Accelerating childhood: the ever earlier start to school and Rudolf Steiner’s salutogenic approach

By Rainer Patzlaff, Martina F. Schmidt, March 2018

Germany’s worst result in the first PISA studies led in 2001 to the “PISA shock” which was only made worse in 2004 through the “Baby PISA” study. Sweeping structural changes were demanded, above all in pre-school education because that is where the crucial foundations were laid.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

There was nothing wrong with these findings in themselves. But the conclusions which were drawn from them with regard to education policy were highly divisive: on the positive side, the traditional concept of education, in which learning did not start until school, was for the first time extended into early childhood. The latter’s fundamental importance was rightly highlighted. Reform efforts were set in train; indeed, a mood that something new was in the making began to spread. The way education was structured, it was emphasised, had to start with the child.

The economic trigger for education

But at the same time a trend was making itself felt in German education policy which pushed education in a completely different direction which was not at all guided by the child. The idea for the PISA studies had not come from parents and teachers but from the OECD, a supranational economic organisation, and so the PISA shock was, in truth, not about concern for the child but about worry regarding Germany as a business location which appeared to be under threat. Adapting the education system “to the needs of business” was deemed to be the order of the day. Thus far-reaching changes were initiated without debate which were naturally guided by economic criteria.

One of these was to increase profitability through greater efficiency. Measurement data are required to control this. The consequence is that education has to be made measurable. The complaint of many teachers that education is not measurable was dismissed as outdated. Regular tests and rankings found their way into the classroom and turned into compulsory requirements; standards and educational norms were developed. Public opinion accepted largely without question the claim that such measures were vital for a modern education system.

A second criterion was the acceleration of production without which an economic enterprise does not remain competitive. This, too, was unquestioningly taken over by education. As an immediate measure, politicians introduced a reduction in the normal length of secondary school from nine to eight years. But since the secondary school curricula were barely adjusted, the performance pressure on pupils down as far as primary school increased and over the years led to such huge psychosomatic problems among class four pupils that parents finally revolted and politicians were forced to reverse the model or only offer it as an option.

Much less controversial to begin with was the reduction in the statutory school entry age which was advanced across Germany at the same time. In Berlin it was abruptly reduced from the age of six to five (without the option for delayed entry); other German states reduced it by one month each year. All of this met with surprisingly little resistance among the populace. Although from the beginning there was a consensus among academics that there were not the slightest educational grounds for such a step, it took a long time before politicians were forced to backpedal here too under pressure from parents.

Acceleration at any price

Economic pressure groups at the time seriously discussed starting school at the age of four or even three. That would hardly have been politically feasible and so the opinion formers working in the background decided on a different tack which had previously been tested by English education politicians: learning to read and write was brought forward to become an obligatory part of kindergarten.

This double acceleration – starting school at an earlier age and academic learning as early as kindergarten – was and is mostly accepted by parents without complaint, indeed, even supported. They (like most politicians responsible for education policy) believe they cannot see any reason why the earliest possible start should be harmful. On the other hand, they are tormented by the worry that their child might fail in the ever tougher battle for economic survival. In the aftermath of the global economic and financial crisis, such fear is understandable. It has caused economic criteria, which actually have no business in education, to become part of our own individual thinking and feelings – and people are not even aware of this fact.

Linear thinking

Overwhelmed by the power of business and the economy, today’s cultural sphere is under threat of losing the most important foundation of any education system, namely a concept of development which accords with reality. The reforms described above bypass real life because they have unquestioningly adopted a pattern of thinking which may well be justified in business but can only be damaging in education. I would like to designate this pattern as “linear thinking”. It refers to the following:

In the natural world which surrounds us, there is only one area in which change actually does take place on a linear basis: this is the world of crystals. A microscopically small rock crystal displays exactly the same lattice structure in its form which it will later possess as a giant crystal. Its growth follows the same formal laws from start to finish; there is no transformation but simply a quantitative increase.

