many families are affected by the disease, often there is only one parent left to farm land and feed the family.

“Working together isn’t really a thought,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and attention whereas most time and attention is focused on getting meals for the family.” There is also a lack of work in Zimbabwe, which means many leave to find jobs and cannot farm their own land.

Beardslee and Chibangwa came up with the idea to start a community farming project wherein people of Rimbi could farm shared land and share the harvest from that land.

Beardslee said he left Zimbabwe a totally changed person with full knowledge he’d return. He didn’t feel ready to take the project on then. Instead, he travelled for two years, including to Sweden, where he led a youth initiative project that focused on social change. The connections he made there and the skills he learned from his studies, he said, gave him the tools and ideas to put his vision for the Rimbi Farming Project into motion.

He went back to Zimbabwe last year for a five-week internship, during which he asked villagers in Rimbi what they thought of the idea for the farm. They were very receptive. The farm will be biodynamic — a method of holistic organic farming created by the founder of Waldorf education. Beardslee attended the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene.

The project is still in its visioning stage; in the meantime, Beardslee formed a non-profit organization to accept donations. He hopes to raise $30,000. So far, he has been using his musical talents toward that goal. He began playing guitar two-and-a-half years ago because he had written poetry about his first trip to Zimbabwe and he wanted to put it to music. He has performed a few shows in the area (there is one tonight in Jaffrey also) and he plans to do more.

No matter how much money he raises, he will go back to Zimbabwe in October to live and get the project off the ground. The village chief donated five hectares (equal to about two-and-a-half acres) of land villagers will be able to farm, and the money raised will go toward tools and the building of a barn. The focus crops will be maize (corn), a food staple in Zimbabwe; watermelon, squash and pumpkin.

Sadly, Chibangwa died early this year as a result of injuries he sustained in a car accident. Although Beardslee said he is still processing his friend’s death, it only fuelled him to continue. “This incredible human being would not want me to stop the work he shared the vision of,” he said.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Why British children are pushed too hard

British children are pushed too hard, too early at school. One writer explains how daughters read less but learnt a lot more in Africa.
From The Times, January 5, 2010 by Penny Marshall

When we took Jessie, our four-year-old daughter, away from her reception class at a London primary school and plonked her in a school in South Africa, we knew that the contrast would be drastic. We didn't know how fundamentally it would change her - and change our views on primary education.

Jessica, like her two younger sisters, was of course destined for the best secondary school that we could find, and that had meant early precision planning almost from the moment of conception to get her into the best primary feeder school for secondary success. For that success, whether in the state or the private sector, doesn't come easily.

So we moved house into the catchment area for the best state school and also took Jessie, then aged 3, to be "tested" at a series of private London day schools. I remember her being led away from us by a kindly elderly lady in a two-piece woollen suit to be interviewed on her own. She was still almost a toddler.

The pair disappeared behind a large oak-panelled door and I was left in the hall, thinking that the assessor had power over my daughter's entire educational future.

When Jessie was "selected" for the private day school, we accepted the place and I was certain that we had set her on a clear path to adult success. She soon started at the single-sex hothouse school, which "guaranteed" excellent entry results to many of the leading London day schools. I felt that I could relax: job done.

Jessie had been unable to read at all when she started school four months after her fourth birthday, but she sprinted through the Biff and Chip books that she brought home faster than I could tick them off on the parental reading chart. Faster, I noticed with some satisfaction, than many of her little classmates with whose mothers I discreetly compared progress each day in the playground.

I dismissed Jessie's morning tummy aches as normal pre-school nerves that she would soon grow out of. Neither did I think it odd at the time that one of her four-year-old friends was being taken to and from school in a pushchair, frantically sucking her thumb and stroking a muslin cloth. Her mother explained that the long school day "left her too exhausted to walk".

When my husband was offered a job in South Africa in the spring of Jessie's first school year, the only downside seemed to be that, for the two years we would be there, our daughters would miss out on their excellent English primary education. I remember promising Jessie's head teacher that she would keep up her Oxford Reading Tree commitments when she started her new life under African skies. The need to stay "on target" for that 11-plus, even in Africa, was paramount.

In return, the school said that it would keep Jessie's place open for her until we came back to Britain. All I had to do was to hire a tutor for her in South Africa because formal education there doesn't begin until the age of 6 or 7. Jessie was facing a two-year "book-free zone" - a potential academic disaster.

In fact, it didn't take me long to realise that two years without books was the best gift that any mother could have given a child emerging from that early English educational experience.

From the day Jessie was assessed in South Africa, it was clear that we had a problem. In London she was judged "highly academic". In South Africa she was designated "special needs". Pretoria, the state capital, was teeming with the children of diplomats and NGO workers from all over the world and educationists there were used to dealing with the offspring of their international visitors. "Don't worry," the child psychologist told me, "we see this all the time with children from your private and public [state] schools. Your system just doesn't develop the whole child."

