Kings Langley – the end of a British Waldorf school

By Sven Saar, January 2019

One of the oldest and biggest British Steiner Waldorf schools, Kings Langley, a school steeped in tradition located north of London, was forced to close its doors in July 2018. Over 350 pupils and their parents, as well as more than 40 teachers were suddenly faced with the end. Some moved, others had to give up their dream of an alternative school career. How could such a thing happen?

What is beyond doubt is that the school failed in five consecutive inspections to convince the government inspectors that the children here were receiving a good schooling and were “safely” looked after. The state concept of “safeguarding” plays a key role in the approval of schools. No insurance company would have the school as a client any longer – so that meant the end of the road.

What were the alleged failings of the school? Were children abused? Were extremists at work or enemies of democracy? It is after all, as far as I am aware, the first time since the Nazis were in power that a Waldorf school has been forced to close by the state in a western country. The reasons can be looked up, for all OfSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) reports are publicly accessible.*

Yet we find here no such crimes. Instead we read that teachers and management did not take the inspections seriously enough, criticised the process and did not recognise the seriousness of the situation. The government inspectors kept using the word “potentially”. When, for example, the procedures regarding Disclosure and Barring Service checks (criminal record checks) are not complied with, this represents a risk for pupils even if nothing serious has happened. If a school is officially criticised for shortcomings in this area, and then repeats the same error shortly before the next inspection, then this is unforgivable in the eyes of the inspectors. These kind of failings, coupled with criticism of the teaching and insufficient statistics about progress in the children’s performance, were enough to tip the scales.

What makes the matter worse is that the appraisal of what happened threatens to split the British Waldorf school movement. Was Kings Langley itself at fault for the closure of the school? Did “hardline Waldorf traditionalists” bring Steiner education into disrepute, acting out of a wrongly understood love of freedom and spiritual arrogance? Even colleagues who worked at the school or others, who attempted to provide advice and thus know what happened, refused for a long time to talk about it – or they accuse one another!

Should we perhaps even be grateful to OfSTED that it removed this bad apple from the Waldorf barrel? Many of our parents, teachers and managers meanwhile think so and write about it in blogs and comment pieces. If all of us had head teachers, if we all worked as the state expects of us, could Kings Langley perhaps have been saved? The pressure is growing, also internally, to behave proactively and conform. Should the British Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship for example only accept schools as members which have passed the government inspections with flying colours?

The English education system threatens to make children subservient, lacking in independence and mentally ill through enforcing uniformity, school fences and constant testing. Waldorf schools could offer a real alternative to the many parents who despair of such a system – if they were allowed to. The movement is unsettled: young colleagues ask themselves whether they have joined a sinking ship; some experienced Waldorf teachers cannot support the enforced changes and are leaving.

Many staff rooms are divided and often the upper hand is gained by those who consider themselves to be modernisers but are, in reality, introducing Victorian values into the school. When the state intervenes with an iron and unrelenting fist, as it has done in Kings Langley, it is understandable that despondency takes hold when, actually, after a hundred years of Steiner Waldorf education a fresh and free wind should be blowing.

* https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/117631

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