If we transfer this pattern to life processes, it leads to absurd results. An infant drinks a quantity of milk each day which corresponds to half their body weight. The latter will have doubled in five months. If these relationships were to continue to apply into school or, indeed, adulthood, the result would be fatal..

We can see the error clearly here. Quite different laws apply to infants than do to kindergarten children, and different ones again to school children. And yet the widest circles in education unquestioningly follow the motto “You can’t start early enough” – as they did in the past in “anti-authoritarian education” and still do today in the question of media competency.

No development without metamorphoses

Our highly technological world refuses to recognise the fact that the development of living beings cannot be conceived of without stages of transformation (metamorphoses). It is thus regressing to a stage preceding one of the most important achievements of the modern age which was reached as long ago Goethe’s time in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. At that time the idea was abandoned that the earth with its living creatures was still in the same state as it had been when the world began. The discovery was made that it was the result of many different transformation processes. This modern developmental concept turned out to be exceedingly productive and led to the creation of several new branches of science. Goethe himself was involved in this development and showed in his studies of annual flowering plants that their development takes place in metamorphoses between two polarities:

  • To begin with, the plant spreads into space with its stalk and leaves. But then it follows a converse trend: it draws in the leaves to the stalk and consolidates them into a closed structure which contains the future blossom.
  • And then another reverse development occurs: the blossom breaks out of the bud, extends and spreads scent and colour into the environment.
  • Concealed in the blossom, a third metamorphosis is then in preparation, another consolidation in which the whole plant contracts all its forces into a tiny entity: the seed.

Rudolf Steiner discovered that three great metamorphoses follow one another in the development of human beings on the basis of a specific pattern which reveal themselves in the following way:

In the initial period after birth, three invisible components of the human being – the etheric body, astral body and I – work on the growth and development of the physical body with such intensity, that they are indivisibly connected with it. But the more this progresses, the more a part of their forces is released and gradually separates from the physical body.

As the first part, an important section of the etheric body separates at about the age of seven and thus becomes freed for other tasks; the astral body follows at about the age of fourteen; and finally, at the end of the third seven-year-period, the human I-organisation. Each of these “births”, as Steiner calls them, is – like the physical birth – connected with considerable risks and requires the assistance of a midwife. Parents and teachers, doctors and therapists should therefore possess a secure knowledge of the laws that apply to the metamorphoses in the developmental progress of the human being:

  • Each developmental phases takes its time.
  • Each phase is subject its own conditions which only apply with regard to that particular phase.
  • Each phase creates the basis for the following one.
  • It can only do this to the best possible extent if it has sufficient time to mature.

The birth of the etheric body

In his research on “the birth of the etheric body”, Steiner came to one of his most important discoveries. It arises from the fact that the etheric body is the “health body” of the human being because its forces keep renewing the physical body and keep it alive through the metabolic processes so that it does not decay. If, then, a part of these forces is released from working on the body at around the age of seven and can be used for academic learning, then the child learns – and this is the crucial point – with the same forces which previously acted on the growth and development of the body; that is, with transformed forces of physical development. The forces of learning are metamorphosed growth forces.

Steiner thus became convinced of the close connection between cognitive learning and health. If the growth forces are prematurely withdrawn from working on the body and made to work in cognitive and intellectual activities – which unfortunately is quite possible – then the more subtle structures of the body are denied the necessary maturity which they require so that they can be available for the higher activities of the soul and spirit in full health throughout life. The foundation is weakened. For this reason Steiner warns with great urgency against starting with academic cognitive learning at too early a stage and Waldorf schools always check the developmental stage of the child very thoroughly before enrolment.

What is the benefit of starting school early?

