Every cloud has a silver lining – the future of Steiner Schools in England

By Sylvie Sklan, June 2019

Many Steiner schools in England have come in for serious criticism of their practices in recent inspections by the schools inspectorate Ofsted. Sylvie Sklan explains the issues.

The Steiner Academy Exeter, one of the schools that is now being transferred to the Avanti Schools Trust.

As the school year draws to a close, it is a good time to take stock of the situation regarding the English Steiner schools. The bright light of the schools inspectorate Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) has been scrutinising all of the schools in England over the past months and now many of them find themselves having to confront an unfavourable judgment. 

A dark cloud is hanging over them and the whole of the school movement is affected. So why this unprecedented focus on Steiner schools?

This whole episode began in November 2018 with an Ofsted inspection of the Steiner Academy Exeter. Academies are publicly funded independent schools which can follow their own curriculum. Inspectors were alarmed by what they found and this resulted in the school being closed for a few days so that some of the very concerning safeguarding issues could be addressed straight away. A school closure after an inspection – even a temporary closure – inevitably draws media attention and the academy in Exeter was no exception. 

There was an explosion of media interest. This led to the local member of parliament writing to the secretary of state for education, Damien Hinds, to request that other “similar” schools were inspected. It didn’t take long for inspectors to turn up unannounced at the three other Steiner academies, as well as at five independent Steiner schools. The outcome was that a further four schools (two academies and two independent schools) were judged “inadequate” and three “require improvement”. Only one school (Steiner Academy Hereford) was judged “good”. 

This sudden spate of inspections caused serious alarm. There was much speculation about whether the anti-Waldorf lobby had had a hand in what some saw as a witch-hunt. It also triggered a debate about why so many of the schools seem to be in such a poor state of health. 

On the one hand, there are those who see it as the failure of Ofsted inspectors to understand properly what they are judging; that the independent schools have been disadvantaged by being inspected by Ofsted, rather than by the Schools Inspection Service, an independent body established to carry out inspections of independent schools in England. 

On the other hand, there are those who are broadly in agreement with Ofsted’s findings and see this situation as a symptom of the failure of many of the schools to move with the times and, in the case of the academies, that they have tried to grow too fast too quickly. That debate rumbles on. 

Serious concerns

Whatever the explanation, with only one school out of nine being judged “good” at the beginning of this year, this situation resulted in a public exchange of letters between the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, and the secretary of state, Damian Hinds, raising serious concerns about the situation and about Steiner education. 

To quote from Spielman’s letter: “At the root of many of the weaknesses are poor leadership, management and governance. Many of the schools inspected lack clear lines of responsibility and, too often, senior leaders do not hold staff to account, while governors fail to fulfil their role in holding school leaders to account.” 

The letter continues: “With the exception of the Steiner Academy Hereford, there were shortcomings in the quality of teaching and outcomes for all pupils across all the education inspections. […] Given the prevalence and seriousness of these issues across both state-funded and independent Steiner schools, they raise questions about whether these common failures are a result of the underlying principles of Steiner education.” 

Spielman goes on to say the secretary of state should “consider and further investigate why so many of the Steiner schools inspected are neither protecting children adequately nor giving them a good standard of education”. 

In his response, Damian Hinds urges Spielman to inspect all the other Steiner schools and adds that “we will take enforcement action against any independent school that does not improve quickly following a failure to meet the independent school standards.”

He continues: “You will understand that decisions on enforcement action are, and must be, taken on a case-by-case basis according to the specific failings identified for each school. In terms of the three inadequate academies, the Regional Schools Commissioner’s team have started work to re-broker the academies into strong multi-academy trusts to ensure swift improvement.”

Since then, all the other Steiner schools in England have been inspected. A further five have been judged inadequate, including two of our longest established schools, and further three “require improvement”. There is some good news though: four have been judged to be good. Two more reports are still to be published.

The fact that some of the schools that were inspected were found to be “good” proves that the identified weaknesses are not inherent to Steiner education, even if these weaknesses are pretty endemic at the moment. Further, the fact that in the most recent round of inspections some schools were judged to be “good” suggests that it is relatively straightforward for some schools to put their house in order when the changes needed have been identified. 

What next? 

As regards the independent Steiner schools that are funded by parents, with nine having been judged inadequate and seven that “require improvement”, these schools urgently need to demonstrate that they do have the capacity to turn themselves around. The hope is they will each in their own way take on this challenge and transform it into an opportunity to embrace change and to ensure that tradition doesn’t get in the way of a more outward facing attitude that is needed now. 

The jury is out with regard to how many of the independent schools will respond effectively and quickly. It requires positivity and energy to embrace this challenge. But if they don’t, then, as the secretary of state says in his letter, the government will take enforcement action against all inadequate Steiner schools that fail to improve rapidly. 

As regards the three Steiner academies, they will be taken into a multi-academy trust (MAT), as directed by the secretary of state. The hope is that this MAT will be the Avanti Trust, the same Trust that is opening a new Waldorf-inspired school, Langley Hill, on the site of the former Kings Langley Rudolf Steiner School. 

The Avanti Trust has opened Hindu schools; but they are keen to also develop schools that have an ethos that is committed to the pursuit of human values and spiritual development. Under Avanti, these three Steiner academies would be likely to become “Waldorf-inspired” schools, like Langley Hill. 

Langley Hill will open on the site of what used to be Kings Langley Rudolf Steiner School. That school was closed last summer after failing to show capacity to improve in four separate inspections after it was first judged to be inadequate in December 2016. 

The jury is out as to how authentic a Steiner school a “Waldorf-inspired” school can be under Avanti. There is cautious optimism. There is also a great sense of relief that through this initiative the future of the three Steiner academies is likely to be secured, if not in name, then at least in spirit. What is certain is that without Avanti the future of these three state-funded schools would be very bleak.

So at this moment we don’t know what the future holds for the English Steiner schools; but there is always a silver lining to every dark cloud, even if right now that silver lining it is not entirely obvious.

Until her recent retirement, Sylvie Sklan was the lead on all matters related to Steiner academies for the UK Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF).

Source: nna/cva

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