Seeing black misses the point. The crisis in English Waldorf schools

By Sven Saar, June 2020

It is meanwhile clear to everyone involved that the precarious situation of the Waldorf schools in England – things are different in Scotland and Wales – cannot be laid at the door of a brutal and authoritarian state system alone. The control addiction of the authorities runs through the whole of British society in hospitals, kindergartens and local authorities, but it is not the sole reason for the fragility of the Waldorf impulse.

It has become clear in recent months that many teachers looked at their own practice too complaisantly and uncritically. Often insufficient account was taken of the learning behaviour of children and concerned parents were soothed with bogus arguments: “Waldorf education moves at a slower pace!” – although this sentence can assuredly not be found in Rudolf Steiner. The consequence is that many pupils have not learnt systematically to read and write and lack a crucial foundation in maths.

As such, that would not be a reason to panic: good mentoring of teachers and encouraging motivation of children could effectively correct such negative developments. Nobody’s perfect!

But it is becoming increasingly difficult in the British school system to hide such deficits because the progress – even if external – which the pupils make in their learning is measured and documented. The average has to be right and the school inspectors convinced even at a superficial glance that work is being done professionally. Following the enforced closure of the Kings Langley school with its long tradition, the English Waldorf movement has now also lost the three largest state-funded Steiner academies to the Avanti Schools Trust. Other institutions have given up as a result of the financial burden or are threatened with closure.

In this uncertain atmosphere many school boards have abolished self-government and moved to the hierarchical structures in mainstream schools. The new school principals mostly receive double the salary of the teachers and often have never stood in front of a Waldorf class. Now they are meant to rescue the schools and to do so take recourse to their familiar tools which are often unfamiliar to the staff and with which the latter may not agree.

Some schools have succeeded in learning from the crisis and convincing the authorities that they have accepted the challenge and must professionalise. As a rule, these are smaller, younger and less cumbersome schools – the communication paths are shorter and the feeling of joint responsibility palpable. The British Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) has made new appointments and is attempting to find a way out of the crisis.

In parallel, there are grassroots movements such as “Chalice”, a communication platform set up at the national Waldorf teachers’ conference in 2019 on which meanwhile more than 300 colleagues can find information and exchange views.

The coming year will show whether the attempt to improve quality finds sufficient support in the colleges of teachers to have a sustained effect. It is the case, after all, that currently over 100 students are training as Waldorf teachers on in-service courses. They see it as a life-changing professional perspective and the still several thousand pupils in two dozen schools expect from those in positions of responsibility that their right to a peaceful, exciting childhood and youth is fought for and defended.

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