100 years of parental involvement at Waldorf schools

By Ellen Niemann, October 2018

A lecture by Rudolf Steiner of 11 May 1920 contains the sentence: “You will have to be patient if you want to wait for what is maturing.” Although it refers to bringing up children, it also applies perfectly to parental involvement.

One of the concerns of Emil Molt in founding the first Waldorf school was to allow the idea of the threefold order of society to take root where it was still possible to influence things – with the children in the school. Threefolding includes an art of education which should remove all obstacles on the path to freedom, carried by teachers who are able to move freely within a curriculum which takes its cue from the child. Without the trust of the parents in such an education, such a project would not have been possible. Steiner kept emphasising the necessity of a “truly deep relationship of friendship” between parents and teachers which had to have its foundation in the matter itself. Such a friendship should be accompanied by the interest of the parents in the system of education and the work of the teachers.

In the course of the decades, the implementation of such parental interest kept assuming new forms. The “Parent (Class) Care Groups” or “Parent Trust Groups” were invaluable in the economically hard times from around 1930 to the prohibition of the Waldorf schools by the totalitarian state. In 1963 the first parent-teacher conference took place and at the fiftieth anniversary of Waldorf education in 1969 the intention was to look to the future in shaping the school in the sense of Ernst Weißert’s motto: “Parents and teachers united for a new art of education”.

In turning away from authoritarian school forms and out of a general mood of a new beginning, increasing numbers of school were founded by parents in the 1970s. Self-governance was no longer a matter just for the college of teachers – parents identified with “their” school and developed from supporters to active contributors. Jointly borne responsibility became the foundation which made the Waldorf school something special as a “social work of art”. It was not just the publication of the Parents and Teachers guide by Manfred Leist in 1988 which caused school bodies, but also bodies at a regional and national level to look at the various forms of joint sponsorship consisting of parents and teachers.

No German Parent Council meeting passes without this subject coming up at some point during table talk or in workshops. How many education weekends have been held at schools over the years at which everyone struggled together for understanding and trust but also, if mostly unspoken, for competences and power. Bernard Lievegoed described years ago the “golden triangle” of collaboration between teachers, pupils and parents and pointed to the danger of the instability of the whole edifice if just one of those three pillars was weak.

Every school defines for itself how it wishes practise its sponsorship by parents and teachers. Yet in their guiding principles and in the Grundsätze zur Zusammenarbeit (Principles of Collaboration) the Waldorf schools in Germany commit themselves to jointly organised responsibility.

In view of Waldorf school development worldwide, the International Forum (formerly Hague Circle) also set out in Key characteristics of Waldorf education: “Teachers and parents are jointly responsible for the Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner school. They organise and structure it in accordance with their common intentions.”

Parental expertise is used in building projects, legal advice, the organisation of events and suchlike. It was and is difficult if areas overlap. When does participation turn into encroachment? Should parents have a say when the number of foreign languages taught is increased or reduced? Should they be allowed to participate in meetings of the school management or, indeed, sit on the human resources committee? They grey areas which can endlessly occupy school committees start outside the traditional four areas of parental activity of crafts, baking, building, and paying up.

The so-called WEiDE study (Waldorf Parents in Germany)  which has just been published shows that the picture of parental involvement has been transformed from pure support for the educational idea to active involvement. With more than 300,000 hours of voluntary monthly activity, parents are securing the existence of many Waldorf schools and are, without doubt, a supporting pillar.

The interest in anthroposophy and the demand for more information about Waldorf education is great. That places a particular responsibility on colleges of teachers to let parents share in their educational work, involve them in the understanding of the human being which underlies teaching, and thus to document their support and appreciation.

“Education partnership of equals” – almost all forms of school are already working with this slogan. Where the Waldorf schools are different is that schools legislation prescribed by politicians determines what such collaboration should be like and that the young people should be made to fit in with society.

Since the threefold social order considers schools to be part of the free cultural and spiritual life, the joint sponsors of a Waldorf school have the task of giving cultural impulses. And that only works if there is ongoing study together. The questions of our society keep being asked in a new way – in order for parents to be able to answer them in the sense of an education for freedom, they need tools. The principle that the children in the course of their class biography learn from each other also applies to the reciprocal education of teachers and parents.

About the author: Ellen Niemann has been a member of the Parent Council of Berlin-Brandenburg since 2007 and of the German Parent Conference since 2013. Work on the German Federal Council and the European Network of Steiner Waldorf Parents.