It is one of the absurdities of modern education policy that the supporters of early school enrolment cannot cite a single study showing a long-term positive effect. There are, however, clear indications in recent research that an early start to school must be seen in a critical light:

  • As long ago as in the 1970s, academically evaluated pilot schemes showed school enrolment starting at the age of five unequivocally to be of no benefit and tending to be detrimental.
  • Bellenberg in 1999 determined a significantly increased risk of having to repeat a year among children enrolled at a younger age instead of a performance boost.
  • Puhani in 2005 showed in the German IGLU survey of primary school reading skills with a sample of 6,600 class four pupils that school enrolment at the age of almost seven instead of almost six had a significant positive effect on later success in school. This was confirmed by an evaluation of data from over 180,000 pupils in Hesse who started school in 1997-1999.

These results relate exclusively to success in school. But Rudolf Steiner was concerned with the consequences of earlier school enrolment on health, something which is of much greater importance for a person’s achievement potential and creativity in later life. Since not a single study on this subject could be found worldwide, the IPSUM Institute in Stuttgart, in view of the groundswell in favour of early school enrolment, in 2004 started a prospective long-term study in which about half of all German Waldorf schools were involved. (The comparison with state schools which was the real aim, could not be realised at the time but is now being undertaken in a parallel study with the University Medical Centre Mainz.)

The IPSUM “School enrolment age and health development” study

After a lengthy pilot phase, a validated documentation sheet for the developmental stage before school enrolment was ready in 2007, supplemented by a health questionnaire for the parents, and the project was ready to start in 2008/2009. The pupils were then re-examined in the 2012/2013 school year, that is in class 4. After lengthy preparation of the comprehensive data material, publication could start in late 2017.

Let us here briefly present an important interim result from 2007. In the school enrolment examination, six characteristics on change of shape as well as eight characteristics each on motor as well as sensory and cognitive development were examined. The following graph shows the number of characteristics in which more than half the children in the respective age group achieved the expected maximum for the first time. The result is based on an overall number of 12,560 participating children who started school in the years 2004 to 2007.

Anzahl der Items = Number of items

5,51 = 5.51, etc. (,  ->  .)

Alter in Jahresquartalen = Age in quarterly periods

Mädchen = Girls

Jungen = Boys

Zwischenergebnis... = Interim result of the IPSUM study: time when important developmental milestones are reached at school enrolment age in girls and boys.


The chart shows that the crucial developmental steps start earlier in girls than in boys and have already been concluded by the age of six-and-a-half, whereas this is the case about six months later in boys. But in both sexes the peak has only been reached at the turn from the age of six to seven. It thus clearly falls after the newly set time when compulsory schooling starts. This once again highlights our question: are there really no long-term consequences regarding the achievement potential and the health of children if compulsory schooling starts clearly before numerous motor and cognitive abilities have matured?

A myth leading nowhere

The extent to which this question is justified is shown by the report presented by Friedmann and Martin in 2011 on the American Terman study which has tracked the lives of people from childhood to death for the last eighty years. In it they note that the Terman participants who went to school at a very early age were faced with problems throughout their lives.

Surprisingly, the age at which they started school also allowed a prediction as to the length of their lives. The children who entered school at the age of five had a higher risk of dying early and those who started school at the standard age of six lived longer. An early start – to get a head start on one’s contemporaries – was a myth leading nowhere, the authors say.

If the potential of the health-giving forces which an individual can be given on their journey through life is perceptibly curtailed through starting school too soon, then their opportunities to contribute new impulses in today’s world are thereby also restricted. The future is obstructed. Educational measures should therefore – this was Steiner’s salutogenic approach right down into the details of the curriculum – be examined for their consequences on health; otherwise they could lead to unpredictable obstacles for the further development of our culture as a whole.

Note: Greatly abridged essay from the online journal RoSE, Vol. 6, Dec 2015, pp. 12-21.

About the authors: Prof. Dr. Rainer Patzlaff is director of the Institut für Pädagogik, Sinnes- und Medienökologie (IPSUM) in Stuttgart and was professor of childhood education at Alanus University. Dr. Martina F. Schmidt is a school doctor at the Waldorf school in Frankfurt am Main and in general practice in Oberursel. She undertakes research on school enrolment age and health development at the IPSUM Institute in Stuttgart and the IMBEI Institute of the University Medical Centre Mainz.