There was I, bursting with pride because Jessie was practically reading Harry Potter at the age of 4, being told that there was a problem because she couldn't stand on one leg and maintain balance for any length of time with her eyes closed.

It took us four months of swimming, tree-climbing and sunshine to get Jessie out of the "monkey puzzle" room (their term for special needs) and a further two months of bush walking, beaches, African singing and trampolining to forget about the tutor altogether and donate all her Oxford Reading Tree books to charity.

Jessie, like her sisters, learnt nothing "formal" during her time in South Africa but absorbed more than she needed to through play to keep abreast - and, at times, ahead of - her peers back home. She and her sisters started school at 8am, kicked off their shoes outside the classroom and returned home for lunch at 1pm for an afternoon of more play, this time outside and unstructured.

There were no tests, no talk of "correct pencil grips", no enforced "writing" at tables dividing them into the "bright" and "not-so-bright" ones (don't tell me that children don't know the difference between the "triangle" and "circle" groups. Our adult codes conceal nothing). And, crucially, there was no pressure.

We stayed there for six years instead of two, and our daughters all returned to the English system enriched by their "lack" of education and able to fit right back into the academic classroom without any fuss. They were aged 10, 8 and 6 when we came home and "caught up" within a term. Jess even passed the dreaded 11-plus that was her promised portal to a "leading day school". But she didn't go: there is more to education than Biff and Chip.

One of the best experiences that the girls had in South Africa was learning African music, singing a cappella with a Zulu teacher at a Rudolph Steiner school, although they didn't attend the school full-time. The teacher would not let me, or them, see any sheet music or read any lyrics as we learnt the songs - something that I found extremely difficult and they didn't. "The children must use their memories and ears only," their teacher told me. "Music must be learnt in the heart and not in the brain. In your country, you know only how to learn with the brain."

When we came home to England, we, like our daughters, had been changed by the experience and looked for alternatives to that "brain-only" approach to learning. We decided that Jessie would not return to the pressurised hothouse from whence she came. She and her sisters went instead to a local church primary With the eyes of a newcomer, I could see that pushy parents wanting results were as much a part of the problem as the targets and testing that their children were being forced to endure. In conversation with other parents at dinner parties, I was horrified by the competitive obsession with secondary school entry.

But what else is there in this country for parents who, like me, shun the targets, testing and early academic pressure?

In the private sector, high-profile schools offering alternative approaches, such as Summerhill in Suffolk, are still mostly considered options for the rich and eccentric only. But there are a growing number of private Steiner and Montessori primary schools emerging to cater for parents seeking a different approach. Among the 32 Steiner schools in Britain is one in Greenwich, southeast London, that is run by a group of parents who were so determined to offer their children an alternative primary education that ten years ago they founded their own school. It now has 47 boys and 39 girls.

The Steiner movement also has its first state-funded school, established last year in Hereford. Recently the school appeared in the national league tables for 11-year-olds' test results - at the very bottom. But that's because it doesn't believe in testing and so opted out of SATs.

Steiner schools offer an alternative approach to learning. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher who established his first school in 1919 for the children of workers at the WaldorfAstoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. He argued that children's creative, spiritual and moral dimensions need as much attention as their intellectual one. Schools bearing his name begin formal education as the child reaches 6 or 7. Their founder also believed - before Jamie Oliver told us so - that children could not learn well without a healthy, cooked midday meal.

Critics of Steiner schools see them as soft, suspiciously spiritual and woolly places lacking in academic discipline. They claim that they are staffed by idealists and attended by the children of the "knit-your-own yoghurt" brigade. Enthusiasts counter that these are not schools where children are allowed to do what they like but schools where children like what they do.

Those in the Steiner movement believe that more state-funded Steiner schools are likely as the debate about primary education intensifies here. There are also plans for the first state-funded Montessori primary in inner-city Liverpool. It's not so much that the Government is championing either of these educational approaches: rather, the argument is that if choice is available for those who can pay, it should be offered to those who can't pay as well.

Those seeking alternatives for their children can also choose primary schools that dare to put happiness before league tables - which is what we did when we came home. They can also join me in praying for a much-needed backlash to this obsession with early academic success.

The increasing calls for SATs to be scrapped suggest that this backlash may already be happening - as does the recent Cambridge Review of Education, a carefully researched report written by Professor Robin Alexander. This was the most significant review of primary education in 40 years - and among its recommendations is a call for a later start in formal schooling (age 6 rather than age 4), such as my children had in South Africa. It also recommends a less academic focus in the early school years.

Our daughters are now at three different secondary schools - and have finally stopped walking barefoot down our West London street as if they were still in the African veldt. Jessie is 16 and enjoys all that it means to be a young woman in the city. She attends a church comprehensive where she is doing her A levels (including music) and is planning a summer of volunteer work in South Africa. And she, like her sisters, can also still stand on one leg for a long time with her eyes closed.